I’ll never forget my first camp counsellor. I was eight, and it was my first week away at camp. She was loud, she was fun, she was encouraging AND she let us paint her for counsellor paint. I can still sing some of the songs that she taught us that week. Not only did she show me how to love Jesus, her example was formative in believing that I too might be able to one day be a leader. I learned later that she was only 16 at the time, and yet one week of her influence on my life has lingered. Our paths crossed a number of times more as life unfolded, and I caught glimpse of her as a youth pastor, as a mom and then as an ordained pastor. Every time I was inspired and encouraged. Every. Single. Time.
My counsellor was undeniably charismatic, and in camp circles this was fairly common.“Charismatic leaders (are) those who (can) energise followers through their use of symbols, images, stories and rhetoric to perform at extraordinary levels.” As I stepped into camp leadership years later, I recognized that I too could motivate people in a similar style. Loud and boisterous, positive and encouraging, I watched with glee as kids and later staff I led would try new things and grow in confidence and in self-understanding.
It was a humbling moment when my seminary preaching professor warned our class of the danger of being a charismatic leader; that we must tread very carefully lest we allow people to grow in faith based on our enthusiasm instead of God’s power. Here lies one of the most important distinctions between Christ-centred leadership and conventional leadership. While conventional leadership studies and methods, as explored in Nohria and Khurana’s text, are useful to practitioners in the church, they will always have points of tension with the gospel. A leader in the church must always be a follower-leader. First we are followers of the living God, resting on Holy Spirit power and discerning enough to be cautious of the places where our style is similar enough to whatever is culturally celebrated at the time (for example charisma). “As a leader, there needs to be a sense of moving people closer, not to ourselves but to who God is. And as leaders, we have to say, with Paul “In as much as I’m like Christ, follow me” (and inasmuch as I’m not like Christ, don’t!) .
Ely and Rhode identify the necessary shift in style a growing leader must undergo: “As leaders progress from novice to expert, they shift from an individual-oriented identity focused on self to a collective-oriented identity focused on self-and-others.” Christ embodies this ‘expert’ example as His decisions as a leader are always about the benefit of the whole world, for all time. He first models following the Father through the example of individual prayer time and obedience, but then pulls His followers alongside Himself as they corporately pray and corporately act in obedience.
Jesus’ fundamental strategy was to replicate leaders. Avolio upholds this as a value in conventional leadership as well, “Transforming leaders (are) charismatic, inspiring, morally uplifting and focused on developing followers into leaders.” There is an important distinction between charismatic leaders and transformative leaders, whereby charismatic leaders will move an organization forward but transformational leaders will build a movement. For the church, charismatic leaders may build a church, or even a denomination, but transformative leaders will constantly be looking to build the Kingdom of God. The transition from follower to follower-leader comes through an incremental process of empowerment. To lead from this perspective requires that we reject the notion that leaders ought to be selected by a set of pre-determined personality traits (such as a charismatic personality) and take hold of a broader belief that all people can be empowered to lead in their own distinct style. “One of the greatest things leaders can do is to believe in the people they lead. People generally rise to the level of the beliefs of the important people in their lives” ;“(l)eadership is not defined by the exercise of power, but by the capacity to increase a sense of power in those led.” Empowerment in a Christian sense is two-fold. It first requires growing in dependence on the external power of God working in us. That is, empowerment is first an act of surrender and becoming an active receiver of God’s presence. Secondly it is learning to be reliant on the identity that God gives us and thus disconnect ourselves from being shaped by either praise or criticism of those we are leading. This empowering shift is one of freedom. However it is not an irresponsible disconnection from those we lead. Being committed to being in relationship with those we lead, we continue to listen. But,“(f)eedback is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.” Jesus listened and responded to His disciples/emerging-leaders because it was through relational investment that they were being raised up and transformed. Similarly, it was that relational investment by a young camp counsellor that invited me on the journey towards follower-leadership.
May God grant me the humility to be a faithful follower and the grace to be an empowering leader.
1. Bruce J. Avolio in “Pursuing Authentic Leadership Development,” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana 740. (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Publishing Co., 2010.) Google Play
2. Michael Knowles. Lecture given at McMaster Divinity College. Fall 2002.
3. Shane Claiborne and John M. Perkins. Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2009.) 98.
4. Robin J. Ely and Deborah L. Rhode, “Women and Leadership: Defining the Challenges.” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana 390. (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Publishing Co., 2010.) Google Play
5. Bruce J. Avolio in “Pursuing Authentic Leadership Development,” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana 741. (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Publishing Co., 2010.) Google Play
6. Steve Backlund. The Culture of Empowerment: How to Champion People. (United States: Igniting Hope Ministries, 2016.) 12.
7. Mary Parker Fowlett as quoted by Bruce J. Avolio in “Pursuing Authentic Leadership Development,” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana 741. (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Publishing Co., 2010.) Google Play
8. Tara Mohr. Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women who wan to Speak up, Create, and Lead. (New York, New York: Penguin Random House, 2015). 102.