What is Leadership?

2022 Jan 23

When I went to Trinity Western University they had a motto about all their students becoming leaders. However, I did not understand this because it was unclear to me what they meant by a leader. And it seemed obvious that not everybody can be the leader; followers are needed too.

The clarification that was needed here matters substantially. Initially in my view, there were limited openings for leaders. If they were speaking of "elite" leaders, then most people have no part in leadership.

However, I have learned that leadership actually is something that everyone can have a part in. The key is to understand how and why.

Examples of Leadership

As parents, Melanie and I led our kids in family values and acceptable behaviors. Our boys looked to both of us for leadership. I am now able to extend this work with my family that has expanded from our boys. What I do is set a tone, live my life as an example, and teach.

I have also learned (especially in the last decade) how to communicate clearly why I live the way I do so that I can encourage my family to grow in that same way. I have seen many incredible things happening in our family in part because of this kind of leadership. Melanie participates in this and has been critical in a number of important happenings. This is not my trumpet to play, but I have been able to be an instrument that is playable. (That is, I am not talking about my great leadership, but instead about the importance of this kind of leadership and that it has produced substantial results.)

In many ways I am following the example that Jesus laid out. He called it discipling. Discipling is not a programmed course of studies. Discipling as exemplified by Jesus was sharing life with people and through that, then teaching them values and about the kingdom of God. note Jesus gave us a value system to live by, and gave us a vision of a future that comes because of it.

Being a disciple is hard work; it is the personal discipline of training to be like someone else in their essential self, whether their knowledge or behavior or personality, etc.

Jesus was leading his disciples to become members, and then representatives and leaders in his new spiritual kingdom. Discipleship today does the same thing.

See also Jesus calls us to make Disciples, not Converts

If you think about it, this approach is pretty much the only leadership that Jesus modeled to us. And yet he is to be our king. note

Uniquely, Jesus' Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly kingdom. (See also The Essential Good News of Christianity)

People may be motivated to leading because they want to serve. These are in contrast to those that take leadership because of selfish motivations of power or control; such leader-first motivation is sometimes called traditional leadership. However, the leader that is motivated from a serve-first attitude does it for the benefit of the group. (And actual human leaders are some where in the middle because they have their own unique combination of motivations.)

Often times those that do not seek out leadership positions are the best leaders. Even Jesus did not seek to be king; that was from God the Father.

Helping others where they have needs (like Jesus did) so that they can grow and have success is commonly called servant leadership. note It is an idea that has respect also in the secular world because it works. I remember a boss bringing up the topic at work to our whole group, explaining that it was his method of leadership. He may have been the best leader I’ve ever worked for.

Servant leadership as a leadership style in organizations goes particularly back to Greenleaf in a 1970 essay.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."   What is Servant Leadership?

  • Servant leadership concepts and activities are often connected with high ethics and connected to ethical behavior.

See also

Leadership is often associated with responsibility for others. However, everybody can participate in servant leadership even if they have no role of responsibility. Even people at the bottom tier of responsibility in life can still lead by the example of their own life and by the weight of their influence in the groups they inhabit.

I remember reading that good CEOs (among other things) cast a vision of a future for their organization. They spend a substantial part of their effort on developing values and goals toward this future, and then working to influence their people to adopt them. note

Goals are not value-free.

Any goal inherently is based on value assumptions. At minimum, the value would be that the chosen goal is more desirable than excluded goals. The leader must convince his people of this value.

However, there are often many other values assumed into goals. This is true whether it is valuing reputation, money, power, or instead an altruistic end.

If the people being led agree with and adopt the values inherent in goals, they will be more motivated to achieve the goal than if they are dissonant with the values.

 

Some jobs of leadership have different amounts of weight on values and goals, but all include some element of both. Leading a corporation will have high emphasis on achieving the goals. Since goals are not value free, values will inherently be included.

Some people seem to think that corporations don't hold values; that they exist only to generate income. However if so, that itself is a direct value. (This I believe is a problem with current corporate law, in that corporations are bound primarily to develop a return for their investors, and are not officially expected to add other positive value to society.)

I work for a corporation and every year I justify in my performance review process that I had company values and how I behaved over the year in demonstrating company values. (These are decent people-respecting values.) To my employer, it is not enough to get the job done; it matters how you did it. My company happens to be explicit in their promotion of work place values. They are acknowledging what other corporations sometimes do not.

Developing visions of the future for an organization is something that inherently must be customized to the group being led. And it is an aspect of leadership that scales according to size of the group. For instance, middle managers develop out the vision of their group within what the CEO has projected. And individual contributors develop the vision of their own work within the larger goals given to them.

In leadership and in personal action, values are an important motivator. Whether a person is leading or making personal choices, values are the driver of their choices. Values also are an aspect that are equally important across the range from leader to individual because good ethical values matter at every level. Next, the activity of goal-setting scales over this range. The scope of goals changes, but the skill to develop goals is needed at every level of action. Finally, without values and goals in common with others, we accomplish very little.

Defining Leadership

So what is leadership? Leadership is projecting a vision to others of desired values and goals, and influencing them toward adopting and then acting by those values to accomplish the goals. note

It is important that my definition includes aspects about value. This partly clarifies how leadership is accomplished and makes it more actionable. (You convince someone to work together with you toward a shared goal because they also have become motivated by the value that you promote.) Note that no goals are value-free.

 

I looked up other leadership definitions; the dictionary one was not very helpful ("the action of leading a group of people or an organization").

However, my definition is compatible with other working ones that I found, such as:

"Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal." Forbes

This next one is not a definition of leadership, however, it is useful because it speaks about two important related things: position and action.

"Leaders are people in positions of influence or who have skills and talents for guiding and organizing people."

This one was a definition about the people in leadership, so it looks at the idea a little differently, but it relates favorably to other things I discuss here.

 

This definition does not speak to styles of leadership or about leadership skills. Note that there are a range of styles. Skills in leadership can be learned.

Of course the values that are being promoted to others matters a lot! They need to be values that are good for others (or else damage and conflict will result).

Again, I’ll look to the example of Jesus. We are told (Romans 12) that Jesus best represents God to us. The primary value that Jesus represented to us was that of beneficial love, a sacrificial love for others. Because this is the value that motivated Jesus we can know that this value is God’s motivating value (John 3:16, I John 4:8). note

This is expanded on in What is God's Primary Motivating Value?.

If we are to be followers (that is, disciples) of Jesus we also then must adopt this value as our motivating value.

Of course the values that we hold are in a hierarchy of some kind within us. We might like both ice cream and chocolates, but maybe chocolates more. However, if we are motivated by the value of beneficial love, we may give our chocolate to another person.

If we have self-sacrificial love at the top of our hierarchy of values, we will chose for the benefit of others and this does away with conflicts over values. It does away with conflicts inside us and it does away with conflicts with others. When this value is shared in common then everyone can lead at the same time without chaos or conflict because all are motivated the same way.

Leadership in Groups

So again, leadership is casting a vision of desired values and goals and influencing others toward adopting and then implementing those values in life for accomplishing the goals. When all in a group share motivating top-level values and goals, they will all work towards the same ends.

You could think of these shared things as a virtuous peer pressure. Everyone encourages and leads their neighbor in the shared direction.

Leadership in groups includes aspects of responsibility and command. Sometimes a person is assigned with responsibility to a role as a group leader. (Often in this case they are also given some level of command authority.) However, sometimes a person in a group can have perceived authority and is able to change the direction of the group because of the general acceptance of the role they play. (And then a level of command authority sometimes comes by mutual consent.)

There are multiple styles of leadership (half a dozen or more depending on your sources). note These have some overlap with the serve-first vs leader-first range (although they are not the same thing). The styles also have some connection to the personality of the person leading. All styles in their actions still work by promoting values and goals to other people.

Importantly, effective group leading is a skill, and therefore with practice it can be learned. Of course it also is helpful if a person has talents for leading which can be trained. note

I did not talk much about the part of group leadership that consists of developing a vision for the future of an organization and then casting and influencing a group toward that vision. This role is something that often is available to more limited numbers of people and often is something that is more talent-driven. That is, if an organization is able to recruit a range of people, then they select their group leaders from those with talent (often trained) for developing plans for the future.

However, developing a deep resource shelf of leaders must start by working with everybody. If everybody is taught and has training of their leadership talents, then more leaders will be available from which to select.

I think everybody should be trained in leadership skills because everybody has places where they can lead. We need to teach (all) our people about what leadership is, and that it scales from individual levels to coordinating roles in larger groups. And we need to teach that everyone is needed in leadership around the values that we all share. Also by training everyone, we might better identify those with leadership talents.

Leadership in the Church

Especially for the church, I think there is a problem when leadership is seen as limited to the few instead of existing in a very broad range of roles. This leads to incorrect expectations and behaviors. We don’t all know what leadership is (including sometimes the “leaders”). Because many in the church can’t correctly articulate what leadership is, they aren’t able to teach it to others. (If asked, they may think it is command position, but that actually isn’t leadership.) This lack of clarity hinders everybody.

In the church, Jesus is our king, our leader. Jesus leads by giving a desired value system to us (by example and by teaching). He asks us to adopt it, influencing us to implement that value in our living with the goal of extending the Kingdom of God. We should all do this same thing, and when we do, we also are leading. If you think about it, as our leader, Jesus even commands us to this kind of leadership because we are to emulate him; we are to live like him.

The church should be teaching the value of sacrificial love for the benefit of others as its most important premise (because this is what most makes us look like Jesus). The church also should have a clear expectation that everyone can and should become more like Jesus by how they incorporate this value into their everyday living. Note that by Jesus’ teaching, the evidence of this value in the lives of people is the metric by which we can know if they are Christian (John 13:34-35). note

The church is the place where this kind of all-participatory peer leadership is most possible because we all are to follow the same example in Jesus. Therefore, the church should teach leadership by everyone, and leading by the promotion of this value of beneficial love to others. (And having this expectation from top to bottom in the church will prevent many troubling issues.) We are all to be servant leaders like Jesus. Then all in the church will work towards the same end. note

Which end is: extending the spiritual Kingdom of God.

Jesus' kingdom is identified by a value of sacrificial love for others.

However, the church often does a poor job of doing leadership, both with the the leaders it selects and to what they lead. This is because one of the greatest problems in Christianity is the Christians. They are often not very good representatives of what Jesus has taught us. However, if someone plays Bach badly, we don’t blame Bach.

If the player practices their performance to improve, they might do better later to represent Bach. The same is true of our Christian practice. We need to keep our eye on Jesus and practice being like him because we also are motivated like him.

Conclusion

Good leadership is enabled by knowing what it is about and how it works. An important point is that leadership starts from values, and leadership comes from promoting values and goals. As followers of Jesus, the primary value we should promote came to us from him: sacrificial love for the benefit of others. Good human leadership is projecting to others a vision of good values and goals and influencing them toward adopting and acting in their life by these values to accomplish the goals.

 


The value system concepts and perspective on the gospel that are on this page are based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.

2022-01-23 updated 2022-03-18   © 2022 Larry Grove