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

What’s a Leader? Really?

Written by: on November 13, 2013

To be honest, Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice is one book I never saw myself reading a million years.  This is because of two long held assumptions: 1). Jesus is a good enough role model for a leader, why look any further?  2). What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem?  I mean, this is not just a book about leadership, it is book about business leadership.  I fully expected not to resonate with this book.

I found this book hard going, as so many of essays are very specific in their focus and scholarly in their approach.  In short, they are dealing in a language, culture and issues that I have little connection (I mean, balancing my check book is a struggle, let along knowing how corporations and NGOs operate and what CEOs really do).   As the editors make clear, this book seeks to contribute to the development of scholarly research on leadership.[i] So, it isn’t for the faint of heart (or the “business-challenged”).

What immediately surprised me was the fact that there is no agreement about what constitutes a leader.  Honestly, in my simplistic and sheltered world, a leader is leader, period.  I didn’t realize that anyone needed to ask this question.  But this book seriously confronts questions of what exactly is a leader? How does a leader lead? And, how much influence does a leader really have?   It is clear from the book that finding an answer wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, many writers claimed that the CEO really has little influence due to a number of constraints, including the corporate culture and the influences of managers, resources and opportunities.  As Nohria and Khurana state, “…the reality is that many organization events are not driven by individual actors, but are derived from and perhaps even determined by the organizations environment.”[ii] suggesting that an organization’s leader is like “the driver of a skidding car.”[iii]  In light of recent bank and corporation failures, this begs anew the question of who is really to blame?  For me, the answer seemed pretty straightforward: The guy in charge!  But, in light of these essays, a broader view must be taken of the entire corporate culture, the resource and opportunities available, along with personality and style of the leader, and even the cultural context outside the corporation, to determine possible causes (or blame) for the failures (or successes) of any organizations.

I found the questions of “what is a leader” and “what is his/her ability to influence an organization” to have important application for the church.  I was reminded of a sad situation that my church went through about fifteen years ago.  The church had just fired a head minister because of problems in the church. After a long search, a man in his early 30s rose to the top of the candidates.  Let’s call him Bob. I would liken Bob to a really good used car salesman: He could sell you anything!  He promised that if he were hired, the church would grow from 120 to 500 in five years, causing everyone to salivate.  It was like watching Jim Jones pass around Kool-Aid.  He was a great talker, but no one asked the “how” question: How was he going to be succeed where the last guy failed?  Or were there other issues involved that prevented the church from growing?  I had come to see over the years that a church’s culture and resources were just as important in determining growth as was who was in the drivers seat. This was a church whose culture was stuck in the 1950s, located in a university town with a membership primarily of blue-collar workers, who were now hiring their third head minister in about five years.  I knew that Bob could make all the promises he wanted, but I saw no indication that he could deal with these systemic and cultural issues in the church.

When I brought these doubts to the leadership of the church, all saw me as a nay-sayer. They hired him (which shows how much influence I had!).  After four years, the church had lost about a third of its membership and Bob was hired by another church split within three years.

This illustrates why it is vital for the church to ask “what is a leader,” especially in the context of the local church. The movement over the last few years seems to be for churches to be built around “big personalities” have the midis touch for growing churches.  Sadly, a lot of smaller churches believe that if they just had the right guy at the top, then their church will also grow.  But, as these essays suggest, the culture (attitudes, history), the resources (money, infrastructure, people) and the quality of managers (elders and deacons) within an organization are all possible “factors that affect the amount of impact that CEOs can have.”[iv]  It is no wonder that Paul maintained a focus on all the members of the body as important for the church to function and grow.  This focus requires the entire church to wrestle with issues as health, growth and functioning, rather than assuming that responsibility falls solely on the head guy. It would seem like a positive step forward for churches to understand the effectiveness of a church is not always about the personality or charisma of the “head minister,” but involves a multitude of factors, including the culture of the church, the health and ability of the members to work together, and the resources available.  As in the corporate world, also with the church, there is no quick fixes, no right person who can fix it all.  The need to a holistic approach to leadership and church organization might be a lesson that a lot of smaller (and bigger) churches could benefit.

[i] Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, “Advancing Leadership Theory and Practice,” in  Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 81, Kindle.

[ii] Ibid., 146.

[iii] Ibid., 150.

[iv] Noam Wasserman, Bharat Anand and Nitin Nohria, “What Does Leadership Matter?” in  Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 724, Kindle.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

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