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

Theoretical Leadersmiths, Differentiated Practitioners, and Eco Steward-Leaders

Written by: on January 22, 2024

When Pulitzer-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy was asked by leaders at the Santa Fe Institute[1] to help “spruce up” their mission statement, McCarthy took what they handed him and promptly “wadded it up and pitched it in the trash.”[2] He then proceeded to develop a mission statement for SFI in a way that only he could.

While Annabel Beerel did not necessarily wad up and dispose of Peter Northouse’s definition[3] of leadership, she came close. “The problem with (Northouse’s) definition is that it is so generic that it is only minimally helpful.”[4] Where Northouse’s summary needed sprucing, Beerel’s Rethinking Leadership answered the call.

Leadership is complex. It requires an “interdisciplinary approach.”[5] Beerel launches her work from the premise that “effective leadership,” interdisciplinary by nature, “is the ability to respond in an adaptive manner to emergent, dynamic, and complex situations.”[6] Rethinking Leadership is all about “leadership and the leaders we need now,” focusing “on (the) attributes and capacities that support effective leadership.”[7]

In December, I was asked to speak at an upcoming (Feb. 2024) gathering of the Atlanta-based church planting organization I served for a number of years prior to my work with the presbytery I serve today. In preparation for my presentation, I asked the current executive director what he perceives to be the biggest challenge facing the pastors and church planters in the room. His response did not take long: For the pastors/planters: “Resilience.” For the church/organization: “Unwillingness/inability to lead and make hard decisions.”

Beerel’s book addresses these challenges.

Not only does Beerel dive into the theories behind various leadership approaches, including organizational development and change, she addresses the capacities that an effective leader needs in order to be sustained and whole. Given the complexities of organizational leadership and the need for healthy, self-aware leaders, somehow I want to weave together the themes covered by Beerel, in addition to what we’ve already read from Eve Poole, Edwin Friedman, and Simon Walker.

Theoretical Leadersmiths

“There is nothing as practical as good theory.” – Kurt Lewin[8]

Like Dr. Poole (Leadersmithing)[9], Beerel addresses the role that apprenticeship once played in connecting the dots between leadership’s theory and practice. “In the olden days, apprentices learned from master craftsmen who were deeply versed in the knowledge of their craft. If we take the example of making a chair, this requires knowing how to accomplish that goal through origination, understanding of function, and creating a working design. Here, we see how theory and practice thus work together.”[10] In my February presentation, I want to highlight the importance of apprenticeship and talk briefly about pastoral / church planting residencies.

But it is Beerel’s references to Kurt Lewin, woven throughout Rethinking Leadership, that I’d like to explore a bit more. Lewin was the early 20th-century psychologist that employed the use of what he called “Action Research” (AR) in organizational development. In AR, “subjects are engaged in a circular process in which they gain an understanding of their behaviors and practices through critical self-reflection.”[11] In organizational change, the ultimate aim or goal of AR is “to improve (the organization) and to involve (its stakeholders).”[12] When I started consulting in the mid/late 2000s, I became somewhat familiar with AR / Participatory Action Research and forms of AR like cooperative inquiry. I want to re-visit Lewin’s AR model (Analysis, Planning, Execution, Observing, Reflect and Repeat)[13] and determine what might be helpful for the organization going forward. If time allows in my presentation, I’d like to introduce some tools and exercises that correlate with AR.

Differentiated Practitioners

Resilient leaders are well-differentiated leaders. Beerel echoes Friedman in her conclusion about the kind of leaders we need now, writing, “Leadership in radically uncertain times requires someone who strives for wholeness, who is grounded and authentic, and who is deeply engaged with life.”[14] Consider Beerel’s leadership requirements in relation to Friedman’s definition of a well-differentiated leader. We’ve all read it, but I’ll reference it nonetheless in the notes below.[15] Friedman’s work, particularly the importance of “non-anxious presence,” has made its way through the Atlanta organization’s network in recent times, and I want to build on this in my presentation. Additionally, I’d like to address Walker’s undefended leader whose identity doesn’t rest in the applause of their congregants or the community but rather in “an Other.”[16]

Eco Steward-Leaders

Last week I met with a pastor who talked about the reality that, in some sense, everyone is called to lead. Think about Genesis 1:26-28. The creation mandate involves stewarding the earth…cultivating it in a way that God is glorified, our neighbor benefits, and creation flourishes. The mandate applies to the whole of humanity and all of our endeavors, and in that sense, everyone has a part to play, rightly relating to God, self, neighbor, and the planet. Everyone “leads.” In a fallen world, of course, we see a distortion of this. Nonetheless, Beerel seems to agree with the every-person-can-lead framework, stating, “Everyone has the potential to exercise leadership, and everyone leads their own lives. Some do it more effectively than others.”[17]

What about ecosystems? Just as biological ecosystems are made up of symbiotic living things, there seems to be “a symbiotic relationship between leadership and the organization as a system and that the system affects leadership as much as leadership affects the system.”[18]

What about ecology (and economics)? Yes, Simon Walker gave us the metaphor of an ecology of power,[19] but Beerel adds both ecological and economic responsibilities of leaders today, leaders who must “care for nature,” in addition to “shift(ing) the focus on shareholders and stock prices to concern for all their stakeholders (including)…greater attention to the environment.” Beerel adds, “The social and economic consequences of (the) drive for revenues and profits are significant.”[20]

When it comes to the leader and the exercise of leadership, we can’t be simplistic or reductionistic. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” leadership strategy to deploy. And much greater attention needs to be given to the care and character of the leader.




[1] SFI is all about complexity. Complexity science to be exact. SFI is a creative sandbox for theoretical physicists, mathematicians, evolutionary biologists, and even social scientists to individually and collectively figure out some of the biggest problems in the universe. Problems that require interdisciplinary perspectives and expertise. Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that SFI reached out to their long-time friend McCarthy, not a theoretical physicist but a physics-interested novelist, to help them spruce up their mission statement. The think tank that is SFI realizes that to make progress in novel solutions, even if theoretical, you need not only individuals (and in SFI’s case, particularly brilliant and competent individuals) but also a community. And the community’s findings need to be tested with the flexibility to change and adapt until they get it right. After all, they are dealing with complexity.

For more about the Santa Fe Institute, see https://www.santafe.edu/.

[2] See the late Cormac McCarthy (1933 – 2023) talk about what he came up with for SFI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5A1WcFoxi4.

[3] Northouse writes, “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” (Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: Theory and Practice, Seventh Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2016, 6.

[4] Annabel Beerel. Rethinking Leadership: A Critique of Contemporary Theories. New York: Routledge, 2021, 82.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 5-6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Beerel quotes Lewin in the Prologue of Rethinking Leadership. (Beerel, x)

[9] Poole, Eve. Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. (London: Bloomsbury, 2017),

[10] Beerel, 34.

[11] Ibid., 58.

[12] Dickens, L., & Watkins, K. E. (1999). “Action research: Rethinking Lewin.” Management Learning, 30(2), 127-140. See page 131. The article can be accessed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1350507699302002.

[13] Ibid., 133.

[14] Beerel, 386.

[15] Edwin Friedman defines a well-differentiated as “someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected and, therefore, can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.” (Edward H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Revised edition. New York: Church Publishing, 2017, 15-16.

[16] Simon P. Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power, Carlisle, CA: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), Kindle Version, location 2392 of 2753.

[17] Beerel, 386.

[18] Ibid., 210.

[19] Walker writes, “Leadership itself…(is) an activity that can see beyond any particular situation and has available to it a range of potential interventions, as well as the capacity to know when and how to implement them.” (Walker, location 2211 of 2753)

[20] Beerel, 21.

About the Author

Travis Vaughn

6 responses to “Theoretical Leadersmiths, Differentiated Practitioners, and Eco Steward-Leaders”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Travis,
    Your scope of analysis is almost breathtaking. I was looking at some of my Northouse notes and found them a bit to “pigeon hole-ish.”

    Leadership IS complex and I enjoyed how you brought in the other authors. To be frank I am losing the messages in the leadership book mix.

    You wrote: When it comes to the leader and the exercise of leadership, we can’t be simplistic or reductionistic. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” leadership strategy to deploy. And much greater attention needs to be given to the care and character of the leader.

    I absolutely agree! The character of the LEADER is so important.


    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Russell, the fact that you mentioned my analysis (as “breathtaking” even — now that is an interesting observation, and I wonder if it would be better to zero in more on ONE thing) made me think — okay, so I AM actually “analyzing” things – ha! Admittedly, I too am feeling the strain of keeping the leadership reading synthesized in my mind. One thing that has stood out, though, at least the one thing that I keep coming back to is what you highlighted — the character of the leader. And the books I keep going back to in my mind are Simon Walker’s and Edwin Friedman’s. I want to keep drilling down on those books in particular as being very foundational.

  2. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi Travis-
    Resilience is something I personally aspire to, and want to help my organization with… so any time I hear the word, my ears perk up.

    I like (and agree with) your statement:

    “Resilient leaders are well-differentiated leaders. Beerel echoes Friedman in her conclusion about the kind of leaders we need now, writing, ‘Leadership in radically uncertain times requires someone who strives for wholeness, who is grounded and authentic, and who is deeply engaged with life.'”

    I am curious if you think that the characteristics of being differentiated is the only characteristic needed, or if there might be other areas on which to focus?

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    Jen, this is a great question. I think that the “well-differentiated” characteristic is a foundational one, for sure, and I am so thankful to have Friedman’s material now in my toolbox. But there are some other off-shoots of well-differentiated leadership that I am curious about. More and more, I want to focus on the characteristics of a well-“connected” leader…as in how well he/she is connected both with his/her strong ties and his/her weak ties from a social network standpoint. I’m studying the degrees to which these play into the health and well-being of a leader, but I have so many more questions…so many questions and not enough time.

  4. Travis, I am soooo impressed with you as a leaders, student, child of God. Therefore, I would like to know what/who has had the deepest influence in your life to shape you into the leader you are today?

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Todd, I am incredibly humbled, and I could also say the same about you, brother. I need to think about the answer, as it is more than one or two people, for sure. There were a couple of names that immediately came to mind, but I need to think about this. How about we talk about this in D.C., as I’d like to ask the same question to you?

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