Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Growth Mindset Approach to Leadership

Written by: on February 14, 2024

“Leadersmithing” by Eve Poole follows a refreshingly practical approach to leader development.


I didn’t grow up in the church. I became a follower of Jesus when I was 19. After sensing a call to ministry a few years later my wife, Wendy, and I moved our family from Vancouver to Regina to attend Bible College. If you’ve ever been to Vancouver and Regina, you’d be laughing right about now. Think a city on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by mountains versus a bald, windy prairie town originally named “pile of bones” by the Cree.  It was a move of faith motivated by hearts that had surrendered all to Jesus. After we completed college, I was called to a small church in Redwater, Alberta to become a lead pastor. Again, not the most desirable of locations when you’re from Vancouver. The church was basically on life support and had struggled to survive in its nearly 50-year history. At age 28, after having been a Christian for all of 9 years, I began to lead a church community. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never led a board and had never done most of the things I needed for the role. Sure, I had been to bible college, but I was not prepared for what I would face in the 8 years we were there. Everything was a first. It was baptism by fire. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. I went on prayer walks around this small town and would rail out at God for bringing me here. I didn’t know it then, but this began my apprenticeship as a pastoral leader. In the process, I grew as a leader, God changed my heart and somehow changed the church. I should also acknowledge that many good people in that church lovingly and patiently encouraged me to learn the craft of pastoral leadership. As I moved into a larger church context I faced another barrage of firsts.

All the “firsts” that I experienced are what Eve Poole would call “critical incidents” in her fine book, “Leadersmithing”.[1] Her book is based on her leadership research in which she asked two questions of senior leaders. First, “What do you know now that you wish you knew ten years ago”? Second, “How did you learn this valuable lesson”?[2] Her research led her to identify seventeen critical incidents that leaders face in their development. It also led her to discover that leaders didn’t learn these in an academic setting but rather in the crucible of leadership. The main idea then, is to approach the craft of leadership in the same manner that a trades apprentice would practice their craft and become a master craftsperson. However, she doesn’t simply focus on craft, she also stresses character. She writes, “Character protects your future ability to lead because it is the very thing that will save you when everything else is stripped away. Courage, grit, and determination- these character traits are the stuff of leadership when the chips are down.”[3] This blend of practicing leadership as a craft, with specific practices, and developing character demystifies leadership and challenges the notion that leaders are born and gifted rather than developed.

The clarity with which Poole identifies the seventeen critical incidents is helpful as one might consider an apprenticeship approach to leadership. One could easily, and this is the focus of the second half of the book, pick a critical incident and choose to practice it intentionally so that it becomes instinctive and available when needed most. The idea of becoming a leader apprentice is a simple yet profound concept that for many leaders could become a threshold concept, both for their leadership and for how they may approach the development of future leaders.[4] I know that this would have been a significant foundational concept for me to grasp as a young leader and I would have appreciated the clarity of the list of critical incidents that I would have needed to practice. It is now a valuable tool as I consider leader development in my context.

The other value of the apprenticeship approach to leadership is that it cultivates what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.[5] Dweck defines a growth vs fixed mindset, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.”[6] A leader with a growth mindset would value the process of learning and growing. Having a growth mindset in leadership could free leaders from the performance trap that so many struggle with. It can prevent us from thinking that some have a special leadership endowment, and others don’t. As well, an apprenticeship model would encourage an environment where leaders are free to experiment, innovate and even fail. This type of adaptive leadership, described in “Leadership on the Line” by Heifetz and Linsky, is what is needed in periods of rapid change and uncertainty.[7]

As I consider leader development in my context I was left with some important questions. As much as I appreciated Poole’s practical approach to leader development, I also know that pastoral leadership is unique and requires spiritual, skill and relational development. Pastors are not just managing an organization or managing a department with six direct reports. They are leading dynamic spiritually focused organizations with boards, sometimes staff, and complex relational networks that resemble a family more than a corporation.

  1. How might we “template” our young leaders? Templating is a simulation process that is designed to develop a kind of leadership ‘muscle memory’ that kicks in when faced with the situation in real life.
  2. How could we equip seasoned leaders to see their role as master craftspeople, apprenticing young leaders?
  3. What unique “critical incidents” exist for pastoral leaders?
  4. How does the process of leader development in small rural churches differ from the development of leaders in a larger church?
  5. How do pastors in a remote context, where they are solo pastors dealing with the tyranny of the urgent, focus on leader development?

I appreciated reading the book and will certainly use it as I consider leader development in my unique context. The real value of the book for me is that it has caused me to be more curious and has sparked more questions than answers. I’m grateful for that.

[1] Eve Poole, Leadersmithing: An Apprenticeship Approach to Making Great Leaders (London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Business, 2017), 10.

[2] Poole, 10.

[3] Poole, 47.

[4] Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, eds., Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 1. publ (London: Routledge, 2006).

[5] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine books trade paperback ed, A Ballantine Books Trade Paperback (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2008).

[6] Carol Dweck, “What Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ Actually Means,” Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means.

[7] Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Change (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

About the Author

Graham English

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa 30 minutes from Table Mountain, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. My family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada where I spent my teen years, met Wendy, and got married. We now live on the Canadian prairies in northern Alberta. I think God has a sense of humour. I'm a follower of Jesus, work in leadership and church development, love my family and walk a lot.

14 responses to “A Growth Mindset Approach to Leadership”

  1. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Graham, thanks for the blog my friend. I was picturing you on the journey of leadership you have been on at each stage. Thanks for the background, it’s great to see some of your journey.
    Beyond being thrown into the deep end of leadership, what specific critical incidents do you think pastoral leaders commonly face?

    • Graham English says:

      Glyn, the role of a pastor is so unique. While Poole gives some great general wisdom for corporate leadership that applies to pastors, I too wondered about pastoral-specific critical incidents.
      1. Restoring a leader who has failed morally.
      2. Recruiting and leading volunteers.
      3. Steps of bold faith.
      4. Fundraising for a faith-filled vision.
      5. Dealing with betrayal – Forgiving, loving and walking with those who betray you.

  2. Adam Cheney says:

    I do love Vancouver and all of the Pacific Northwest. Truly, it is something special and I am sure a hard place to leave. Yet, it seems that God had a plan for you and your life and you diligently followed it. You asked some great questions above and you keyed in on one aspect that I touched as well and that is that this book is not spiritually focused and so, as Christian leaders we need to adapt the lessons learned and also apply them into the context of Christian ministry. As you navigated the significant challenges of COVID in ministry, what are some of the leadership traits that you have matured in?

    • Graham English says:

      Adam, I think character refinement was huge during this season. I had to learn some new skills like preaching on media etc. These were not that intimidating. However, learning how to love people in a polarized environment was most challenging. Some of my dearest friends went down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and others became self-righteous about masks and vaccines. To walk with both and work to bring them together was probably one of the greatest challenges and helped me develop skills in mediation and peacemaking.

  3. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Hey Graham!

    Really great post and I appreciate your questions of how to contextualize Poole’s work to the unique contours of pastoral ministry.

    I think there are a few unique ‘critical incidents’ that pastors face that you have helped me think through how to template our leaders better. Here are a few critical incidents I’ve experienced:

    -Congregants who are doubting their faith in God. How do we ask the right questions instead of answer with platitudes?

    -A church system that experiences anxiety of finances or attendance
    How do we seek to bring health and growth without relying solely on numbers and money?

    -A marriage in crisis
    How do we listen, support, and reduce the crisis without being triangled in or counseling if that’s not our skill set or training?

    What are some others you think of?

    • Graham English says:

      Those are great, Ryan. I appreciate the ones you’ve shared. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and plan to work with my team to identify these and come up with our own list. Here are a few. Most were also part of my answer to Glyn.
      1. Restoring leaders who have failed morally
      2. Faith-filled leadership steps – what happens when we’re called to a God-sized vision that looks impossible?
      3. Faith-filled Fundraising
      4. Leadership Betrayal – loving and walking with those who have wounded you.
      5. Spiritual Warfare – how do we deal with satanic attack? I believe warfare ramps up when you’re leading a church.

  4. mm Kari says:

    Graham, I appreciate you modeling a growth mindset in your writing and leadership skills. Curiosity is indeed the start to this and you model that beautifully with your questions. I saw your answer to “What unique “critical incidents” exist for pastoral leaders?” in your responses to Ryan and Glyn above. With your vast background and personal grown, I can’t help but wonder in this list of pastoral critical incidences, which one(s) do you believe God is inviting you to address as a leader in your context?

    PS I would say that the pastoral critical incidences would are also applicable in ministry-focused cross-cultural work, too.

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Kari. I am sure that many of the pastoral critical incidents are similar in overseas work. I am grateful that you are serving in this challenging context.
      The “What is my growth edge?” question is a good one. I haven’t listed it as a pastoral edge, but I would say my growth edge right now is better team development. Not a first, but I’m building a new team and need to refine some skills.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    Wow! Talk about being thrown into the fire. What were you feeling during the whole inception period of being a young senior pastor? You mentioned railing at God, but where was the railing coming from — fear, bitterness, anger, etc.?

    And now that you’re a seasoned pastor, what would you say to your 28 year-old self, knowing what you know now?

    And, yes, I agree that this book has caused me to ask more questions of myself as a leader and the development I want as I transform, hopefully into being a better leader ;-).

    • Graham English says:

      Nancy, good coaching question. The railing against God was probably because I felt like God called me to a place I didn’t want to be. I felt like a fish out of water in a small town. So, I was a bit confused about why God had called me.
      What would I say to my younger self? You don’t have to get it all right. Become a Leadersmith, take a growth mindset approach and don’t fear failure.

  6. Debbie Owen says:

    Graham, thank you for your honest and transparent post. I appreciate that you are now in a position to consider how to develop leaders, and the apprentice approach is appealing for many reasons.

    Would you venture to suggest a pathway for young church leaders? I know you said big/small, urban/suburban/rural are all different “beasts”. What about in your current context?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks Debbie. Our team has been wrestling with this for a few months now. Rather than a “pathway” which suggests a beginning and end. We decided on a framework. Our vision is to see leaders and churches thriving so that they can extend fullness of life to others. So our framework will have 3 components.
      1. Identity – who you are and who you’re becoming in Christ.
      2. Posture/Mindset – Servanthood, Mutuality and Interdependence.
      3. Skill – developing a growth mindset/apprenticeship approach. Identifying the skills you need and helping them form a constellation of mentors.

  7. mm Jennifer Eckert says:

    Graham, wonderful post. I appreciate your value of having a growth mindset. Another way I have heard the term described is someone who is a “renter vs. owner.” Renters may do the bare minimum to care for the home they reside in but they won’t go much beyond; it’s not their property. While an owner will renovate, plant new landscaping, spiff it up to add value and curb appeal.

    How might the lessons from this book help you discover which of the people around you are renters vs. owners? And how might you help someone move from being a renter toward having that desired growth mindset?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks Jennifer. I think looking for those who want to grow. Working with the ones who are respond to invitations for development. Some believe that they are unable to change or don’t want to change. Sometimes we can invest more into the “renters” rather than the “owners”.

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