Perhaps the most ambiguous line in my job description is the one that instructs me to “train leaders.” The phrase itself fills me with uncertainty. What is being asked of me here? What does ‘leadership’ mean? What is it that the people who wrote this really desire? How am I going to go about this? Over the past years as I have sought to execute my job and as I have considered the culture of ‘leadership training’ in the church, the more I have come to feel that these two simple words, “train leaders,” are representative of a methodological (and theological) red herring.
What, after all, is being asked of me when I am asked to “train leaders?” The task itself presupposes not only that I sufficiently know what it means to be a leader, but that I also am possessed of such self-awareness and proficiency that I might effectively impart this knowledge to others. In other words, it presupposes that I am an ‘expert leader’ and that I can teach others to lead. But this is by no means a guarantee. My experience of leadership is inextricably linked to my call. Because I am called to be a pastor, I am therefore invariably called to lead people (and, as a corollary, to not lead would be an abdication of my call). In other words, I am not a leader because I have been trained to be a leader or am an expert at leadership; I am a leader because I have been called to be a leader. The idea of ‘training leaders’ seems to imply that I can somehow transmit my call and my task to others. And the task of ‘training leaders,’ seen this way, is impossible. After all, discovering your call is quite a different matter from the modern idea of ‘training people to be leaders.’
And furthermore, what does ‘leadership’ even mean? When we pause and think about it, we discover that ‘leadership’ is itself a highly ambiguous idea. Now, many people might claim that leadership is that set of personality traits and innate skills that, when developed, earmark certain persons for positions of authority. But wait a moment—who determines which qualities and skills belong on this list of leadership traits? How do we even arrive at such an abstract list of qualities?
Actually, I think we come at that list from three sources—but all three are unreliable guides. First of all, we can examine a personal experience of being ‘led;’ that is, we can extrapolate from the experience of being a follower to try and determine what makes a leader. The problem is that this doesn’t account for the occasions of leadership—what if it is leadership of a school project? Wouldn’t that be different than leadership in a military campaign, or leading a museum tour? Our experiences of being led are too occasional to develop a comprehensive theory of leadership. A second way to develop criteria for leadership would be to extrapolate from our experiences of being ‘in charge.’ Assuming that you’ve ‘worn the pants’ on occasion, what can you derive from that experience which can teach you about what it means to be a leader? But what if you were in charge because you were voted into a position that no one else wanted? What if you were in charge because you spoke the loudest? What if you were in charge because you’re a bully? The experience of being ‘in charge’ can, at best, net us only a limited understanding of leadership. Third and finally, we can develop criteria of leadership through the study of the lives of other great leaders and attempt to pattern ourselves after them. This sounds the most promising to begin with, but quickly we shall realize that we are neither as intelligent, bold, nor as brave as those other leaders, and neither do we live in similar circumstances to them. While it may be a useful study, it is also unlikely to reward us with genuine leaders. The problem of ambiguity, in the end, is that leadership is not a monolithic, abstract entity or idea which can be universally applied. Because of this I would suggest that few people have any real concept of what constitutes leadership or what composes the leader’s personality.
This problem of defining leadership goes even deeper, because once you have collected this list of qualities and characteristics which are relevant to ‘leadership’—a list that is, by now, quite vast—how do you reduce this vague, occasional list of personal qualities into a program which trains novices into leaders? The problem, then, is not merely one of defining leadership, but with the logistics of developing a programmatic training scheme to guide people effectively into these preconceived characteristics.
There is another question to ask as well: what is the practical goal of the well-intentioned people who wrote my job description? After all, when they wrote that clause about leadership training they had something specific in mind—that is, they want me to identify and train certain people to fulfill certain roles within the church. But let us be clear about this: the real goal was not to develop a culture of leaders, but to raise up a corps of volunteers. I am not actually being asked to teach people to lead according to an abstract standard of leadership qualities, I am being asked to get others to do the work of the church. And in the end, ‘leadership training’ is often a code word—maybe even advertizing lingo—for marshalling helpers. Because of this, it is also just a little dishonest.
Faced with the problem of leadership, and yet saddled with the onerous task of ‘training’ leaders, I turned to a number of books on the subject of leadership. After all, I must figure out how to accomplish this task. Where better to look than books on leadership? Sadly, few such books have been particularly helpful. But one such book that I recently read helped to crystallize my concerns with the Christian culture of leadership. That book was J. Oswald Sanders’s Spiritual Leadership. It had come highly recommended to me by pastors, youth leaders, and members of the church. It was being used to train leaders, as a guide for small groups, and for private study. Heeding the strong recommendation of my peers, I procured a copy. However, upon completing the book, I found it to be representative of everything that I find wrong with the culture of ‘leadership training.’ A brief assessment of its contents will strengthen my point.
Sanders’s book is a chapter by chapter summary of qualities and characteristics of leadership, drawing form both biblical and secular sources, and quoting liberally and frequently the words of great, historic leaders. The book is not really an argument about leadership, but rather a description of what Sanders considers to be the essential qualities of ‘spiritual’ leadership. But while his book is interesting enough as a documentation of these qualities (perhaps as a kind of encyclopedia of leadership traits), his catena of quotations amounts to a book that is more inspirational than useful.
In the end, Sanders’s book is deeply flawed for two significant reasons. First, the book gives too much information. Not that it is too long (it is only 150 pages), but each chapter is a list of characteristic after characteristic that the leader ought to have. As a result, I suspect that it is almost impossible for a person to remember and learn all these characteristics. In one chapter, “Qualities Essential to Leadership I,” Sanders briefly describes no less than six characteristics (Discipline, Vision, Wisdom, Decision, Courage, and Humility). One could easily pen a book on each characteristic, but Sanders merely touches on each one. The problem is not in the fact that Sanders has written a survey of these characteristics (undoubtedly it is true that ‘spiritual’ leaders possess each of these), the problem is that a leader who is leading is never thinking of these characteristics while leading. Leadership, in short, is unconscious of itself in the moment of leadership. If you’re busy thinking about all of these characteristics in the moment when you ought to be leading, then chances are you’re not leading. And this is but one chapter’s worth—the book goes on an on with these lists and quotations.
Another flaw is that Sanders’s book contains no steps for how to attain these characteristics. The reader is left with an uncomfortable situation: leadership has been described, but no direction has been given to reach it. Now, in the same way that I might describe Chicago for you in all its majesty—Lake Shore Drive, the John Hancock Building, Soldier Field—if I don’t include a road map, my description will be nothing more that nice words. We are left to ask as readers: What must I go through to become such a person? Sanders leaves us without an answer.
But my intention is not to slam Sanders. He is, I am suggesting, symptomatic of the whole problem of leadership training today. And perhaps I would summarize the whole problem by saying that, when we think of ‘training’ people to be leaders, we are thinking of leadership in abstraction. We have examined qualities we believe are characteristic of people who are leaders, then removed those qualities in order to create a kind of syllabus for leadership. Then, when we are looking to appoint people to positions, we examine those persons for specific sets of traits which we believe are necessary to leadership. If they have those traits, we appoint them to positions accordingly. If they lack those traits, we don’t appoint them. To ‘train’ leaders, then, presupposes that one can equip people with these qualities and characteristics at will, and that with the appropriate modifications in place a person will finally, objectively, be ‘fit’ to be a leader.
But leadership never happens in abstraction, always in a context. Leadership, in other words, is always occasional because a leader is always a leader of a particular situation, of a particular group of people, in a particular group of circumstances, and at a particular time. Remove Napoleon Bonaparte from 19th century France, and he might just be a nobody trudging an office job in the city. But place him in front of an army of French Nationalists, and he becomes a powerhouse. Remove Martin Luther from 16th century Germany and he might be no more than an irritable and cranky religious nut. But place him in a German monastery at the height of the abuse of Indulgences, and Luther becomes a spiritual giant. The leadership of individuals cannot be removed from their situations, because leadership is what happens when people with certain qualities find those qualities evoked and put into place by the situations they face. A particular occasion is what it takes to evoke the quality. And when it comes to Christian leadership in particular, the occasion to lead is always prompted by a call.
This process of abstraction poses a further problem, because when leadership is an abstraction it can become an expertise. As we refine our idea of the ideal leader, we begin to look for only a certain kind of person. In the process we may overlook many people who don’t outwardly reveal our standard of leaders, but inwardly only await the right occasion. Furthermore, in thinking of leadership as an abstract expertise, another tragic thing happens: many people conclude that they are unfit for leadership because they are not experts. They look at the criteria of this lengthy job description and remove themselves from consideration. Their sentiment is justifiable, but the effect is devastating, because leaders are never experts, they are only obedient amateurs.
This, in the end, explains why Sanders’s book is useful in describing components of historic leadership but next to useless in creating leaders, because the most important characteristic of leadership is a sustained, plodding, careful, and self-examined obedience. The leader is not a person who possesses abstract qualities, but a person who is obeying God out in front of other people, who through his personal obedience guides others into their own deeper obedience to God. Leadership is not about learning a set of characteristics, memorizing and training yourself to follow them, but about learning to be obedient in any and every situation in your life. And, unlike a list of 200 characteristics of what it means to be a leader, obedience is a thing you can successfully keep in your mind. It is simple, and therefore possible.
To attempt the alternative—that is, to prepare someone to be a leader by attempting to build in that person a preconceived set of personality traits (what most leadership training amounts to)—would be an exercise in casuistry. I cannot train people to be prepared in every contingency by teaching them all the contingencies. Instead, to truly raise people to the potential of leadership (in a given situation), my primary job is to train people to be obedient followers of Jesus. The question is not, “Will you be a leader?” The question is, “Will you be obedient when Jesus calls you?”
How can I do this best? The first and most important thing is that I must strive to be an obedient follower of Jesus myself. I am leading by being obedient out in front of others. And from that God-ordained position, through my example and through my teaching, I must drive people to depend more and more on Jesus—to learn his voice, to know his commands, to obey him. This, in short, is discipleship. And discipleship has little to do with the modern cult of leadership, for it has no expertise and no abstraction, but is summarized by the proximity of a soul to Jesus Christ the risen Lord. No other criteria matters.
There are other helps in the training of souls for this divine obedience, but one of my favorites is the reading of Christian biographies. But here we must avoid a trap: we are not reading to discern the qualities of leadership so we can apply them to our lives. We are not reading to abstract these saints’ lives into a set of qualities of leadership, but rather to discover what particular form Christian obedience took in their lives. We must not ask, “What made Martin Luther a leader?” We must ask, “How was Martin Luther obedient?” We must not ask, “What made Augustine great?” We must ask, “How was Augustine obedient?” We must not ask, “How can I have a mission like William Carey?” We must ask, “How was William Carey obedient?” This guiding question answers the problem of occasion; we will never be truly like them in our circumstances, but we might approach them in our obedience. In the end, it is only when we have taken stock of that obedience that we might be better prepared and encouraged to be obedient when God’s call comes to us.
Leadership Training will always remain an elusive goal as long as leadership is viewed in abstraction and considered an expertise. Instead, it is only when we come to recognize our need for deep, consistent obedience to the call of God that leaders will spring up from our midst—not, perhaps, the people we expect, or the people earmarked for greatness by the standards of the world, but the obedient people. Then we will take note, gazing at their service, “that these men had been with Jesus.” Only when I have done that will I have fulfilled both my job description and my call.