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

This Is Your Brain on Leadership

Written by: on November 3, 2021

In the fable, “Prince and the Sheep,” a young royal took leadership after his father’s death. Drought, disease, and enemies decimated the land. The young prince escaped the danger and met his childhood friend, the king of a neighboring kingdom. His friend gave the prince one hundred sheep that he promptly lost to wolves. His second request for help secured fifty sheep that also succumbed to preying wolves. A third request resulted in only twenty-five sheep gifted. The prince felt that there would be no more sheep given if he lost this allotment. He studied how wolves attack, added extra fences, and placed guards all around. After a few years, the herd grew into one thousand sheep. After sharing the growth, the king granted the prince a whole state over which to rule. The prince asked, “Why did you not give me the state to rule when I first came to you for help?” The friend king answered, “First time when you came to me for help, your mindset was like you were born and bred to be a leader, but the truth was you were far from it. You might have been born in wealth, pride, and power, but you have never been properly educated and trained to lead your people. So, when I gave you the herd, I was waiting for you to learn how to manage and lead others. Dear friend, now I believe you are ready to lead others!”[1]


The fable illustrates the premise of Eve Poole’s “Leadersmithing,” namely that C-suite leadership (CEO, CFO, CIO) growth and effectiveness results from specific practiced behaviors in real-life, ideally stressful, situations. Part 1 of the book details the theory behind the premise. Leaders are not born; they are made.[2] More specifically, real leaders acquire the needed skills through the forge of trials. Poole lists seventeen leadership behaviors she calls “critical incidents.” Practicing those critical incidents before they arise in real-time creates a template in the brain, a “muscle memory,” that allows greater efficacy in the time of the actual event. Drawing heavily on neurobiology, Poole describes the evolutionary development of survival responses occurring when one comes under stress. The brain stores threats as templates for future demands involving survival. Commenting on experiments measuring learning specifically under stress, Poole states, “…we discovered that the simulation both accelerates learning and extends the shelf-life of that learning by embedding it deep in the emotional memory.”[3] Put under stress, people learn faster, create memories that last, aiding future leadership effectiveness.


Part 2 of the book applies the theory, giving practical ways to form leadership behaviors necessary for effectiveness at the top levels. The metaphor of a deck of cards assists in identifying fifty-two weeks’ worth of apprenticed activities for leadership growth or “vertical development.” The second part of the book proves useful as a personal leadership development plan.


Poole’s premise relates significantly to my NPO. The church needs to develop digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z) into leaders for the next generation. Sure, but what best constitutes leadership growth? Speaking generally, the Western evangelical church emphasizes content (i.e. information or knowledge) as the growth goal and the measure of maturity. In my own experience, many people occupy seats in church classrooms for decades but put minimal knowledge gained into practice. Christians know more than they do yet often yearn to learn another new thing. In addition, I believe the Western church overemphasizes the gift of teaching and underemphasizes the gift of leadership. The Western church does lack content, but the need for intentional redemptive action often goes wanting. Have we substituted the valuable ingredient of knowledge as the “win” rather than the application that moves reality to be “on earth as it is in heaven?” A central tenet of my NPO asserts that learning happens best experientially. Future church leaders will be formed best in real-life experiences, not classrooms.


In a TEDx talk, Eve Poole, a theology graduate from Durham University, quotes Romans 5: 3-5, “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame…”[4] (ESV) Peril, struggle, and trials produce positive qualities not developed any other way. I agree with her supposition. I took a typical educational route toward ministry in my own leadership journey, including three years of seminary. During those years, I learned a lot of great information and ministry skills. My first year in ministry became a condensed, crash course about the realities of pastoring in the real world. Many of those lessons came the hard way, through stress, confrontation, and mistakes. I learned a lot that still serves me well. I believe Ms. Poole would say, “I told you so!”


[1] K. Manikandan, “3 Inspiring Short Stories about Leadership you Should Read to Be a Better manager,” August 21, 2021 https://winnersstory.com/short-stories-leadership-1/, accessed November 2, 2021.


[2] Eve Poole, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2017), 2.


[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Eve Poole, “Leadersmithing,” TEDxDurhamUniversity, April 12, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73L1613KDnw, accessed November 3, 2021.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

7 responses to “This Is Your Brain on Leadership”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:

    Oh, I loved this post and what you picked out of the reading. What a challenging thought that the western church overemphasizes teaching and undervalues leadership.

    I’m reminded of this thought from the great Henri Nouwen:

    More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.

    Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.

    But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them. (

  2. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy, Thank you for your thoughts. What if the “thing” younger generations will be leading is different that the “thing” we are currently leading? Does that change anything?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      I truly believe the future expression of the church will be different than what I was trained to do. All the more reason to not reproduce the past but equip and empower future leaders.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Roy, great post. I especially found this statement to be a profound and spot-on assessment: “I believe the Western church overemphasizes the gift of teaching and underemphasizes the gift of leadership.” In light of your NPO, I wonder, perhaps there is more to chew on there. Maybe that is the real distinction… how do you/we raise up leaders among the younger generations? It isn’t about more gimmicks and charisma; it ought to be about leadership development.

    Can’t wait to see the final product!

  4. Elmarie Parker says:

    Roy, thank you for your post and for the connection between the fable and leadersmithing….great bridge!

    I’m interested to hear more about your NPO, especially as you look to integrate insights from this book into what takes shape in your project. It does seem there is a strong interest in action/experience in the generations you are hoping to better engage, so I look forward to hearing what you continue to learn along the way. Have Gen Z and Millennials been part of your stakeholder conversations? What insights have they shared with you and how do those insights resonate with Poole’s leadersmithing ideas?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Elmarie, yes, my Design Workshop got delayed until this Saturday due to not having the approval from the IRB until recently. All but one of the participants will be a digital native. I look forward to being challenged by them!

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