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

Busting a Childhood Myth and Breaking Through Leadership Barriers

Written by: on January 23, 2024

As a child, I was told by several teachers and other adults that, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Memorize. Practice. Regurgitate when tested. Asking questions meant that you were not grasping the subject, or worse stupid. So, I kept quiet. This was drilled into me as a child and a mindset I carried with me into university. But as I reflect, I can see how this mindset hurt me. I took a required calculus course in my first year of science at university. I needed calculus to advance but could never quite grasp it. As a result, I failed the first time and squeaked by the second time I took it, still not able to grasp it. I never asked one question in class or sought out a professor for help. While many of my friends seemed perfectly at home in a math classroom, calculus felt like a foreign world to me. I made up my mind after that first course that it just wasn’t for me, I couldn’t do it and chose a different path. However, according to educator, Robert Coven, curiosity doesn’t kill the proverbial cat. Asking questions and a healthy dose of curiosity are just what a learner needs to achieve learning breakthroughs as they grasp important foundational concepts. Once these foundational concepts are grasped, learners can build a mental framework that enables them to understand and apply the subject in a much more integrated way.[1] Childhood myth, busted!

Jan Meyer and Ray Land refer to these foundational concepts as threshold concepts. A threshold concept is a foundational idea that acts as a learning gateway for students, opening new ways of thinking. These concepts give students access to knowledge previously thought to be unreachable and fragmented. The threshold concept is often disturbing because the student will be forced to unlearn previously held knowledge or beliefs. However, the threshold concept has a transformative effect because it disrupts a person’s way of approaching a subject and then creates new, better, and more accurate ways of thinking leading to greater proficiency. Once a student grasps these threshold concepts, they can also better integrate the knowledge to create a more cohesive framework, rather than a fragmented understanding of a topic. [2]

As I consider the field of church leader development, in which I am working, I know that many pastors are either plateaued in their development and, as a result, some are considering resigning out of frustration. I am drawn to wonder about threshold concepts in leadership and if many of these leaders would benefit from grasping threshold concepts in the field of leadership. A hasty Google search didn’t reveal much.

As I reflect, then, on my journey I realize that I had a significant threshold moment after about 20 years of leading in a local church. That threshold moment occurred in a classroom with Dr. Paul Magnus when I began to grasp the concepts and practical application of collaborative and strengths-based leadership. Through a flipped classroom approach, Dr. Magnus, had us investigate the power of the group in solving the greatest challenges of the organization to develop a co-created and co-owned plan. I was not being spoon-fed great leadership content but drawn into a learning process, through inquiry, as we interacted with content. My first class with Dr. Magnus changed my view of leadership entirely. It messed with me, but it also freed me up. Before this, I believed that I needed to be the expert and that I was responsible for creating a compelling vision, creating a great strategy, aligning resources, managing a staff, and solving complex problems along the way. I knew the weight was too burdensome. I walked away from the classroom that week, still unskilled in collaborative practices but knowing that I could lead differently and more effectively. I called it my leadership lightbulb moment.

This threshold concept led me to complete a master’s degree, utilizing my learning to help lead a congregation through a very difficult crisis that stretched out over 4 years, to accept a new role in leader development, and enroll in this doctoral program. After that lightbulb moment, my understanding and practice of leadership grew exponentially and continued to develop more cohesively. Before this breakthrough, I would go to conferences or take courses and I would get great ideas that I would implement for a time. This led to frustration and for a while, I decided that I wouldn’t attend another leadership conference. I didn’t have a cohesive framework for all the knowledge I had gathered. Even though I knew I needed more development, I was stalled out and didn’t know how to grow as a leader. There is nothing worse than feeling plateaued as a leader. I was unwittingly repeating my calculus experience from my university days, but now the stakes were much higher. However, cultivating my curiosity led to a learning breakthrough as I grasped a significant and very timely leadership threshold concept.

Perhaps, my greatest gift to the 500+ licensed workers in our district of churches will be the gift of creating environments that stimulate curiosity about leadership rather than cookie-cutter answers for their leadership. Perhaps, the best way to do this is in my context is through a simple and scalable peer coaching approach that interacts with identified threshold concepts. In Mining for Gold, Tom Camacho wrote, “In Coaching Leadership, we don’t solve leader’s issues for them or tell them what they need to do next. If we do our part well, leaders feel they are in charge and they choose the path that is best for them.”[3] Finally, I’d also want our leaders to know that their leadership frustration shouldn’t lead them to resign. Rather, I’d want them to be led to become curious about what they don’t yet know. Then, remain curious until they discover the threshold concept that leads to a breakthrough for them because breakthrough results in greater freedom, health, and effectiveness.

Stay curious, friends.

[1] Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding | Robert Coven | TEDxCaryAcademy, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCPYSKSFky4.

[2] Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, eds., Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 1. publ (London: Routledge, 2006), 28.

[3] Tom Camacho, Mining for Gold: Developing Kingdom Leaders through Coaching, First published (Nottingham: IVP, 2019), 63.

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.

20 responses to “Busting a Childhood Myth and Breaking Through Leadership Barriers”

  1. Debbie Owen says:

    Graham, great post, thank you!

    You write, “My first class with Dr. Magnus changed my view of leadership entirely. It messed with me, but it also freed me up…” How, exactly, did Dr. Magnus’s course or methods mess with you?

    You indicate that you had a breakthrough, lightbulb type of moment when you realized the power of collaborative learning. What were the preconceived ideas you had held that you had to reexamine?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Debbie.
      I think
      Dr. Magnus messed with my whole concept of interdependence between leader and people. I didn’t realize how much it would free me up to become more dependent on the people around me. It was quite a shift.
      Secondly, I had to re-examine how direction could be co-created within a community rather than being the responsibility of a leader or small leadership community.

  2. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Graham, great post. I like how you described threshold moments as lightbulb moments and breakthroughs. I have found that to be exactly true. As I talked with my husband (who is on church staff) about threshold concepts, we considered our time of learning about unreached people groups, the lost in our city and around the world, and if there was a way God would invite us to participate. These lightbulb moments changed our paradigms and the course of our lives – and it’s impossible for us to ever see things the same way again.

    As you’re leading in a denominational setting, what are some of the barriers you see for people to have greater intimacy with God? ie – what are the thresholds that they need to cross?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks Christy, that’s a good question. I think it might just be the infilling of the Holy Spirit and living in dependence on Him. I’ve been reflecting on Romans 8. In particular how the Spirit leads us to know that we are God’s children and that he actually cries out “ABBA” from within. It seems that great intimacy develops out of a surrendered life that has come to an end of trying and has started to rely on the Spirit.

  3. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Graham, I enjoyed reading your post.
    I completely relate to your experience with calculus. Personally, I struggled with the subject and faced challenges in connecting the dots.

    It is fascinating how threshold concepts serve as gateways, challenging students to reevaluate their existing knowledge and beliefs.

    • Graham English says:

      Shela, the struggle is real for so many students. Most think they are either capable of doing it or not. It is really fascinating. I have friends who instilled a growth mindset by asking their kids each evening, “what questions did you ask in class today?” I thought that was quite brilliant.

  4. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Thanks Graham I really enjoyed your post. I appreciate the encouragement and reminder that leadership burnout and threshold concepts could be connected. When we put pastors or leaders constantly in the expert position (either self-imposed or in a particular church culture) what happens when they no longer feel like the expert? How can we empower pastors to be learners, as questions and find support in a community of learners.

    Do you have suggestions on how to begin to equip pastors and churches with questions or strategies to deconstruct the ‘expert’ pressure of a pastor in a church context? Asking for a friend…

    • Graham English says:

      Ryan, that’s a question we are wrestling through and is probably going to be touched on in my NPO. We encourage and equip pastors to work through Appreciative Inquiry and communal discernment processes. I have worked with churches to co-create their direction.

      Having said that, I do believe in situational leadership and that sometimes we need to provide expertise.

      I have found that boards, in particular, want their pastors to be the experts and primary visionaries rather than curious learners and coaches. As well, denominational structures and cultures promote heroic pastoral leadership that views the leader as the hero-expert. Finally, most leaders are quite independent (vs interdependent) and value being the expert-visionary.
      I think we have a long way to go on this.
      Thanks for asking.

  5. Diane Tuttle says:

    Graham, I am glad your barrier to learning from not feeling free to ask questions has been broken. I really like the idea of peer coaching. I wonder if you have thought through ways to initiate a change to this paradigm yet?

    • Graham English says:

      Diane, we started training group facilitators with a coach approach and provided peer groups with ongoing equipping and support. Coaching is such a mindset shift for pastors because we are used to pouring into people rather than drawing them out.

  6. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Hi Graham. Thanks for posting. The analogy of curiosity dispelling the myth that “Curiosity killed the cat” challenges traditional views on learning. The synthesis between your experience with calculus, the transformative moment in collaborative leadership with Dr. Paul Magnus, and the subsequent impact on your leadership journey is powerful. Three questions for you:
    1. Considering your role in church leader development, how do you envision integrating threshold concepts into the development of your licensed workers?
    2. How might this foster curiosity and stimulate breakthroughs for pastors experiencing frustration or stagnation in their leadership roles?
    3. How do you plan to encourage a culture of continuous curiosity and learning among the 500+ licensed workers in your district of churches?

    • Graham English says:

      Glyn, why so many questions? JK Thanks for engaging with my post and asking.

      1. That’s a great question. I think it’s challenging because it depends on the readiness of the learner and their curiosity. I think our first step in this would be to really identify what they are.
      2. I wonder if our ability to clearly identify threshold concepts and then provide an opportunity to explore and learn/master these might foster curiosity.
      3. I think the coaching model and mindset might be very helpful in stimulating curiosity. We are piloting some peer-peer coaching groups and will invest heavily in the future in creating a system for mutual peer support, learning and coaching.

  7. Nancy Blackman says:

    Since the time of your earlier academic experiences of education, how have you learned to skin the cat and still remain curious?

    I groaned at your mention of Calculus because I was right there with you. And, I, too, realized that it wasn’t for me, but I never looked back.

    As you wrote about pastors hitting a plateau, what threshold concept do you think would help them move from plateau to grasping and thriving?

    I am reminded of a time when I was a long distance runner and eventually trained to run a marathon. Thinking that I would always continue to lose weight because I was running so many miles per week and had the same basic diet every week, I was surprised when I hit a plateau, and actually began to gain weight!

    Then, I started running with a group and, one Saturday on a long run, I asked the group if anyone else was having the same problem? One of the runners, an Army Sergeant explained that your body plateaus right before it’s going to change, almost like your body needs to store up in order to make the change in a healthy way. He recommended that one way to navigate the process was to cut back on my calories for a week.

    So, in light of that, are there some areas that pastors you might be engaging with can remove something from their plate or life that can help them transform from plateau to the next level (whatever that is for each pastor)?

    You mentioned helping them stay curious. What would you need to ask of them or encourage them to do to create curiosity when they might not want to? In other words, some people (and pastors) might enjoy the plateau. Why fix what isn’t broken?

    • Graham English says:

      Nancy, I appreciated the connection with running. I ran a lot until my back could no longer manage it.
      I think the question around what are threshold concepts pastors need to grasp is one I’m still wrestling with. I know from my own journey that there were shifts for me.
      1. From doing it myself to empowering others
      2. The Spirit-filled life – bearing fruit through surrender
      3. Collaboration and Co-creation
      4. From independence to interdependence.

      There are others, I’m sure.

  8. mm Kari says:


    Can I come work with you? Your desire to “[create] environments that stimulate curiosity about leadership rather than cookie-cutter answers for their leadership” is what I believe makes an excellent leader and leadership team. This should be an example for all types of leaders.

    What has been the response of others in your denomination to this strategy? What have you found helps this become a threshold concept to those who grew up in a “don’t question the authority” culture?

    • Graham English says:

      Good questions, Kari. Thanks for engaging. The church culture really values the expert vs. The coach. It’s actually a tough sell for boards and leaders.
      I don’t know the answer to your second question but sure would like to find out. You’ve given me something to mull over.

      • mm Kari says:

        Hi Graham, I am excited to see what you discover along this journey. Keep us posted!

        • Graham English says:

          Kari, I would also say that I am trying not to think in polarities such as “expert vs. coach” but rather in terms of agility. There are definitely times we need to offer expertise. However, the more we can collaborate, coach and co-create the more we empower those we lead.

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