On the nature of leadership

Who’s the boss?

A search for available resources at amazon.com yields a staggering 191’959 titles for “leadership” and 31’966 for ‘Christian leadership’.[i]  I think Crawford Loritts is stating it mildly when he writes “We’ve made too much of leadership”[ii] – I’d prefer to say “this generation idolizes leadership.” It is therefore hard to imagine that nearly fifty years ago Oswald Sanders opened his book on Spiritual Leadership with this statement: “Most Christians have reservations about aspiring to leadership; they are unsure about whether it is truly right for a person to want to be a leader.” [iii]  I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved on from that hesitation.

At the core of our leadership craze is the rebellion that certain individuals have the right to decide what everyone else must to do.  It’s not just democracy where each person has the right to make their opinion heard – rather, each person wants be their own little leader. This off course is not new: everyone who ever raised a toddler or a teenager has come face-to-face with the fight for self-governance.  In fact one whole book in the Bible was dedicated to show the destructive nature of a generation without wholesome leadership: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  (Judges 17:16).  History is a good teacher: nations do well when there is healthy governance, but simple observation of your immediate environment reveals the same conclusion when one considers good fathers and the health of the family, good headmasters and the health of the pupils and good bosses and the prosperity of the staff and company. Maxwell is right when he says “everything rises and falls on leadership.” [iv]

What makes someone a leader?

Leadership has been defined very widely, from “influencing others to most effectively achieve a defined mission together,”[v] “an invitation to greatness that we extend to others,”[vi] to “moving God’s people on to God’s agenda”[vii] and many more.  In spite of all these writings, not listing leadership schools and seminars, there seems to be confusion as to what makes for a successful leader[viii] and subsequently that the church is failing to produce much-needed leaders.[ix],[x],[xi]

Having so many opinions and definitions on the nature of leadership one has to ask “what is this author’s view of a leader?”

A few years ago I did a study one the nature of leadership, specifically focussing on Christian authors.  I will summarise those findings here and give my own brief conclusion at the end.

Four Approaches to Leadership

A study of leadership literature revealed four basic approaches to the topic of leadership: in pursuit of leadership one has to either do something, become someone, receive something or respond to something.

The first approach could be referred to as the skills approach.  This has been dominant in leadership literature (both secular and Christian) and essentially states that to be good at leadership you have to do the following… It primarily argues that people who were successful at leading had a common set of traits or skills which made them effective leaders.

A second common approach to leadership speaks to the character or identity of the person, arguing that skills alone does not make the leader. Leadership has to do with the core of your being – some characteristics and values that you embrace that set you apart and make you attractive and thus influential as a person.  This will be referred to as the character approach.

A third approach is that leadership is a spiritual gift supernaturally deposited to a select few individuals, entrusted to manage the Church on behalf of Jesus. This is often referred to as spiritual leadership.

A fourth distinguishable approach to leadership is the responsive approach, what some call battlefield leadership – a much more recent approach in literature.  This approach argues that although one can (and should) grow in both skills and character, no amount of training or maturing will make one a leader – responding to an instruction or stepping up in a situation sets the leader apart.  It is in taking the lead that you become the leader.


The skills approach

This approach towards leadership is the most common approach of older, main-stream leadership literature, of which John C. Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership[xii] is a pointing example.  In his book Maxwell calls these leadership laws “abilities” or skills which, he insists, anyone could acquire.

These well-known laws include seeking a genuine connection with followers to obtain more effective influence, while building a diverse team but ensuring unity in vision. It emphasises planning and timing, selfless serving and giving, earning and showing respect, adding value to your constituency and ensuring succession.  Although the crux of these laws is situated in skills and abilities, Maxwell does acknowledge that some leaders are more gifted than others and that leadership requires the character qualities of courage and loyalty.

In the research for his book 9 Things a Leader Must Do, Henry Cloud also found that great leaders (whom he calls déjá vu leaders) were successful not because of who they are, but because of what they do.[xiii]  They shared similar behavioural patterns that could be learned.[xiv]  These traits are self-discovery, departing from all negative stimuli, evaluating decisions in the light of it’s long-term effects, a mindset of continuous improvement, a step-by-step approach to realizing big dreams, developing the ability to hate the right things well, giving back more than you have received, projecting yourself in truth and to not make decisions based on other people’s perceptions or feelings.

Concerning these traits, Bill Hybels writes that “laws of leadership are really just descriptions of hard-learned lessons that, for hundreds of years, leaders have come to view as valuable guides towards mission achievement.”However, he warns that these principles we inherited from previous leaders are not divine or inerrant and should therefore only be used as guidelines towards effective leading.

Andy Stanley follows this approach to leadership when he writes on strategic leadership in 7 Practices of Effective Ministry,[xvi] and says that that persisting in these strategic leadership practices will ensure effective church ministry.  These practices include defining clear goals, planning incremental steps, focussing on those you intend to reach rather than those you intend to keep and succession planning.  However, he writes that his approach is “not so much about what to do as it is about what to ask.[xvii]  Still, he argues that it is a skill you require and a practice you apply to be a successful leader.

In reflecting on the teachings of Jesus for his disciples, David Bennett cautions against a skills-based leadership training program, stating that Jesus, in his purposeful training of the first Church leaders, never used the words ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’ (as recorded in the gospels) and taught very little about their impending roles as leaders.[xviii]  He therefore argues that leadership depends more on correct attitudes than skills, and relationships than on instruction or overseeing.  This brings us the next approach to leadership.


The character approach

Bruce Winston agrees with Bennett’s argument.  He writes that leadership does not originate in actions or skills, but rather that the “leader’s foundational values yield beliefs… beliefs yield intentions to behave… from intentions spring actual behaviour.”

Mark Sanborn also puts character before competence, stating that trustworthiness and humility must precede skills: people are drawn to you because of who you are, and then follow you because of your competence.[xx]

In Lorrits’ study of leaders in the Scriptures he found that “Biblical leaders have no common credentials” – God uses anyone. [xxi]  The only commonalities he could trace in these leaders were character traits that were developed through sacrifice and suffering.  To him, “the essence of leadership”[xxii] is brokenness (dependence on God because of a sense of inadequacy and fallibility), uncommon communion (a deep connection as the leader draws on God for resources, comfort and direction), servanthood and radical, immediate obedience to God.  These develop and shape the leader as he fulfils the task God entrusts to him.

In a recent book Maxwell acknowledges that character qualities distinguish successful leaders form unsuccessful leaders because “leadership truly develops from the inside out.”[xxiii]  Some character qualities he mentions include charisma, courage, generosity, passion, security, self-discipline and servanthood.

In Steve Miller’s biographical review of Dwight Moody’s leadership, he notes that Moody lacked skill, training and qualifications and was barely literate when he started ministering.[xxiv]  Yet he excelled in global evangelical ministry and even set up training schools because “he had the inner qualities that are absolutely essential in every Christian leader’s life.”[xxv]  Miller concludes that God uses the “right kind of person … not the right program, right methods or right techniques.”[xxvi]


The gift approach

The leadership gift theory is the oldest one, and with good reason. Some people have the natural inclination to assume or receive the office of leadership.  We see this even the playgrounds of pre-primary children, where small kids with no developed skills or character run and reign as little leaders – even of the children older than themselves!

There are various opinions to the nature of the gift of leadership, but in Christian literature all agree that God is the source of the gift and relationship with Him is the key to the flourishing of this spiritual gift.  God’s pattern throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures strongly supports this view of leaders who were called, appointed and anointed with God’s empowerment to lead.

Hybels’ search for common denominators that make churches flourish pointed to only one thing – leaders with the supernatural gift of leadership.[xxvii]  He believes that “people with the gift of leadership are uniquely equipped to come up with strategies and structures that provide opportunities for others to use their gifts most effectively.”[xxviii] These leadership gifts are entrusted to individuals for a purpose, and it must be developed and submitted in service to God.

Sanders identified three qualifiers for spiritual leadership, viz. sovereign appointing, suffering and empowering.  He recognizes that people have natural abilities commonly associated with leadership roles, but that those [xxix]abilities do not define the leader.  He states that “spiritual leaders are not elected, appointed or created by synods or church assemblies.  God alone makes them.”[xxx]

Henry and Richard Blackaby write that Jesus’ model for Christian leaders is not found in methodology but rather in his relationship with and obedience to his Father’s will.[xxxi]  Although leaders in both secular and spiritual spheres use similar methods (many of which are Scriptural principles), Blackaby and Blackaby state that “there are dimensions to spiritual leadership not present in secular leadership”[xxxii], implying that the dimension that Spiritual leaders have is the help that comes through relationship with God.

Other authors such as Bruce Winston use the phrase “leadership gift” differently, stating that not every ability is a spiritual gift – they may simply be “motivational gifts” or “functional gifts” as used in Romans 12:6-8.[xxxiii]  Therefore he defines ‘the gift of leadership’ as a motivational tendency to want to take charge; it does not imply a heightened ability such as charisma or wisdom.


The responsive approach

A fourth approach to leadership is best illustrated in Leonard Sweet’s book Summoned to Lead.  He strongly disagrees with the common held notions that leaders are either born or trained up, or even that “anything that involves a goal (i.e. ‘vision’) requires a leader.” [xxxiv]  Says Sweet:

“To put it bluntly: the whole leadership thing is a demented concept.  Leaders are neither born nor made.  They are summoned.  They are called into existence by circumstances.  Those that rise to the occasion are leaders.” [xxxv]

This approach to leadership I therefore call the responsive approach to leadership, or battlefield leadership where in a crisis situation not rank nor status nor skills determines leadership – but the one who responds with decisive action.

Another fresh voice on this leadership approach is found in Mark Sanborn.  He puts it plainly,

“You don’t need a title to be a leader in life.  And the simple fact of having a title won’t make you a leader … everyone has the opportunity to lead, every day… anyone at any level can learn to be a leaders and help shape or influence the world around them.”[xxxvi]

He therefore defines leadership as neither mysterious nor elitist but sees it in the “daily response” of common people who choose to act for the betterment of others. [xxxvii]  George Barna agrees with this view of leadership, saying that it is the duty of each and every believer, “whether positioned as a leader or not”, to bring about Godly revolution in their own communities. [xxxviii]  This battlefield leadership style requires bold responses in every situation, based upon sheer conviction and obedience to God’s Spirit.  Every believer is a leader lead in this world as they are a follower of the Lord.

Comments and conclusion

Henry and Richard Blackaby believes that every organisation has the potential to be successful – “the key is effective leadership”.[xxxix]  That’s why Sanders calls church leadership “the most important work in the world” [xl] and Bill Hybels says “the hope of the world” hinges on effective church leadership.[xli]

The question is how to become effective in leadership, to which four approaches have been identified in this study, each focussing one truth of leadership success.  Firstly, the skills approach recognises that leaders through the ages had certain commonalities in practice – both public and private. Therefore, it assumes, to become a leader or improve leadership effectiveness, one has to do certain things.  The second approach, the character approach, discerns certain key characteristics of great leaders, and that to be a good leader one has to become like these leaders by embracing similar core values and characteristics.  The third approach to leadership, the gift approach, acknowledges the sovereignty and divine enabling of God and concludes that spiritual leaders are divinely ordained and empowered, and their union with God makes them effective in leading.   Lastly, in the responsive or battlefield approach, authors note that no skill, character or gift makes someone a leader; the leader is the one who responds to a call or rises within a situation and takes charge.  It is through taking initiative and responsibility that one becomes a leader.

Both the skills and character approaches assumes that anyone can become a leader by either practicing the right skills or embracing the right core values.  Authors that prefer the gift approach are not in agreement though.  Some believe that God has already assigned gifts in His wisdom and sovereignty.  Others suggest that devotion to God and supplication would increase leadership success, while some are of opinion that the leadership “gift” is merely an individual’s natural inclination in a situation (i.e. motivational gift).  The responsive approach to leadership states you can never make a leader – the leader sets himself or herself apart by deliberate acts, but a person can better position or prepare himself or herself for the act of leadership.

Although not every author believe anyone can become a leader, all agree that every person in leadership could and should develop in character and leadership skills. After each of these books and articles were written with the intent to increase a leaders’ impact, longevity or legacy; in other words the basic assumption prevails that anyone can increase their leadership impact by adjusting mindsets, actions, relationships, character or responsiveness.




  1. Altrock C., Preaching to Pluralists (St. Louis: Chalise Press, 2004).
  2. Barna G., Revolution (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005).
  3. Bennett D.W., Metaphors of Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1993).
  4. Blanchard K., Hodges P, Lead Like Jesus (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2005).
  5. Blackaby H. & Blackaby R., Spiritual Leadership (Nashville: Broadman & Holmann, 2001).
  6. Cloud H., 9 Things a Leader Must Do (Franklin, T.N.: Integrity Publishers, 2006).
  7. Cordeiro W., Leading on Empty (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2009).
  8. Dever M., & Alexander P., The Deliberate Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005).
  9. Driscoll M., A Book You’ll Actually Read on Church Leadership (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008).
  10. Duin J., Quitting Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008).
  11. Hayford J., Sharpening your Leading Edge (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2003).
  12. Horton D. (Gen. Ed), The Portable Seminary (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2008).
  13. Hybels B., Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002).
  14. Hybels B., When Leadership and Discipleship Collide (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007).
  15. Johnston G., Preaching to a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001).
  16. Kinnaman D., & Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).
  17. Loritts C.W., Leadership as an Identity (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2009).
  18. Lutzer E., Pastor to Pastor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1998).
  19. Malphurs A., Mancini W., Building Leaders (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2004).
  20. Maxwell, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork (Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson Business, 2001).
  21. Maxwell J.C., The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
  22. Maxwell J.C., The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998).
  23. Mickenna D.L., Leading With Significance (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2005).
  24. Miller D., Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2003).
  25. Miller S., D.L. Moody on Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2004).
  26. Newbigin L., The Open Secret, An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WMB. Eerdemans Publishing Company, 1978).
  27. Reeder H.L., Leadership Dynamics (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008).
  28. Sanborn M., You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader (Calorado Springs, Calorado: Waterbook Press, 2006).
  29. Sanders J.S., Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 1967).
  30. Searcy N., & Thomas K., Launch – Starting a New Church from Scratch (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2006).
  31. Seybert J., Leadership Re:Vision (Carol Springs, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009).
  32. Stanley A., Making Vision Stick (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007).
  33. Stanley A., 7 Practices of Effective Ministry (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2004).
  34. Sweet L., Summoned to Lead (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004).
  35. Tucker R.A., Leadership Reconsidered (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008).
  36. Winston B.E., Be a Leader for God’s Sake (Cape Town, SA: G-Force Publishing, 2002).


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[i] An amazon.com search on ‘Leadership’ yielded 191’959 titles; ‘Christian Leadership’ yielded 31’966. [Last accessed 21 July 2015].

[ii] C.W. Loritts, Leadership as an Identity (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2009), p. 22-23.

[iii] J.S. Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 1967), p. 11.

[iv] JC Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998)

[v] H.L. Reeder, Leadership Dynamics (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 43.

[vi] M. Sanborn, You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader (Calorado Springs, Calorado: Waterbook Press, 2006), p. 15.

[vii] H. Blackaby, R. Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership (Nashville: Broadman & Holmann, 2001), p. 20.

[viii] Blackaby and Blackaby, p. x.

[ix] Ibid, p. 9.

[x] T. Stanford, The Third Coming of George Barna, Christianity Today, August 5 2002, Vol 46 No 9.

[xi] A. Malphurs, W. Mancini, Building Leaders (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2004), p. 10.

[xii] J.C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998).

[xiii] H. Cloud, 9 Things a Leader Must Do (Franklin, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2006), p. 9.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 10.

[xv] B. Hybels, When Leadership and Discipleship Collide (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007), p. 45.

[xvi] A. Stanley, 7 Practices of Effective Ministry (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2004).

[xvii] Stanley, p. ix.

[xviii] D.W. Bennett, Metaphors of Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1993), p.11.

[xix] B.E. Winston, Be a Leader for God’s Sake (Cape Town, SA: G-Force Publishing, 2002), p. iv.

[xx] Sanborn, pp. 56-58.

[xxi] Loritts, pp. 11-12.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 9.

[xxiii] Maxwell, 21 Indispensable Qualities, p .ix.

[xxiv] S. Miller, D.L. Moody on Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2004), p. 11.

[xxv] Miller, p. 13.

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 13.

[xxvii] Hybels, Courageous Leadership, p. 26.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxx] J.S. Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers,1967), pp. 18-19.

[xxxi] Blackaby and Blackaby, pp. 24, 28.

[xxxii] Ibid, p. x.

[xxxiii] Winston, pp.167-169.

[xxxiv] Sweet, p. 12.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Sanborn, p. xii.

[xxxvii] Ibid, p. 104.

[xxxviii] Barna, p. 83.

[xxxix] Blackaby and Blackaby, p. ix.

[xl] Sanders, p. 12.

[xli] Hybels, p.12.

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