The Problem with “Leadership Training”

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.

What did obedience look like in Takashi Nagai’s life?

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.

11 comments on “The Problem with “Leadership Training”

  1. Kim says:

    Well said. Perhaps the path forward is to train our church leaders to be disciples.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Kim – no disagreement, here! In fact, that’s probably what I’m on about in this whole article. But we’ve got to be truly careful that we don’t collapse ‘discipleship’ into another form of ‘leadership training,’ and assume that by merely by shifting the words around we’re finally fulfilling the Great Commission!

      As an aside, I wonder why it is that, in 2000 years of Church history, we still feel that we’ve never successfully recreated a pattern of discipleship after Jesus’ own pattern. Are we doing something wrong, or are our expectations flawed? Food for thought…

  2. Josh says:

    I am currently going through my employer’s Leadership Institute. It is made up of three components: classroom training, mentoring, and a stretch project. It takes place over a little less than a year with the idea that we are placed out of our comfort zone and into a position of leadership. Will we all be leaders afterwards? No, but it has been a very interesting experience.

    Because of this, I agree that defining a leader is impossible and a list of qualities a leader should have is exhaustive which no one will ever have. A take away that I left with is know what leadership qualities you have and focus on those. There are different types of leaders and knowing which type you are allows you to interact with those around you better.

    I am also a fan of mentoring. Mentoring can be just as powerful as any leadership program.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Josh, I think you’re right that ‘leadership training’ can be an effective means to learn about your self (skills, talents, abilities). As such, it can be a great doorway to self knowledge and perhaps self-mastery. The problem still remains with the occasional and selective aspects of the ‘training’. How will you know you have the right talents? How can a program truly develop your innermost skills and abilities? In this, you are also right to point to mentoring, because a mentor will (hopefully!) see and identify your assets. The problem is in finding mentors!

      From the perspective of faith, this brings us back to discipleship. Jesus spends three years with twelve guys giving them everyday advice and teaching. Who has the time and patience to invest in us (and our faith) in a similar way? It’s a conundrum, I tell you.

  3. Ryan says:

    Good stuff here, Jeremy. As a fellow pastor with a similar job description, your warnings echo here (although you say them better than I could).

    Here at Ebenezer, we have used a resource that is very intentional about paying attention to vocation by paying attention first to our personal narratives. Believing that God has been active in our lives from Day 0, what has God been called me to be about in my unique God-given life? What Scripture passages shaped me early on? What people did God bring into my life? What major life events shaped me, for better or worse.

    It is only after extended (and often painful) reflection on our personal narratives that this particular curriculum then turns our attention to asking the question “what should I do?”, “Who am I as a leader?” etc.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Ryan

    • jmichaelrios says:

      As I say above, I think the vocational aspect is essential to any ‘leader’, so it warms my heart that the people of Ebeneezer are getting that kind of direction. To extend the concerns of my article to your situation (not in judgment, but merely as an example), have you introduced the discovery of vocation to your entire congregation, or just to a ‘select’ group of ‘leaders’? Let me re-emphasize that this isn’t a comment of judgment at all, I just want to highlight how our thinking about leadership so often makes us focus on those people we presume will be most suited for leadership, and the propensity of the Spirit to surprise us with other people instead!

  4. Jordan Klassen says:

    Thanks Jeremy. Leadership Training is all the rage in business circles and books as well and I’ve always been uneasy with the idea. Thanks for exploring why.

    In particular, I agree that the idea of being a “general leader”, as you explored, able to lead an army, a building project, or a bible study is given too much weight. You don’t necessarily need or can develop “leadership expertise”, but you can and need some level of domain experience. I’ve seen lots of leaders go from an authoritative position and success in one thing to royally messing up another very different project, because of the lack of transference. They can organize and get people to do things, but they are the wrong things.

    Last, it seems that for all your concern at the beginning about what makes or defines a leader, how you can train someone in that, and how the whole genre has it wrong, you arrived a pretty clear and practical definition: being obedient to your call, in front of others. This seems to make intuitive sense and gives you something less abstract to focus on, but how did you arrive at this? Have you seen this focus work, or is it obedience, plus a few other basic things (organization, domain experience, a certain amount of boldness)? Or is obedience just a catch-all that kicks the problem down the road? I need to be obedient to my call to leadership in a particular area by being bold, and organized, and humble…oh man, I’m going to need some training in all these areas! I better sign up for Leadership…err…Obedience training!

    Lots for me to think about. Thanks as always Jeremy.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      “They can organize and get people to do things, but they are the wrong things.” Hilarious, Jordan (and tragic at the same time!).

      You’ve asked a good question regarding how I came to define good leadership as good obedience. I think, to try and answer for it (since it’s been rattling in my mind for the past few days), that the process of arriving there was mostly intuitive, and part reflective on the leaders I’ve encountered. You’ve also said something I think is wise, and yes, I think obedience indeed is the catch-all that kicks us down the road! This means there’s something teleological about leadership (namely, that you have to have purpose and a goal). We must ask: What am I heading towards, and how can I best be obedient to the task that is out in front of me? Then we will submit our character, our actions, and our activities to our goals as they arise (occasionally).

      Thanks again for your thoughts, Jordan!

  5. Sam Giroux says:

    JR:

    I definitely like where you are headed with your line of thought on obedience. Yet, I would say that no matter what your role is, obedience to Christ is essential. If we are truly obedient to Christ, we will know what our particular skills are and what our role in the mission of discipleship is to be.

    See, I think that leaders have a special “something” within them that make them leaders. The reality is that some people are leaders and others are not. That by no way means a leader is better then others, they just play a different role. I would argue that Napoleon and Martin Luther would actually be leaders today (as would Abraham, Moses, and David). It is not like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in which they just appear and be out of context to the current time. Their skills at motivation, big picture thinking, and abstract problem solving combined with being raised in this time would allow them to also be leaders now. This is why a great CEO can be successful in just about any industry.

    There is a difference between being a leader, a manager, and a laborer. Leaders think big picture, can generalize points that are relateable to others, and are respected by their peers that they follow them. Managers are good at the fine details, putting the little pieces in place, and measuring goals. Laborers actually perform the tasks mandating by the leader and manager. All parts are equally necessary and important. Obedience to Christ will help us find out role and give us gratification for that role. We are all working for Christ, and that is our goal.

    So, in terms of leadership training, I believe that your role is to first identify those people that possess leadership qualities. Then put them in situations where they can be successful, This helps them gain confidence in being a leader. Then, mentor them. No leader is born perfect. There are always areas that you can grow in leadership. You need to help them first identify their strengths and the discern through Christ their weaknesses. These “leadership books” are better used to help with excises to strengthen our weaknesses. Having a solid and strong leadership team only enhances your effect on your church. Your leaders can listen for dissension, problems, and other issues that you may not hear on your own. They can give you constructive feedback and aid in your own issues and concerns. They can also help you find more leaders within the group to be mentor and encouraged. This is all so that if God calls you away from your church, they will continue to thrive until they can call another pastor. This is why leadership training is so important.

    Keep up the great work.

    Peace, Love, and Hope

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Sam, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I suppose i find myself wondering if there are fundamental differences between secular and church leadership. I’m not sure how I would codify the differences, other than saying that church leadership inevitably involves a call and obedience to that call (and furthermore that without a call, leadership would be a sign of disobedience). It’s hard to say for certain what would happen with Luther and Napoleon outside of their context, but what you cannot ignore is the features that their context drew out of their personalities. Pre-Reformation Europe is what created Luther, both his anxiety, and his solution. And I kind of think that without that context, he’s just another guy. But we’re dealing with hypotheticals, so it’s hard to make confident judgments.

      I agree that some people seem to have the qualities for leadership innately, and that there are qualities which leaders tend to have in common (you listed some–big picture thinking, problem solving, etc.). But to bring us back to church leadership, we can never underestimate the power of the Spirit, Who gives gives as He wills, and may bless someone who is obedient, first of all, with the skills necessary to lead according to His plan. In the secular world, you can only look at someone’s innate skills. In the Church, we must always attend to the Spirit, to the call, and to the individual’s obedience to that call. Much is expected of the man who has been given much–to be trustworthy with a little means that you will be given more. The point, I suppose, is that we operate under a fundamentally different dynamic, and because of that, our training must reflect those differences accordingly (i.e., obedience training–haha!).

      Thanks for continuing the discussion!

      • Sam Giroux says:

        I believe that I do see your point a bit clearer now. You are correct that there is a definite need for a calling to be a church leader. Regardless of your “leadership skills” in the secular world, you cannot force yourself into a leadership role within the context of the church. So, yes obedience to God’s calling is critical.

        So, your job as a Pastor is to assist people in discerning the call of God? If that is true, and i do believe that is, then what do you do with this person that God has called to be a leader? Guess the best example would be Christ himself. The first leaders would be the apostles themselves and we are all called to be disciples of Christ. What Christ did was mentor and train these men to be leaders of the church. So, there may not be a 12 step plan of leadership, but a spiritual training towards leadership. You need to teach them how to open up to God and be obedient. Yet, you can also give them a little nudge.

        I do not know how your church is set up, but we have several different ministries and our pastor simply cannot lead all of them (Men’s & Women’s Fellowship groups, Christian Education, Music, etc). So, the different groups have leaders to guide, plan, and implement. Since my church is several generations old, a lot of this leadership development is information with the older members “training” the younger ones. If there are any gaps here or areas that need to be addressed, our pastor may step in to assist. In your church, this process may need to be more hands on by you to train. These little leadership roles give your members confidence that they can accomplish goals and experience with groups of people.

        The most important and critical part is the discernment of the Spirit. Yet, they may be some ways that once the Spirit calls someone, you can help them focus on that calling and help make it blossom.

        Thanks for keeping me thinking.

        Peace, Love, and Hope

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