The Crucible of Leadership: Immersive Reality Edition

As we are now well past noon (in the UK), much of what appears in the original post is no longer relevant!!

It is, however, true that ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ is set to hit the shelves in June. You can stay up to date with news via the dedicated Facebook page.

There is exciting news about a special edition of ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ which is to be published in June. In an innovative step, there will be an ‘immersive reality’ edition of the book. Readers who purchase this edition (retailing for £22.99) will be able to use a code printed on the back page of the book to access a virtual reality experience that will bring the book to life. The code can then be used with one of the new immersive reality headsets to access a host of extra features related to the book. The headsets are sold separately but can be used to access other immersive reality experiences such as major sporting events and seminars led by world-renowned experts in a range of fields.

While publishers have been excited for some time about the prospect of immersive reality fiction, the idea of an immersive reality version of a non-fiction book is something of an innovation.

The immersive reality edition of ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ will allow you to relive details of Moses’ story as if you were there. Among other things you will be able to walk (virtually) around the Midianite desert and cross through the Red Sea. As well as bringing aspects of Moses’ story to life, this special edition of the book will allow you the opportunity to participate in virtual seminars with Jewish and Christian scholars who will throw further light on the setting of Moses’ remarkable story.

You will have to hurry, though. This edition of the book is only available if you order it before noon today!

God’s Treasured Possession: Walk in the Footsteps of Moses

For some time Moses has been one of my main go-to characters in terms of biblical material on leaders. I’ve been particularly interested in the way his story functions as a paradigm of a leadership journey – in fact I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past twelve months doing some writing about it all.

So I have had a special interest in Terry Virgo’s most recent book which is fairly hot off the presses. God’s Treasured Possession (IVP) is Terry’s exposition of the story of Moses, from his origin story, with its inherent identity conflict, to the end of his life, falling short of getting into the Promised Land, and further, to his appearance with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

It’s a wonderful read, combining careful attention to the details of the story as we have it in the text of Exodus and Numbers with insights from Terry’s years as a pastor and leader.

The book opens with the claim that the story is ‘a story written for us’ and actually begins on the Emmaus Road with the two disciples whose hearts burned as the risen Jesus opened up the Scriptures in a way that they had never known. The ancient events of the Old Testament have been handed down to us to teach us: God has revealed himself through stories.

We are taken through Moses’ abortive attempts at leading (‘running ahead of God’), through his reluctance to respond to God’s commission and on to the early challenges of leadership (‘Pharaoh proved to be a formidable opponent, certainly no pushover’): we learn that ‘apparent setbacks and even heartbreaks can work God’s purpose in you as you learn patience and begin to understand that it’s ultimately His story not yours.’

We are reminded of Moses’ role as a frequent mediator and intercessor, we learn about guidance, about faith and fear, about the importance of God’s call and commission, about sharing leadership, and about the need for secure leaders. One of the strengths of the book is the way it takes specific episodes in the story, like the Passover, or the establishment of the Tabernacle and ties them to the wider picture of biblical theology.

I’m delighted that Terry has agreed to chat to me on my Leadership Journey podcast this week (it will actually be his second appearance on the podcast) when we will spend time discussing some of the book’s themes. I will post the link when the podcast is available.

Easter discovery: the Palm Sunday donkey

This week millions of Christians around the world have, in various ways, been celebrating ‘Holy Week’, during which they seek to relive the events of the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion. Among one of the best known stories from the week is the story of Jesus’ arrival, on a donkey, in Jerusalem. Christian preachers and biblical scholars will be familiar with the echoes from the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah, announcing the arrival of Jerusalem’s King on a donkey, but it turns out that there may be more material for these preachers and scholars to mine following a report from a international team of archeologists led by Dr Shlomo Ben Israel from the New University of Tel Aviv.

The team have discovered a likely familial link between the Palm Sunday donkey and the ‘little donkey’ which is alleged to have carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem ahead of the birth of Jesus. The discovery hinges on the finding of an ancient journal that is thought to have belonged to a Jewish landowner living just a few miles from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. In one entry he writes about his acquisition of several donkeys that had previously belonged to his cousin in Bethlehem. The donkeys were apparently of a particular type, dubbed by archaeological specialists as asinus orientalis (eastern donkey). The researchers were unable to find any other examples of this type of donkey anywhere else in the Middle East. A painstaking study of DNA material found in the area suggests that these donkeys trace their origin back to the area around Nazareth, a fact that would support the idea that Mary travelled on a donkey from there to Bethlehem. The discovery of the ancient journal then appears to connect the Palm Sunday donkey to Mary’s donkey.

The findings were welcomed by a spokesman for the European Council for Ecumenical Celebration who said, ‘I have always enjoyed the donkey stories in the Bible, from Balaam’s talking donkey through to Palm Sunday. This discovery underlines the importance for all of us to ask, which donkey am I most like?’

Unfortunately the archeologists have so far been unable to confirm the presence of a little drummer boy in Bethlehem, or the names of the wise men. But there is still plenty of time until Christmas. Meantime, work is underway to discover potential links between Balaam’s donkey and the donkeys lost by the father of King Saul.

The podcast has a new look!

Thanks to Aaron (Rico) Robinson, one of my former students, for kindly offering me this new design for the podcast!

Notice the map theme that conveys the idea of a journey. There is a touch of the old, with the ordnance survey-style contours (leadership has its ups and downs), and a touch of the new with the online-style icon marking a location.

The Church and Covid-19: Andrew Roycroft

The guest on this week’s Thursday podcast is Andrew Roycroft. For the past 10 years Andrew has been pastor of the Baptist church in Millisle on the County Down Coast. If you would like to keep track with their regular ministry, you can follow them on Facebook. You can also follow Andrew on Twitter (@AndrewTRoycroft). You can also visit Andrew’s blog on pastoral issues.

This episode is part of a series of conversations with a selection of church leaders, exploring ways in which they have been adapting ministry in the context of the global pandemic.

A prayer in the current crisis

Heavenly Father,

We come to you in in humble acknowledgment of our weakness and limitations.
Forgive us for those times when we have made ourselves the centre of our universe, when we have behaved selfishly, even when we have assumed that our power and our progress are unstoppable. Forgive us for the ways in which we have – even unwittingly – discounted you or attempted to push you from your rightful place.

We thank you for gifts of knowledge and for medical and scientific skill, and we pray for all those who are working against time and exhaustion to deal with this crisis: would you inspire them and help them. Yet even as we thank you for these gifts, we want to look to you as the source of our deliverance: help us to put our hope in you.

Be with all those who are suffering from the effects of the virus – the sick, the bereaved, the isolated, and the fearful: please bring healing and comfort.

‘May your unfailing love be with us, even as we put our hope in you.’

Lord, in your mercy we ask you to turn the tide and bring an end to this virus.

We pray these things humbly, yet in the knowledge that you invite us to cast our cares on you, in the name of your Son, the Lord Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.


The boy grew up: reflections on turning the page on another year

This is not restricted to leaders, but is relevant: something I wrote on how we can take a balanced audit of our lives as we approach a new year.

The other day we celebrated our grandson’s first birthday. He and I celebrated by jumping up and down quite energetically. That’s a lot of fun when you are one and someone else is doing most of the jumping and throwing you in the air: it’s a lot tougher when you’re almost 60 and you’re most […]

via The boy grew up: reflections on turning the page on another year — JS Alan Wilson

Podcast supplement: reflect on your leadership journey

One of the ways you might like to follow up with this week’s podcast on the leadership journey of Moses is to reflect on some of the things that have contributed to your own leadership journey.

Keep in mind that while Moses’ story fits neatly into three stages, your journey may have more phases. Look out for events and times that have marked turning points between phases. Use the second template (or your own variation on it) to reflect on your own story.

 Key stages

Formative years

Exile years

Leadership years

Turning points Intervening against the Egyptian Meeting God at the edge of the desert Striking the rock
Defining moments Standing up for the Hebrew slave Choosing to intercede
Important people Mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter Wife, father-in-law Aaron, Joshua
Crucial decisions Deciding where his allegiance lay Defying Pharaoh and leaving Egypt
Times of testing Tests faced by his people and family The loss of his vision Complaints of the people
Notable successes Courage of others Signs and wonders
Regrettable failures Rejection Striking the rock
Life lessons Sense of injustice and of identity Experiencing the mighty hand of God
Sense of calling Choosing to stand with the Hebrews Call episode in chapter 3,4
Key stages Stage 1 Stage 2
Turning points      
Defining moments      
Important people      
Crucial decisions      
Times of testing      
Notable successes      
Regrettable failures      
Life lessons      
Sense of calling      

Happy New Year!

MicrophoneHappy New Year from Your Leadership Journey! May 2018 be a year of growth and fruitfulness in your leadership.

After a short break, the Leadership Journey Podcast will be back this week (Tuesday) and in this week’s programme I will be talking about the leadership journey of one of the most significant leaders in the Bible: Moses, who has been described as ‘the most important and celebrated character in the Hebrew Bible’.

As the year unfolds, the podcast will include interviews with a range of leaders, including Bishop Harold Miller, Phil Emerson from Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, former head of the NI Civil Service, Sir Nigel Hamilton, and prolific author and former Principal of London Bible College, Dr Derek Tidball.

The weekly episodes will be posted here and you can also subscribe on iTunes.

Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (4)

keys-leadershipThe previous post started looking at leadership competence, the third factor that we can draw from the little vignette on David’s leadership in Psalm 78.

I suggested these eight leader competencies and the post reflected a little on the first four.

  • Determining the mission
  • Establishing vision
  • Maintaining values and culture
  • Strategic and operational planning
  • Managing change
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Team building

What about the others?

Managing change

They say that some of the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies (diapers, if you are reading on the far side of the Atlantic). While that’s an exaggeration, but it’s worth looking at this:


I’d seen the first two parts of this, but just found the third element: leaders beware!

Even if it is not always welcome, change is inevitable. Some organisations are agents of change (fifteen years ago, who thought we’d be using the same device to make phone calls, read emails, listen to music and shoot time-lapse video?). Others need to learn to adapt to change.

To put it somewhat technically, change is needed when there is a discrepancy between the current state of things and how we want them to be. What makes it difficult is that it means something has to be left behind. Business writers Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky suggest that ‘people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.

Which, of course, threatens to put he brakes on any proposed change. That’s until the potential gain of the change outweighs the perceived loss; or until anxiety about what will happen if we change is outweighed by anxiety about what will happen if we fail to change. For example, it may only be when the fear of having to close their doors weighs more heavily on the members of a congregation than the fear of what it might mean to make changes to the format of their services, that that congregation will be willing to change – though I suspect it would be possible to find examples of churches whose commitment to perceived ‘faithfulness’ meant closing the doors rather than changing anything.

James Lawrence uses railway analogy in describing four groups of people who respond differently to change. Radicals are the track layers, out in front, impatient for change. Progressives are the engine drivers who take a positive view of change, but realise that it needs to be worked through carefully. Conservatives are the fare-paying passengers who are wary of change but may be persuaded. Traditionalists are the brake van: they fear change.

Leaders will have to work with each of these four groups, not least in churches. For some of the radicals, change may never come quickly enough, or in big enough doses. At the other end of the spectrum, for some traditionalists, any change is a bridge too far. It’s the groups in the middle that can be reasoned with. Sometimes some of the radicals may need to be allowed to leave. The traditionalists, at least the older ones, are unlikely to leave and the leader will have to assure them that they will be cared for and valued even if they don’t like the direction the church is going.



Good communication is the competency that undergirds all of the other elements of effective leadership. Poor communication makes assumptions, lacks clarity, or fails to make the case for the vision, the mission or the change that the leader wants to implement.

I think one of the most basic failures of leadership (of which I have been guilty, and I have seen it happen) is the failure to communicate with the people who are most likely to be affected by any proposed change. It simply alienates people and diminishes the leader’s credibility with the followers.

Communication can be quite a complex science given the number of ‘moving parts’. It involves a communicator, a message, and an audience. The process of communication can go awry at any of these points. There can be an unclear message – say a muddied sense of mission, a clumsy communicator – say who understands neither the message nor the audience, or a distracted audience whose attention is being pulled in a hundred directions and who are only too ready to put their own interpretations on what is being said and fill in the gaps where things are unsaid.

The leader needs to be aware of these challenges and ensure that the message if both accurately sent and accurately received.

Problem solving

Leadership is unlikely to take place in the absence of problems. Businesses feel the impact of the global economic climate. Sports teams feel the impact of loss of form or of injuries to key players. Churches are not exempt from the winds of cultural change or from the internal factionalism that would be better not there, but too often is. Organisations feel the pressure of a downturn in income or the turnover of key staff.

Problems need to be clearly identified and properly understood. The more complex the problem, the more important that the leader understands its multiple dimensions. Perhaps when Mr Jones walked out in protest to the ditching of the church organ in favour of a guitar, there was more to it than met the eye; a quiet word might have revealed that he doesn’t mind guitars, but it was his great uncle who paid for the pipe organ to be renovated fifty years ago!

A range of solutions need to be drawn up and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to be smart enough to anticipate possible pitfalls with their preferred solutions.

The best solution should be identified, agreed on, especially by those who are most likely to feel the impact, clearly communicated, and implemented.

Team building

Not every leader may possess all of these skills in equal measure. A visionary leader may lack the patience to work out the careful steps needed to implement the vision. He or she may be impatient with the speed of change and the resistance of the traditionalists. There is a fairly obvious case to be made for leadership teams where team members complement each other as they bring their participant strengths and leadership styles to the table.

And of course team means another dynamic in the leadership process. A team needs to be led. Its members need to be managed. It needs to have healthy systems of communication.

And what is a team, anyway? Is it different from a task group or from a committee?

(To be continued).



Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (3)


Over the past few weeks, the blog has been reflecting on a leader’s call and character. A third important factor in good leadership is competence. While calling gives a leader a sense of conviction about his or her leadership, character helps provide integrity and build trust. But leadership also calls for some skills.

What about a leader’s competence? Here’s a list of eight things that need to function well for leadership to be effective.

  1. Determining the mission
  2. Establishing vision
  3. Maintaining values and culture
  4. Strategic and operational planning
  5. Managing change
  6. Communication
  7. Problem solving
  8. Team building

There is a lot that could be said about each of these eight skill areas. I’m going to take four this week and leave the others till next week.

Determining the mission

If you’re a leader, you need to know why your organisation, your church, or your team exists. Church leaders are hopefully going to see the mission of their particular church as one part of the biblical mission of Christ’s Church, even though they need to figure out the specifics of being a particular church, in a particular place, at a particular time. One way to sharpen your thinking is to ask what would happen if your church went out of business!

In their book on ‘mission drift’ Greer and Horst underline the importance of clarity and intentionality in defining mission. Their concern is primarily for Christian organisations that drift from the moorings of their original intention: a clear understanding of mission allows an organisation to stay focussed and helps guard against drift.

As Walter Wright suggests, a mission statement clarifies ‘who we are’ and provides a goal by which the organisation’s effectiveness can be measured.

Establishing vision

Closely connected with mission is vision: in fact, it’s easy to get the two ideas mixed up. Perhaps we can think of mission as what we do while vision is where we hope to arrive: it’s a picture of a desired future.

While we’re talking about it, can I share one of my pet nitpicks about vision?

How many times have you heard someone quote Proverbs 29:18 – ‘where there is no vision the people perish’ – in an attempt to persuade you of the biblical case for having a mission statement? Sorry, but I don’t think the verse is using the word in the way it gets bandied about by leader- types: the point is that when there is no prophetic vision (no one is hearing from God), there will be problems.

None of that should say that a sense of vision is not important. Some leaders are blessed with an ability to picture a better future for a church or an organisation, and that picture helps move the organisation along in its mission.

Bill Hybels is an example of a strong visionary leader. He’s about to hand over the reigns at Willow Creek Church, but not having overseen the church’s birth and its growth – not least in its influence around the world. For Hybels it started when a Bible College professor painted a picture of the early church in Acts.

Hybels describes vision as ‘the leader’s most potent weapon’. The leader’s task is to see the vision, to personify it and to communicate it.

For all that may be said about the value of an inspiring vision, it’s’ worth noting Derek Tidball’s caution in his new book on Joshua the leader: ‘Passion and visions may well be God-given, but they may equally … be misguided.’

Maintaining values and culture

Perhaps you’ve come across the saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I may not have put it like that, but I think it’s a valid claim. We’ll get to strategy in a moment, but we need to recognise that strategy is going to be hamstrung if our organisation or our church lacks the right kind of culture.

Culture is the amalgam of beliefs and assumptions, ‘the way we do things here’ that shape how things are. It’s linked with values, but here’s where it gets tricky. You can have plaques on the wall listing the most wonderful-sounding values, but if those values are not really owned by the members of the organisation, that remain no more than noble aspirations.

Walter Wright suggests that ‘every organization has a hidden culture that has developed over the years that controls what is actually done regardless of the values we espouse’. How many churches say that prayer is one of their key values, but struggle to get people to turn up at a prayer gathering? Might there be a disconnect there?

This all means that the leader’s task is to reinforce the desired values of the organisation, thereby shaping the culture and thereby enabling the strategy to take shape.

Strategic and operational planning

It’s not enough to have a vision or even a clear sense of mission if you don’t have a clue about how to get from A to B. Mission without implementation is fairly futile.

Walter Wright (yes, him again – check out his book Relational Leadership) outlines a 10 step process towards implementing a vision. Each step consists in exploring a question. The first four relate to strategic planning, the next four to operational planning, and the other two are the review process.

  1. Who are we?
  2. What is important to us?
  3. Where in the world are we?
  4. Where do we want to be?
  5. How should we do it?
  6. How should we do it?
  7. When will we do it?
  8. Who will do it?
  9. How are we doing?
  10. Was God pleased?

(By the way, how many committee/team meetings would be a lot more efficient if each agenda item included questions 4-8?)

That’s enough for now – we’ll leave the other four competencies for next week. Though meantime it’s worth pondering whether every leader will necessarily have each of these abilities, whether they have them in equal measure, or whether one implication of this is a recognition of the importance of team.

Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (2)


This is a follow on from the post that began discussing the call, character and competence of a leader. There is one more part to come in this triad.

That there should be a discussion of the character of a Christian leader should hardly be surprising, given the significance of the theme of character in Scripture and the Christian tradition.

James Lawrence offers a simple definition of character (‘who you are when no one’s looking’) and suggests that it is most clearly seen in small, day-to-day things, when the leader is under pressure, and when the leader is in private. Among the reasons why character matters is that ‘without credibility … a leader will have no one to lead’ and that it is character issues that most often lead to derailment.

Then there is this – from Os Guinness:

As traditionally understood, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, character is the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is – whether a person, a wine, or a historical period. Thus character is clearly distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation or celebrity. It is the essential “stuff” a person is made of, the inner reality and quality in which thoughts, speech, decision, behavior, and relations are rooted. As such, character determines behavior just as behavior demonstrates character.

It has been suggested that much of the Old Testament account of the ancient Hebrews could be viewed as ‘a story of character and character formation’. Both Old and New Testaments exhort the people of God to be obedient and holy. Special application was made to the OT kings who were to be on their guard against the temptations of wealth, horses and the accumulation of wives. In the New Testament, alongside Jesus’ general teaching in places such as the Sermon on the Mount, specific qualities are highlighted in relation to spiritual leaders.

Yet both biblical and empirical evidence remind us that while we might be disappointed at contradictions in leaders’ character, we should not be surprised. While many of the OT kings are condemned for their character failure, there is also a recognition that essentially good leaders can also be flawed.

The biblical record has a lot to tell us about the tests of character: whether it’s Joseph and David, two leaders who meet sexual temptation with contrasting responses, or Jesus himself, whose faithfulness in the face of desert temptation contrasts with the failure of his ancestors at the time of Moses.

Both adversity and prosperity reveal a leader’s character and draw attention either to strengths or to weaknesses that will have to be addressed.

Bill George noted that some of the leaders who get derailed during the course of their leadership journey are not necessarily bad leaders: they get caught up in their own success. I spoke to a leader who shared (with searing honesty) about a phase in the early days of his ministry when his public stock was soaring, but his home life was threatening to derail him.

It seems that success can be more dangerous than failure!

There are several ways in which character has a shadow side. For one thing, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader can project either light or shadow and leaders need to pay attention to their shadow side, something that calls for a degree introspection that is not always present in leaders. Failing to understand our own failings, according to Palmer, leads us to find ways in which we can make someone ‘out there’ the enemy and so we become leaders who oppress rather than liberate.

Another, perhaps more subtle problem is that our strengths sometimes have shadow sides. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgmentalism. Yesterday’s reflection on calling noted that a strong sense of call can have a shadow side when it means that a leader is so committed to the task of leadership that spouse and family are neglected.

Samuel Rima observed that,

The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.

In talking with several leaders in the course of my research I noticed some specific examples.

  1. The self-reliance that can lead to the vital quality of resilience can also make it challenging for a leader to relinquish control. The leader may become stubborn or controlling.
  2. The ability to confront (not always a comfortable task) allows a leader to deal decisively with issues, but its shadow side can become harshness.
  3. Similarly, passion gets things done. It is those leaders with passion and drive who are likely to break new ground or thrive in challenging situations, but the shadow side is the risk of burnout or the risk of collateral damage caused to others on the team.

There is this, from Leighton Ford:

Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’

I think the best leadership is that which flows from who the leader is: in that sense it is authentic leadership. I use the term with a degree of caution. There is no doubt that people (perhaps especially younger people) are drawn to authenticity. But its shortcoming is that its reference point appears to be internal while the reference point to character is external.

So perhaps I should say that the best Christian leadership is that which flows from the authentically God-shaped character of a leader.

Which means that all of us ought to be on a constant growth trajectory.

A young church leader asked me once if I thought a lot of Christian leaders have a gap between their public persona and their private life. It was a great question and while I can’t quantify the answer, it has to be some kind of a yes!

Those of us who have some kind of public persona, whether as leaders or preachers, often come across as those who have it all together. According to our persona, we never worry (because we roll our burdens onto Jesus), we are patient and kind, our wives worship the ground we walk on and are so grateful to be married to such wonderful people, we never get angry, all the prayers we pray in our rich prayer lives are answered, we never have any doubts, questions or fears. The calm conviction that we express so eloquently from the pulpits we grace characterises every waking moment.

Whereas if only people knew that our wives sometimes despair of us (I’m reminded of the incident which Paul Tripp recounts – against himself – where he told his wife that 95% of the women in his church would love to be married to a man like him: she declared herself in the 5%!); or that some of us struggle to pray, that we don’t always find our souls nourished by our Bible readings, that our private spiritual lives may not have the vitality everyone assumes, that we get anxious, that we feel guilty, that we may lie awake at night fretting over one thing or another, that we get more angry over some things than we should, that the fruit of the Spirit is not always evident in our lives, that we have questions about unanswered prayer, that we have regrets, that we sometimes get more wrong in our leadership than we get right, we experience moments of self-doubt and self-loathing, that when we cut we bleed, that we sometimes struggle to forgive, or that we have times when we even wonder if we should really be doing this stuff.

In short – we are not perfect, nor will we be until we see Jesus and we are made like him.

None of this should be an excuse for hypocrisy, or for inattention to the cultivation of spiritual character. It should be an incentive for growth.

Ministry and leadership are a gift and a privilege but should not be understood as a ‘get off the hook’ pass in terms of the need to grow in character.

We’ll get to the third ‘c’ (competence) in next week’s post.

But don’t rush to get there just yet – not least if you are a younger leader. Character matters. Failure to pay attention can result in leader derailment with all that entails.

Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (1)


In his book on staying fresh in Christian leadership, Paul Mallard starts by reflecting on how Psalm 78 refers to David:

[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skilful hand.

He notes these three things:

  • Conviction – the awareness that David had of being called and chosen by God;
  • Competence – David led with ‘skilful hand’;
  • Character – he shepherded the people with ‘upright heart’.

For the purposes of this post, I’d adjust Paul Mallard’s terms slightly, preferring ‘call’ to ‘conviction’.

James Lawrence, in Growing Leaders, also highlights the importance of discerning God’s call, developing Christ-like character, and cultivating competence.

All of the leaders I interviewed in my recent research referred in some way to calling. Ruth Haley Barton highlights the profound significance of being called by God: ‘it is a place where God’s presence intersects with a human life.’

Of course the most fundamental call is the call to believe in Christ and follow him. But within that call, one can find the seeds of a subsequent vocational calling. Some people have such dramatic conversion experiences that all of life is reoriented, a new direction and new priorities are set, and it can lead to a path of vocational leadership. The seeds of a call to leadership can be found in their conversion.

Often the call to leadership comes later. Sometimes it can be in the form of a ‘gradual awakening’ to one’s life purpose, though it can also happen in a moment of crisis, say in response to a stirring appeal.

Os Guinness has helpfully distinguished between two kinds of calling: what he calls an original, ‘ordinary’ calling, and a later, ‘special’ calling. The first is a sense of life purpose that comes in response to God’s call to follow him and its implications are lived out even if there is no direct, even supernatural, communication from God about a special calling.

He suggests that this latter ‘special’ calling has to do with tasks and missions given to individuals through some specific communication from God. Reggie McNeal says that ‘the call is the leader’s personal conviction of having received some life assignment or mission that must be completed’.

Much of the biblical narrative reflects the theme of God’s call. From the voice of God addressing the fugitive Adam and Eve in Eden, through the call of Abram to leave the familiar for the unknown, to the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation, Scripture is the call of God to his people.

There are remarkable stories of individuals being summoned to a specific role in serving God. Think of Moses and his dramatic exchange with God at the edge of the Midianite desert. Or Isaiah and his life-changing vision of God’s holiness in the Temple. Or Saul who became Paul: the persecutor turned pioneer preacher.

But are these stories meant to be paradigms for today’s leaders? Can a Christian leader lead without having experienced the drama of a Moses- or Isaiah-like call? How might a leader sense the ‘call’?

Traditionally, within the evangelical world at least, there has been what you might term a tri-partite view of the will of God. Which means that God has a sovereign will – his plan for the universe, a moral will – how wants his people to live, and a specific will – his plan for an individual’s life. According to this understanding it is important to discover this specific aspect of God’s will: what is God’s plan for my life? The answer, it is suggested, lies in being able to line up several signposts so they are pointing in the same direction – the bullseye of God’s will. Typically these signposts will include elements such as Scripture, an inner sense of guidance, the advice of others, and, perhaps, circumstances. Mind you circumstances can be tricky things. For every divinely orchestrated open (or closed) door, one needs to remember that the circumstances were pretty conducive for Jonah in his escape from God’s call!

A few decades ago Gary Friesen suggested that some of the traditional evangelical understanding rests on shaky foundations and that an overly subjective sense of calling is hardly enough when it comes to surviving the heavy seas of ministry.

However it remains true that many leaders do experience a subjective sense of call, and find this sense of call a source of stability and confidence when they experience the turbulence of leadership. For example, a high profile leader told me that ‘there’s a real sense in which when I ever go through difficult times, the Lord has nearly always provided me with such a dramatic call to a particular role that I think, you can’t gainsay that, that actually happened.’

McNeal again: ‘Christian leaders certain of their call allow it to become the center of gravity for their life experiences.’

Perhaps the subjective sense of calling, for example as it’s expressed in Frederick Buechner’s famous comment about vocation being at the point where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet, needs to be balanced by a proactive involvement on the part of the Church and its recognised leaders. Have we grasped the implications of the Holy Spirit’s voice in community in Acts 13?

What is your view of calling? Have you a clear sense of conviction that you are doing what God has called you to do?


Leadership 101: The Making of a Leader


Last week’s post explored some of the questions around the definition of leadership. This week explores another question in the form  of one of leadership’s old chestnuts: are leaders born or made? Apparently a Google search for an answer to the question could fetch you millions of results!

If, with Thomas Carlyle, you subscribe to the Great Man theory of leaders, you’re likely going to say that they are born. They land on the planet, equipped with ‘the right stuff’ and lead simply by living.

It’s probably more than an academic question. After all, why bother with leader development programmes if leaders come pre-programmed to lead? Is there any value in leaders participating in such programmes? On the other hand, if leaders are made (at least in part), even those leaders who are born with an impressive array of leadership traits oozing from their pores will be able to benefit from training or coaching.

Warren Bennis described as ‘the most dangerous leadership myth’ the idea of a genetic factor in leadership. He claimed, instead, that ‘leaders are made rather than born. And the way we become leaders is by learning about leadership through life and job experiences.’

Not everyone agrees, with others suggesting that ‘it seems obvious that leaders are born different from their followers. It is not simply a matter of learning to lead’, or that leaders do need to have the ‘right stuff’ and that this is not equally present in everyone.

Interestingly, a couple of twin studies appeared to demonstrate that genetics do in fact account for part of the picture: around 1/3 of it in fact. Which means that, even if it’s only an inborn predisposition to leadership, leadership capacity is at least partly innate.

But what about the other 2/3 or so? The answer appears to have something to do with an emerging leader’s environment, including their experiences of life and leadership. In research literature these experiences include a range of things like hardships (and that term covers quite a range of events), ‘trigger moments’, bosses, religious experiences, unexpected opportunity, and so on.

One of the terms that has been used to describe some of the experiences that shape leaders is ‘crucible’. The term has been used particularly by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in their book Geeks and Geezers (later renamed Leading for a Lifetime: How Defining Moments Shape Leaders of Today and Tomorrow). A series of interviews they carried out with a range of leaders from different eras led them to conclude that every leader appeared to have undergone some kind of intense transformative experience. The nature of these ‘crucibles’, as they called them, were varied. Some were harsh, others much less so.

They came to see crucibles as tipping points ‘where new identities are weighed, where values are strengthened or replaced, and where one’s judgment and other abilities are honed. It is an incubator for new insights and a new conception of oneself.’

Robert Thomas went on to write more on the subject, classifying crucibles as crucibles of new territory, often at the start of a career, reversals and what he called suspension. Importantly, each type of crucible tests the leader’s resilience and what Bennis and Thomas called ‘adaptive capacity’.

It’s an interesting image (one which I have given a fair bit of time to in research with Christian leaders), though it may not tell the whole story of the making of a leader. An understanding of a leadership journey has to take account of more gradual influences: there is an accumulated wisdom to be gleaned along the way and sometimes growth in leadership is incremental more than it is dramatic.

One of the voices that has had much to say about the making of a Christian leader is Robert Clinton who proposed that God develops a leader over a lifetime and that three essential elements interact in the process. By that he means ‘processing’, in other words anything that produces a leadership lesson, time, and the leader’s response to the processing: obviously two leaders can experience similar things yet respond differently and how they respond will affect the impact of the experience on their development.

Reggie McNeal has written a challenging and insightful book on the shaping of a leader’s heart (A Work of Heart). He proposes that the shaping of the leader’s heart is a joint enterprise between the leader and God and it takes place in six different ‘arenas’ that McNeal describes as

  • Culture
  • Call
  • Community
  • Communion
  • Conflict
  • The commonplace

For some time it has seemed to me that the life story of Moses, for all its uniqueness within the Bible’s greater storyline, might serve as a paradigm to help leaders explore their leadership journeys.

His life falls neatly into three stages, each comprising forty years. The formative years are lived in Egypt where Moses grows up as a child of two cultures: cared for by his Hebrew mother and adopted by Pharoah’s daughter; the middle years, years of exile in Midian, are triggered by his clumsy attempt to establish himself as the rescuer of the Hebrews (how many leaders have had to retreat from grand plans because of clumsy presumption!); and it’s only at 80 that he reluctantly, and after much protest, embarks on his leadership years.

Along the way his life is shaped by the influence of others, he encounters God, he experiences the highs of leadership as well as its lows, he behaves well and he behaves badly. All of these things provide fascinating insight into the journey of a leader.

Over the past few years I have been particularly interested in some of the factors in the shaping of Christian leaders. My interest has been in the kinds of crucibles that leaders encounter and the role that these experiences play in the the shaping of their journey.

There are crucibles of new territory. Perhaps in the form of a dramatic, life-changing conversion, or in a call to Christian ministry. There are the steep learning curves, the ‘deep end’ experiences and the dramatic paradigm shifts encountered by some pioneering leaders.

There are reversals. Personal or leadership crises (and at times it’s hard to separate the two as one spills into the other). Opposition, conflict and disappointment all feature.

And there are crucibles of isolation, where leaders are set aside from their leadership roles, perhaps through illness. There is the loss of structure that comes with retirement. There are dark nights of the soul when hope is almost drained away.

All of these things – painful as many of them are – have the potential to shape a leader. At times they test or confirm the leader’s sense of call. At times they may highlight issues of character. At other times they force a leader to define who they are and what their leadership is about. Sometimes they serve to depend and strengthen the leader’s relationship with God.

Leaders don’t simply drop out of the sky, fully fitted with all they will ever need. For sure some of them seem to be born with a clear predisposition to leadership. But there is a journey of shaping and formation and the best leaders will go on learning.

Reflect on your own leadership journey:

  • What were some of the early indicators of your leadership gifting?
  • Who were some of the people who influenced you and encouraged you to get involved in leadership?
  • Can you identify clear stages of your leadership development? What were the major features of each of them?
  • What are some of the most significant things you have learned about leadership, and how have you learned them?
  • Have you encountered any crucibles? What were they, and how have they been part of your shaping?

Leadership 101: What, exactly is leadership?

leadership-bannerIt was none other than Machiavelli who suggested that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.’

But what, exactly is leadership? One count I saw had the number of definitions running act around 1500. It’s been suggested that, like the ancient proverb of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, leadership has many aspects and none of them by itself appears to be an adequate definition. Warren Bennis suggested that it’s like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it!

The understanding of leadership has developed across the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the focus was on leaders themselves, with Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the history of what has been accomplished in the world has essentially been the history of ‘the Great Men who have worked here’. It’s possible to trace the roots of the Great Man theory all the way back to Aristotle and his belief that social rank was determined through one’s superior virtues which, in turn, were the result of one’s birth.

Not unnaturally Great Man theory evolved into the Trait era (although the idea of traits is an ancient idea). The basic quest of students of leadership at this time was the attempt to identify which specific traits separated leaders from non-leaders. If people who became leaders were different from everyone else, what made them different?

The theory ran aground somewhat (at least for a while) when it was suggested that there was no consistent set of traits that distinguished leaders from non-leaders and, significantly, that just because someone is a leader in one situation does not make them a leader in another.

Trait theory never quite went away with some scholars suggesting that attempts to discard it have been too sweeping. Even if it is not possible to establish a definitive list of distinguishing marks, there appears to be evidence that there are some traits that make a significant contribution to a leader’s success.

Nonetheless, the focus of study shifted next to leaders’ behaviour. From one study emerged the idea that there were two dimensions to leadership: some leadership had a strong focus on the people it was leading while other leadership focussed more on the task at hand.

However this was not enough as people came to appreciate that no single style of leadership was universally the best style, regardless of the specific situation or environment. An understanding of leadership needed to take account of the situation in which leadership was being exercised.

Studies and theories continued to develop: from transactional leadership to transforming (and transformational) leadership, and from servant leadership authentic leadership.

Even if we’re unlikely to come up with a single, ‘correct’ definition of leadership that excludes all others, it’s worth making some kind of attempt!

For writers like John Maxwell, it appears to be the irreducible minimum:

Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s simple and quite memorable, but probably leaves too many issues unresolved. Is all influence leadership? Does the influence of a TV advertising campaign qualify as leadership? Is there a difference between intentional and unintentional influence? To be fair, Maxwell has also been somewhat more nuanced in his subsequent claim that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence’.

Maxwell is not alone in highlighting influence as a key component of leadership. For example, Peter Northouse defines leadership as ‘a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, while Howard Gardner describes leaders as ‘individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others.’ What’s interesting about this definition is that it allows Gardner to distinguish between direct leaders (think Churchill) and indirect leaders (think Einstein, whose influence was exercised through his ideas): leadership may be exercised by word and/or personal example.

I think these are all helpful, as long as we recognise the caution that has been noted by some scholars who have suggested that since few social interactions don’t involve influence, we’re not saying much when we say that leadership is influence!

David Starling suggests that ‘leadership is the act or task of making an intentional contribution toward the direction and motivation of a group in the framing and pursuit of a common purpose.’ He argues that good leadership is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself and promotes interests that go beyond its own.

It’s worth noting how his definition highlights both the element of intentionality and the idea of a commonly share goal towards which a group is moving.

Some of the writers I have mentioned are Christians, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on what makes Christian leadership Christian?

Carl Trueman suggests that trends in the culture have affected how the evangelical church has understood leadership. While accepting that Christian leaders can learn from wider aspects of leadership practice, he cautions that Scripture must determine Christian notions of leadership.

Albert Mohler, a fairly powerful leader himself, suggests that while an obsession with leadership in the contemporary church may be both necessary and understandable, this obsessive interest has nonetheless ‘served to distract the church from the nature of leadership as revealed in Scripture’, with Christians tending to draw lessons from various spheres of secular leadership rather than looking to the Bible.

James Lawrence calls for Christian leadership with these distinctives:

  1. It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
  2. It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
  3. It is marked by servanthood;
  4. It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
  5. It is sustained by prayer;
  6. It is lived out personally as part of the community of the church.

‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is a key factor in the spread of the gospel.’

There have been voices of caution both within the Church and more widely. Barbara Kellerman, a leadership insider who might be running the risk of biting the hand that feed her, critiques the leadership industry’s ‘leader-centrism’ with its implication that those who don’t lead don’t amount to much. It is not enough to focus only on the leader at a time when other factors, such as the rise of the follower, have gained significance, and leaders have less power than previously. In fact, she goes as far as to accuse the leadership industry of being ‘self-satisfied, self-perpertuting and poorly policed’!

David Starling, like Trueman and Mohler, warns about the tendency to swallow the secular concepts of leadership. He notes that for all the talk of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles, there are surprisingly few explicit mentions of the terms leader and leadership in the biblical text. However it is not that there are no leaders or that there are no other images associated with leadership tasks.

After all that, how should we define it?

I think that reaching a definition requires us to consider the relationship between the leader and the followers, the nature and means of the leader’s influence, and the establishment of the goal for which leadership is exercised.

Walter Wright (Relational Leadership) describes it as ‘a relationship in which one person seeks to influence the thought, behaviours, beliefs or values of another person’.

And here is my more clumsy attempt at describing a Christian leader:

A leader is someone who is intentionally influencing a group of people towards an agreed and beneficial goal: Christian leadership means doing that ‘Christianly’!

So what do you think? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • How important is leadership? Is it possible to either overstate or understate its importance?
  • What factors need to be considered in understanding what leadership is and how it is defined?
  • How might you define leadership?

Crucibles of Christian Leadership (journal article)


The Journal of European Baptist Studies has recently published an article I wrote which basically summarises my work on my thesis.

Here is the thesis abstract:

Among terms used to describe the events and experiences that contribute to the shaping of leaders is Warren Bennis’ and Robert Thomas’ ‘crucibles’. Their use of the term emerged from a series of interviews with leaders who had come of age in two distinct eras: all the leaders interviewed referred to a transformative experience that had contributed to their leadership. The aim of this research was to explore the significance of such experiences in the development of Christian leaders.

A sample of fourteen evangelical leaders was selected and each leader participated in an in-depth qualitative interview. Their experiences were classified using Robert Thomas’ three types of crucible: new territory, reversals and suspension. Analysis of the experiences demonstrated how crucible experiences had a part to play in shaping both the character and calling of a leader: at times crucibles functioned as intensified learning experiences in which a leader’s beliefs took on an existential intensity.

The emerging themes of character and calling are significant in both Old and New Testaments and the project reflected theologically on these. While crucibles may be significant features in the development of a leader, they do not tell the whole story: a range of factors and influences, some of which work in a more gradual way, are also part of a leadership journey.

If you’d like to read a copy, I’ve uploaded a PDF to the Academia website and you can access it here.

Leadership 101: Of writings on leadership, there is no end!

Quotefancy-1244279-3840x2160To borrow from an ancient preacher, ‘Of the making of [leadership] books, there is no end.’ Not exactly what Quoheleth had in mind, but doubtless he would have agreed.

Statistics from the publishing industry point to a relatively recent surge in interest in the subject. According to Barbara Kellerman, on average three books on leadership were published annually in the early 1980s; by 2012 the numbers were ‘somewhere in the stratosphere’.

No doubt the surge in interest reflects a more conscious awareness of the importance of leaders and leadership, concern, and a degree of handwringing at the apparent lack of good leaders, and all of it spiced up by the emergence of celebrity leaders across several domains.

Including the church.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the general interest in the subject is reflected in the culture. Of course, the relationship between ‘biblical’ leadership and more generally applicable principles of leadership can be complex. To what extent are Christians right to mine general leadership material for pearls of wisdom and to what extent is Christian leadership meant to be counter-cultural?

I’m planning to post a series of pieces on leadership over the next few months or so. Actually, I’ve got an idea (two, actually) for a book on leadership and I’d love it if some of you felt free to chip in on the various ‘Leadership 101’ posts as they appear.

Among the subjects I hope to feature are:

  • What, exactly, is leadership?
  • The making of a leader
  • Characteristics of effective leaders
  • Temptations of Christian leadership
  • The leader’s vision
  • The leader and the team

There will be other material on the leadership journey blog, but watch for the ‘Leadership 101’ posts on Thursday evenings – starting this evening.

The Leadership Journey podcast (LJP)

podcast1The idea of a podcast was first mooted some months ago. It’s been a slow project to get off the ground, but the wheels are starting to turn: in fact, the content of the first episode was recorded yesterday. The plan is to bank a few episodes before launching a weekly podcast that will be available on this website and (once we get the technicalities sorted) available for you to subscribe.

Each episode will be an opportunity to reflect on some aspect of the leadership journey. Some of the episodes will be me, talking (hopefully not just to myself!) but a lot of them will consist of interviews with a range of Christian leaders who will be reflecting on their own stories and things that have shaped them along the way.

Hopefully the first episode will be available for listening in the next few weeks. In it, I’m being interviewed about my recent research on crucibles of Christian leadership.

‘Crucibles’: a conference for Christian leaders

In February I ran a seminar for Christian leaders at Edenmore Country Club. Three of the leaders who had helped me with my recent research into the experiences that shape Christian leaders allowed me to interview them in front of an audience of over 80 people.

Next month we’re running another version of the event, with a slightly amended team, in County Fermanagh – more easily accessible for leaders living in the West of Ireland.

It will be hosted by Deane Houston and Sam Balmer at the Stables at Derrygore,  Enniskillen and is part of the Stables Seminars for Christian leaders. The cost of the morning will be £20 and includes tea/coffee and a scone on arrival and a sit down lunch at the end of the conference.

Date and Time: Thursday, November 9, from 10 (coffee) until 2.

The morning is aimed especially at Christian leaders and the basic idea is that three seasoned leaders will be talking about their leadership journeys. What was the path into leadership? What have been some of the highlights and challenges along the way? What have they learned and how has God shaped them?

As well as allowing you to glean from the wisdom of the experience of these three leaders, the morning will allow you the opportunity to reflect on where you are in your own leadership journey.

If you’re interested in attending, use the contact section at the bottom of the page and I will send you more information about how to book your place at the event.

The three leaders who will be taking part in the morning are Ken (Fanta) Clarke, Russell Birney, and Roz Stirling.

21768362_1525413160830056_289253881454462859_nBishop Ken Clarke (Fanta) is mission director for SAMS UK. Previously he served as Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagy and before that he served several parishes as well as working in Chile. Those who know him – and have seen the fruit of his leadership – will probably be surprised to hear him describe himself as a reluctant leader! A fundamental lesson in his leadership journey has been that even though leaders are called to be shepherds, ‘one of the big mistakes some of us make as leaders is – we have actually forgotten we are still sheep.’ Ken will also be part of the Enniskillen panel.

21950776_1525410117497027_1200663181432158649_oDr Russell Birney is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and will be one of the three participants in the Enniskillen leaders’ morning. During his years of church leadership, he served congregations in Carrickfergus, Newry and Ballymena. Along the way he learned some powerful lessons about resilience and perseverance in ministry.


Roz Stirling is director of Cleopas – a ministry dedicated to helping folk, through events like retreats and quiet days, to develop their spiritual lives. Previously Roz worked with UCCF and for over 20 years she led the youth and children’s department for the Presbyterian Church. Roz has always been something of a pioneer in her leadership and her vision for Cleopas came about as a result of her own experience. ‘It was that that completely transformed my understanding of how to be an effective leader for the long haul … because of the need for deep inner resources and walk with the Lord. And the fact that most leadership didn’t nurture that.’ Hence her desire to see leaders resourced for their leadership journeys.