I Walk A Lonely Road
A Familiar Leadership Maxim
It has been said that if you are a leader, but no one is following you, then you’re not a leader. You’re just going for a walk.
This leadership maxim would align with the definition of leadership according to Peter G. Northouse in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice. “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” If one is pursuing a goal, and yet does not influence a group of individuals towards that same goal, then, by Northouse’s definition, one is not a leader.
Leadership Northouse Summary
Northouse expertly provides in Leadership a concise overview of the various theories and practices of leadership. These leadership theories range from trait-based (leaders are those with a defined set of traits) and skills-based (both are externally focused) to situational leadership and team leadership. Northouse provides an overview of each theory, case studies, practices, and a breakdown of each theory’s strengths and criticisms.
Leadership: Reduced to Traits, Skills, and Strategies
In reading Northouse, I was deeply appreciative of the vast, yet simple, elucidation of each leadership theory and practice. There are exceptionally helpful insights and frameworks. Each theory can be applied with its strengths as long as one is aware of its drawbacks.
However, what I found lacking in Northouse’s work was the absence of a theory and practice of internal character formation in leadership. One could utilize the theories and strategies Northouse presents. However, without the formation of character, one can lead people in the wrong direction. Granted, Northouse does write about the importance of ethics in leadership as promoted by theorists like Robert Greenleaf and Ronald Heifetz. But the formation of character is not mentioned. Though this is a book on theories and practices of leadership and not a guide for leaders on how to be transformed from the inside out – radiating goodness, justice, and humility – we cannot overlook the key training arena of leadership as modeled by the greatest leader who walked the earth.
I Walk A Lonely Road
If you are a leader, but no one is following you, then you are not a leader, but simply going for a walk. However, what if you are going for a walk by yourself, with no one following you, but you are going in the right direction? As Christian leaders, I believe there are times we need to walk in the direction where God leads, even if this means no one is going to follow us. Does this make us any less of a leader? According to Northouse’s definition and this popular leadership proverb, yes. But what if there was another way?
Jesus of Nazareth is, I believe, the greatest leader who ever walked the planet. Yet, he had moments of walking a lonely road followed by, well, no one. Jesus was compelled by the Spirit to go to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, prayer, and solitude. The climax of Jesus’ earthly work was a lonely walk to the cross – a walk in which his close friends he invested in for three years abandoned him to walk alone.
Maybe the way of Jesus teaches us something about leadership. It is far more about the character of the leader – in Jesus’ case, this was full submission to the will of God throughout his life, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). And maybe, as was the case of King David in the Old Testament, the shaping of the leader’s character occurs in the unseen, the boring, the lonely place of the wilderness while tending sheep.
Green Day’s song, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, may at times be the anthem for church leaders. When the choice arises between the road of societal conformity or the road of character and faithfulness, we must not fear the lonely road where our “shadow’s the only one that walks beside me.” For regardless of whatever or whoever is walking beside us or behind us, we are following our God who is ahead of us and with us.
Character-Based Leadership in The New Testament and Early Church
The early church emphasized looking at a leader’s character for church leadership, not their skills and charisma (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9). The advice in one of the early church writings on what to look for in a bishop is, “Let him therefore be sober, prudent, decent, firm, stable, not given to wine; no striker, but gentle; not a brawler, not covetous; ‘not a novice, test, being puffed up with pride, be fall into condemnation, and the snare of the devil: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abused.'” When talent and competency is prioritized in Church leadership over character, we see abuse, pride, and great damage done in the name of Jesus.
Training Church Leaders without Skipping the Lonely Walk
Training in character formation, also known as spiritual formation when focused on Jesus, is essential for the development of our future church leaders. This may involve embracing the formation of character that takes place on the lonely walks when no one is following. If emerging church leaders faithfully walk the lonely road of character with their eyes fixed not on who is following them, but rather fixed on who they are following (Hebrews 12:2), maybe God will bring people to follow them as they follow Christ.
 Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 2004).
 Ibid. 3.
 Ibid. 301-316.
 I originally heard this from a sermon by Mike Pilavachi. This sermon has been a great source of encouragement in the disappointing seasons of life where character formation was forged and intimacy with Jesus deepened. C: The Desert Place (Mike Pilavachi at the SoM) Mike Pilavachi, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag4Q99uWOAc.
 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, trans. James Donaldson, vol. 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 396.
8 responses to “I Walk A Lonely Road”
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Thank you for sharing this:
“we cannot overlook the key training arena of leadership as modeled by the greatest leader who walked the earth.”
I appreciate your bold contrast to Northouse…walking alone with no one behind us does not preclude us from being a leader. Have you had a season of walking alone and what was this season like for you? Did you doubt your role/identity as a leader? What spiritual formation took place during this time?
Yes, I think the times in our lives when God does some of the best work in our souls is times when we seem to be serving in obscurity. I had a season like that my first year of living in Oregon. I hated it, but I needed it. I doubted myself and did not see myself as a leader. But I, today, am grateful for result of that time of hidden obedience.
David, I love how you contrasted Northouse’s definition of leadership with the leadership example of Jesus. You post reminds me of the song “When You Called My Name” by The Newsboys.
When You called my name
I didn’t know how far the calling went
When You called my name
I didn’t know what that word really meant
When I recall Your call
It is not easy to follow the call. It is not easy to walk that Lonely Walk and follow Jesus. It is humbling. As you said, leadership is more than just “Traits, Skills and Strategies.” We all follow someone or something. Who or what we follow is more important than how we follow. Answering the call of Jesus can leave us feeling lonely, tired, or frustrated. It can leave us feeling like we want to give up. What do you do when you feel at the end of yourself, when you feel like calling it quits? How do you stay on that Lonely Walk?
I love the questions you pose. Much of my research work is around creating a training curriculum for young pastors to develop to kinds of souls to withstand the “lonely roads” of ministry. Personally, friendships with those outside my church context, maintaining Sabbath and healthy exercise and eating habits, and taking time to get some much needed perspective. Often, we want to call it quits because we are so in the weeds of ministry that we forget to take a step back and see all that God has done (and we forget to dream with God on all that God can do).
This blesses me thank you. Well done!
David, What a great post! Thank you. I love the way you presented Northouse, but then stepped away to make your powerful point regarding character development and spiritual development. You make very good points about the richness that comes in times of our loneliness and the many ways God can prepare us to lead, even when no one, but God, is walking with us. Also, I like how you pointed out that good leaders always remember the One they follow, Jesus. Thank you, David!
Amen! What a blessing this post is. I agree that there is so many truths in that song. I also can relate to questioning the road. Is this a time for prep and connection with God? Do I spend more time silent in prayer, listening, and discerning in my walk? Or is this a season of action and leading individuals? The good news is that whether it’s a season of leading or listening, it’s all centered around Christ so in a way, the road is never lonely.
Do you see yourself going down roads that God is leading – that might not necessarily be the road you thought or the route others near you recommend?
I loved reading your post, David,
Sometimes people can be misled to think God is leading them while other forces take the lead! I am reminded of Jeremiah 17:9.
Have you met such an example on your leadership journey?
“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?”