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

Conceptualizing Leadership

Written by: on November 28, 2023

We are 15 or so months into our doctoral journey, and this week’s reading may be the first book that feels like a classic textbook. Leadership is a notoriously slippery concept to pin down, but Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory and Practice provides a helpful definition: “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”[1]

Northouse goes on to weave a few concepts consistently through his analysis of numerous leadership models. For example, he repeatedly differentiates between task-based and relational aspects of leadership approaches, notably in the style approach[2] and the situational approach[3] among others.  I found this reminder helpful. No matter what style of leadership we adopt and no matter the leadership context, we will have to deal with accomplishing tasks while in relation with other people. Most people feel a more natural orientation to one or the other; personally, I’m quite task-oriented. However, a balanced, effective leader must hone both skills.

As I read through the models Northouse presented, many were familiar but there was one that gave me pause. I took some time to digest the Path-Goal leadership approach. I reflected on the peculiarities of leading missionaries, and I was left with several helpful applications.

  1. The path-goal approach focuses on employee motivation[4]. Missionaries come in all shapes and sizes, but we generally share one characteristic. It takes a certain sense of adventure and pioneering spirit to leave one’s home culture and start life over in a new country. The dark side of that trait is that our independence can be taken to an extreme; we can become resistant to oversight. Mission agencies handle accountability in a variety of ways, but from a leadership perspective it is essential to tap into a missionary’s internal motivation and to keep it charged up.
  2. The path-goal leader uses coaching and direction to remove (or help the missionary to remove) obstacles to their goals[5]. In many instances, a missionary is sent to work in partnership with a local ministry. In my case, I work on the ground in Lille, but my supervisor is in Paris and the highest level of organizational leadership is in the United States. Because of the distance, my supervisor is a great coach but never really in a position to be directive because he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of my day-to-day work. These dynamics have been an ongoing challenge for leaders and followers alike within our organization. As I reflected on this, I came to see the path-goal approach as potentially quite effective. As I see it, the onus is on the follower to identify the obstacles (likely with some coaching from the leader) and then take steps to remove it or at least participate in the process.
  3. The path-goal approach places high value on the work being personally satisfying[6]. A missionary ultimately needs to feel a deep sense of satisfaction in his or her work. Without a deep sense of purpose and fulfilling a divine calling, he or she will not continue very long in this vocation.

One other model caught my attention specifically for its connection to Simon Walker’s concept of front stage vs. back stage leadership and specifically the idea of leading out of who you are.[7] Northouse’s Authentic leadership doesn’t so much seem like a totally set-apart leadership approach but rather it seems like a set of principles that need to be interwoven through whatever leadership style we use. A leader in any context needs to “know their True North.” They have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and what the right thing is to do.”[8]

Our very own Cathy Glei shared a beautiful example of authentic leadership when she was on the hot seat on October 23rd. She described how her church has made the decision to stay and invest in their local community in order to better serve the felt needs around them.[9] As I was listening to her describe this situation, I was struck by how this decision comes from a deep place of authentic, values-based leadership.

I am grateful for the example of Cathy’s church and for all leaders who do the right thing in the face of difficulties or pressures. I’m sure you could all share examples of difficult situations you’ve faced and how you have kept your eyes on your own personal True North. May I, may we all, learn to do the same.


[1] Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice (London: Sage Publications, 2010) 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] S.P. Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, The Undefended Leader Trilogy. 1 (Piquant, 2007).

[8] Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice (London: Sage Publications, 2010), 213.

[9] Cohort chat via Zoom, October 23, 2023.

About the Author


Kim Sanford

11 responses to “Conceptualizing Leadership”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    Kim, now that I’ve read your post, I don’t think I answered your question very well — the question you asked me in response to my post.

    Second, I appreciate the way you’ve described the context of your missionary work and the way your supervisor provides coaching, while at the same time your supervisor is less directive due to not being able to observe your day-to-day work.

    Thirdly, you said, “A missionary ultimately needs to feel a deep sense of satisfaction in his or her work. Without a deep sense of purpose and fulfilling a divine calling, he or she will not continue very long in this vocation.” Without a strong sense of calling, without the ability to find happiness and fulfillment in the midst of ambiguity (sometimes), without setting personal/ministry objectives/strategies/goals/tactics that are consistent with the sending agency yet autonomous enough to allow for personal ownership of the mission, and without the ability to be a self-starter or disciplined in mundane daily tasks, I can see why missionary life could be short-lived. For my wife and me, the closest thing to missionary life was the several years early in our career with a campus ministry we served in the U.S. with summer projects in Latin America. There was much we enjoyed, but for me I did not have a sense of calling (to that particular work) and long-term purpose, and therefore left the organization after 4 years.

    • mm Kim Sanford says:

      You insightfully point out that without a deep sense of purpose and ownership of their work, a missionary probably won’t last very long on the field. You also are spot on when you mention, at least in my experience, missionaries need an exceptionally high tolerance of ambiguity and the ability to be a self-starter. These are tricky because they’re not very “spiritual” but without them a missionary (at least in the types of ministries I’ve known) will flounder. To take it one step farther, these are qualities that are difficult to screen for before a missionary arrives on the field. In other words, in interviews everyone says they are a self-starter and are ready to be flexible in the face of unknowns. But when they arrive and experience living cross-culturally it can be a huge challenge.

  2. mm Tim Clark says:

    Kim I was also inspired by Cathy’s response, and like you agree that authentic leadership shouldn’t be classified as a separate style but in my mind is the ‘cost of admission’ to be a good leader.

    I had missed diving deep in to path-goal but find your assessment helpful. It reminds me that there are many leadership philosophies and practices that would be helpful to understand as I keep growing in my leadership.

  3. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi Kim-

    I really appreciate how you called out some of the overlapping tendencies of the traits lined out in Northouse. I confess, this distracts me, as I want to have it be a “black and white” or “either/or” exercise- but it isn’t.

    Knowing that it is not linear, how would you encourage someone just picking up this book for the first time to apply these concepts without getting confused or overwhelmed? Or, do you not think that is a risk?

    • mm Kim Sanford says:

      Northouse’s book is so comprehensive that it definitely resulted in some confusion and overwhelm for me. Given that we all have to start somewhere, I was thinking back to what you said in your post, that you asked your students to identify which leadership style comes most naturally to them. That’s probably a great place to start. A next step might be to pick a style that feels more challenging and try to apply that style for a week or a month. In any case, as I was skimming the whole book in the space of a couple of hours, that’s what I felt like I needed – a few weeks to digest and test out each of the various styles.

  4. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Kim,
    Thanks for highlighting the path-goal leader.

    I just spoke with a young couple that is charting their course towards Ukraine. I find myself trying gravitating to Situational S2 High Directive/High supportive. But my sensing for the couple is S3 High supportive Low directive is what is needed.

    You highlighted Path Goal – coaching and direction to remove (or help the missionary to remove) obstacles to their goals.

    I need to explore that. Thanks.


  5. Kally Elliott says:

    Thanks for pointing out that authentic leadership needs to be interwoven into all styles of leadership. I too was interested in the Path Goal approach and actually thought my supervisor would be wise to use it with me! 🤪

  6. Jenny Dooley says:

    I just want to thank you for your post. I appreciate how you have explored the missionary experience and the tensions of the adventurous and pioneering spirit required to get the job done and the challenges to being too independent. What particularly stood out was how you described the supervisor and organizational leaders who are geographically distant from the workers who have deal with the day-to-day “boots on the ground” ministry. That is a challenging tension to hold. Your insights have given me validation that I honestly don’t remember receiving. What strategies might this model offer that empowers missionaries such as yourself to take the lead?

  7. Hey Kim, I resonated with the path-goal approach too. How do you use coaching and direction to remove obstacles in your ministry or how have you seen your supervisor use coaching and direction to remove obstacles?

  8. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Kim, how has your true north guided you throughout this doctoral journey? I find that I started fairly big and bold and as I move through this journey and the microscope gets into focus, my true north is much closer to home. So I don’t think the direction has changed but it’s become more focused. Has this happened to you to? Just curious.

  9. Hey Kim!

    That it did feel like a classic textbook was actually nice for me. I don’t always want that but it gave me a really familiar way to engage with it.

    Your reflection on Peter Northouse’s book and its relevance to leadership in the context of missionaries is insightful. The distinction between task-based and relational aspects of leadership is an important reminder that effective leaders need to balance both skills. The application of the path-goal leadership approach to missionaries, focusing on employee motivation, coaching, and personal satisfaction, is particularly relevant. It highlights the unique challenges and dynamics faced by missionaries and how leadership can play a crucial role in supporting them.

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