Announcing a New Book! People of a Certain Character

Dear Reader,

In my eight years of pastoral ministry the most frequently recurring request, from laypersons and leadership alike, has been to implement some form of “Leadership Training.” From the top, church leaders see a crisis in volunteers; from the pews, members feel ill-equipped to take on Christian service. “Training” is often the language we use for the process of bridging this gap.

I have come to believe that there is something troubling, even deeply broken, about this process. Especially from the leadership level, I am uncomfortable viewing my people as resources to be harnessed for our projects. From the lay level, I’m troubled by both the tacit appeal to secular leadership models and the role that “technique” seems to play in training curricula. Both processes seemed far removed from the business of making disciples into Christ’s image.

People of a Certain Character Cover_ThumbnailThat’s why I’ve written People of a Certain Character—it is an attempt to bridge this gap in our ecclesial discipleship. The central argument of the book is that it is in the formation of our Christian character, not the adoption of techniques, that we become most fit for service in the Kingdom of God. To do this I ask a series of questions directed at the heart of the reader. For example, one of the first questions is “Do you know you are loved by God?” This seems to me the single most essential characteristic for an individual in Christian service. After all, if you don’t know that you are loved by God, you will strive to be loved by people. And a heart that desires to be loved by the people it serves is most likely to go astray. There are twelve such questions in the book, and each is an attempt to get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in service.

There is an additional problem in the business of discipleship and the training of leaders—namely, that there is both a shortage of capable leaders to teach the material, and a shortage of time for those leaders who are capable. It seemed to me, then, that there was a clear need for a resource which could be used in a group. Chapters would need to be short so that nobody would fall behind in the reading. Lessons would need to be anchored in Scripture so that we don’t fall into the trap of secularizing our leadership practices. Each lesson would need to be deep enough to sustain discussion, and each lesson would require questions to facilitate such reflection and discussion. A well-crafted book, I hoped, would enable groups of disciples to gather together and do the business of discipleship in a small group. With a minimal commitment of time in preparation, it might free both leaders and laypersons alike to walk on a journey towards more Christlikeness. This is, indeed, the kind of ambitious book that I hope People of a Certain Character can be, and, by the grace of God, I pray that you might read it and find that I’ve succeeded to some degree.

If this sounds like the kind of book you’ve been waiting for, then you can purchase a copy from either Amazon.com or from my createspace store. If you would like a review copy, send me your name, address, a brief bio, and your blog address to contact@jeremyrios.com and I’ll see if I can mail you a copy for review as soon as I’m able.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios
St Andrews

Four Essentials for Leadership

The world appears to be in a crisis of leadership. Regardless of circumstances secular or religious, institutions, individuals, and even nation-states worldwide struggle to earmark and support quality persons in positions of leadership. Governments are saddled with corrupt and inept officials. Churches are stewarded either by the obtuse and power-hungry or by avoiders who shrink from responsibility. Presidential candidates in America appear to lack basic skills of moral and personal restraint. While positions of social power already come ready-made with a host of dangers, added to these dangers Lord Acton’s words continue to ring true, that “power tends to corrupt.” The result is that not only are leaders fundamentally un-skilled in leadership, but access to power in their unskilled state magnifies their inadequacies. It is deeply troubling to acknowledge that, more often than not, individuals in effective positions of leadership lack some of the essential characteristics requisite for good leadership.

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I’ve been privileged in my work to spend a good deal of time reflecting on the nature of leadership, and while my reflections are birthed from the world of the Church, I believe they apply in a more global sense as well. So without further ado, here are my four essentials for leadership, paired with four tips for growing in each of these four areas.

1. Knowledge of Self. This is the single most important—and possibly most overlooked—characteristic required from any leader. The individual who knows himself knows his strengths, weaknesses, embodied life (mental and physical), and anxieties. To know your strengths is to know those areas where you can trust in your abilities, it is to possess an accounting of the assets you bring to your position. But knowing strengths means you must also know your weaknesses, to be aware of the limits of your capacities, and to know when to call in assistance. This means acknowledging that other people bring strengths which are different from yours. The individual with self-knowledge will also be aware of the impact of his or her embodied life on the work. The unaware person lives out a kind of unhealthy self-denial—unacknowledged exhaustion, hunger, burnout, depression, illness, and life changes become factors worked out at the expense of the people in the institution. In this, unacknowledged personal liabilities tend to become institutional liabilities. By contrast, the bodily self-aware individual will rest well, exercise well, recover well, exhibit boundaries in work and personal life, and make allowances for sickness and life changes. Finally, the self-aware leader will manage her anxiety well. Anxiety is the extension of worry into situations of personal powerlessness. Consumed with his or her own worries, the anxious person seeks to fix problems or to change people, not for the benefit of the organization, but to relieve his or her personal experience of tension. Feeling anxious about a job review, such a leader will project her anxiety on her coworkers. Anxious in the face of tension, a leader will create tension in his whole staff. For each of these four factors, power given to an individual without self-knowledge is a recipe for the wounding of the organization: He will not know his strengths; she will not know her weaknesses; he will not know how his embodied life shapes his perceptions; she will be unaware of how her anxieties impact the organization. Unaware of self, such an individual will in turn project these weaknesses, anxieties, and bodily changes onto the organization. Blind to the self, such individual naturally conclude that the problems are generated by others.

Hand Mirror

Buy it on Etsy from Storybook Artifact and increase your self-knowledge!

Tip #1: Journaling. Journaling is probably the single greatest tool for growing in self knowledge. So buy a notebook and take a little time each week to reflect back on the week. What were the highlights? What were the low points? What was going on with your body? What did you do well? What did you feel? Don’t make it belabored, but take 15-30 minutes each week to write out some reflections on the past week, and see how your knowledge of self grows in the process.

2. Knowledge of Others. The person who knows only herself and not others is self-absorbed—her capacity to encourage, embolden, and galvanize a group of people will be severely curtailed. Because of this the knowledge of others is a second essential skill in the life any leader. At the most basic level, knowledge of others means possessing an outlook on life that is open to input from other people. Knowledge of self without knowledge of others is a closed system; I take myself as the measure of all things and project my own understanding upon everyone around me. Situations that don’t fit within my own small perception read as incomprehensible to me; I am the measure of all things, and the result is a remarkably small world. By contrast, knowledge of others demands the capacity to read (among other things) the strengths, weaknesses, embodied life, and anxieties of your coworkers, and to take that data in and seek to shape it in a way that strengthens the operation of the organization. Simple data acknowledgement and collection is the rudimentary level of the knowledge of others—the mature leader will strive to empathize with the people he leads. Empathy is an imaginative engagement with the perspectives that others bring to the table—it is the effort a person makes to understand a situation as the other person understands it. Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team observes that people will go along with something, even if it’s something they disagree with, so long as they feel that their concerns have been heard and acknowledged. Only an empathetic leader, robust in his knowledge of others, can truly extend such understanding to the people within his organization.

Walk a Mile Criticize

Tip #2: Read a Novel or a Biography. If you struggle to get into the heads of other people, there’s no better place to practice than in reading a novel or a biography. Novels can provide us with great insight into our own emotional lives by helping us to empathize through the eyes of the novelist. Biographies help us to see how other people have handled other difficult situations and surmounted them. Set aside some time each day to read for 15 minutes. You’ll cover a surprising amount of ground and be greatly enriched in the process!

3. The Capacity to Learn from Your Mistakes. In this leadership essential we come against a widespread cultural misperception—namely, the idea that mistakes are always and in every way unwelcome. Institutions often demand perfection—or at least the illusion of perfection—at every level. But in time such unacknowledged errors become buried and then quietly embedded into the DNA of an organization. Pretense develops and people (especially leaders) who continue as humans to make mistakes labor to present themselves as perfect, and to do this they look to pass the buck of blame on to others. The result is that the lesson most learned is not one of being perfect so much as it is of not getting caught. Additionally, people who make mistakes are also people who are willing to take risks. A mistake-free institution is also likely to be a risk avoiding institution. There is no question that wise and well-functioning institutions work to limit moral and institutional errors, but an institution which ignores the human factor will cripple itself. After all, the most stable and long-lasting growth comes not from unchecked success, but from surmounting obstacles, and to do this institutions require leadership that can make mistakes, own up them, and grow through and by means of them. This is why institutions require individuals who have the capacity to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. For the leader, this is an attitude of humility, a recognition that even at his or her best he may not always be right. This is in turn combined with his knowledge of self and of others, and with these combined tools such a leader will be able to discern the point of error, go back, and correct it accordingly. Furthermore, a leader who can own his or her own mistakes will be better equipped to manage the mistakes of others, helping the institution to grow as a whole.

Sorry Dog

Tip #3: Feedback. Solicit feedback from people working under you about areas where you can improve, or places where you might have made a mistake. Add that feedback to your journal and reflect on the experience, imagining how you can grow through that mistake.

4. Skills Commensurate with Your Field. This is the final essential factor required for leadership, and it should be obvious, but often is not. To lead well in a given field you will require the skills necessary for that employment. To lead as clergy I require, among other things, knowledge of the Scriptures and knowledge of the human heart. To lead as a business owner I require knowledge of the product, the market, and production. To lead in a financial capacity I require understanding of mathematics and administration. No amount of self-knowledge and knowledge of others will surmount the difficulties in leadership if I am fundamentally incompetent in the field in which I am working. Unfortunately, institutions are often not very good at communicating what, precisely, are the skills required for a position of leadership. The best source of information then is to speak to other individuals in similar fields.

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.

Tip #4: Pro-D. Want to succeed in your career? Take a class. Read a book. Attend a seminar. Take other similar professionals out to lunch and pick their brains for how they work. Do whatever you can to round out your skill-set. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate as well. If you’re in business, read a book on social relationships. If you’re clergy, read a book on science. If you’re in administration, read a book on art. Surprising benefits can come from attention given to sources outside your specific field!

It ought to go without saying that all four essentials are, well, essential. But you don’t have to be active in a position of leadership to begin developing them. So whether you are in a position of leadership, or considering one, I encourage you to begin the process of self-development even now. Your life will be enriched, and very likely the lives of people around you as well.

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.