Nature or nurture? This question drives research in fields ranging from health to high achievement. When it comes to leadership, the nature/nurture debate is usually framed around the question of whether leaders are born or made.
Leaders are neither born nor made.
I have come to understand leadership to not so much a set of abilities, skills, or personality profiles gifted to any person (or group of people).
Instead, it is the good order and purposeful action gifted to a community resulting from the leader’s work.
God gives the gift of leadership to communities to enable them to be fruitful and faithful. It is provided through some people’s skills, capacities, and personal traits.
This might sound like semantics, but I don’t think it is. This perspective fundamentally shifts my thinking about the leadership I bring. It makes me less interested in developing talents and skills and more in the fruit of my leadership work. It enables me to see leadership (good order and purposeful action) being provided through less obvious personalities. It means I depend more on the impulse of God’s spirit in and through me than my bag of leadership tricks.
But I get it. This is viewing leadership in a radically different way. Let me share some reflections on how I came to this view and the approach our team is developing.
The obsession with leadership
Observing leaders’ stumbles has led me to reflect on my own approach to leading the relatively small (720 students, on-campus and online) but growing Australian Christian College in Sydney’s north-west.
John Maxwell, a leadership expert, offers a surprisingly pragmatic definition of leadership as “influence – nothing more, nothing less”. In his model, leadership is neither good nor bad. Influence can work towards a known ‘good’, or the direct opposite, and still be recognised as leadership.
In Christian organisations, leadership can be similarly understood. However, adopting secular leadership principles and practices puts Christian leaders at risk of making the same mistakes as those who don’t know the truth. Sadly, we see the results of misguided influence wielded by faulted leaders too frequently. This occurs when individuals exert influence other than that which God desires.
There is currently a preoccupation with leadership: absence of it is blamed for most problems of an organisation or community. Conversely, good leadership is presented as a panacea for many ills.
While we may relate to such simplifications, accepting them unquestioningly would mean overlooking the broad range of issues influencing group success – and missing the true value of leadership itself.
A “syncretisation” of the ideas and language of faith with secular philosophies and business theories has led to a “Christianisation” of the leadership conversation.
The term “servant leadership” is so well known that it’s become almost passé and is quickly falling out of favour.
I have wondered about the implied hierarchy – albeit the inversion of the traditional top-down model – seemingly implied by the servant leadership idea. Serving one another is a Biblical principle, with an emphasis on “one another” rather than leaders serving their community. Drawing from the Biblical metaphor of “the body”, this model might include elements of “distributed leadership”, but that, too, doesn’t encapsulate everything a model of leadership should.
These and other leadership models can be subject to an underlying question asked of most leadership programs: are leaders born or made?
Leadership is a gift to a community
I want to propose a model where leadership is a gift from God, given for the good order of a community as it lives out shalom (“peace” or “wholeness”) in every sphere of life.
Failure to recognise leadership as a gift from God inevitably renders it a human product, thereby diminishing how we understand and appreciate it. But my new way of seeing leadership also involves seeing this gift of God in a way you may not have considered.
Celebrating leadership as the key factor in organisational or community success, and promoting leadership coaches as gurus, has caused a situation where leadership is worshipped. This is dangerous for many reasons.
This view implies a community’s failure to thrive should be remedied with the exercise of more leadership – more control by leaders, more influence, and more authority. This strategy’s ultimate destination is dictatorship.
Many governments, communities, organisations, and even churches have been seduced by this leadership view and succumbed to its tyrannical consequences.
At the opposite extreme, grounding leadership in humanity can negatively skew our response. At this end of things leadership can be reviled – viewed as a burden to be cast off. Followed to its logical conclusion, when things go wrong, all leadership should be discarded, leading to anarchy.
It’s worth asking, “where does leadership come from?” I have already proposed an answer – a gift from God – but let me examine the implications of some alternatives.
Some see leadership as a necessary evil, allowing people to work together to promote the common good (or at least not promoting one sub-group’s influence over another). In this way of thinking, leadership is a product of community, increasing in response to the complexity of the group or the task they need to perform. It may not be ideal, but it’s for our good. Hence, we want the best leaders possible.
Others, I think, have a more “competitive advantage” model of leadership. By this I mean a view that sees leadership as arising naturally from within a group. People with particular personalities, abilities, insights or experiences assume leadership as those qualities are lived out. It is naturalism – almost paralleling the survival of the fittest. Those who can lead will emerge from the pack as circumstances require.
This view can be “Christian”, particularly in the way spiritual gifts are frequently understood. God gives some people natural skills and abilities that equip them for leadership, rendering them ‘gifted for leadership’.
This may seem to answer my original question about the source of leadership and explain my thesis that it’s a gift from God. But it doesn’t.
Given to others
Let’s explore God’s gifts from a different perspective.
Consider the gift of hospitality, for example. Is it the ability to be hospitable, or the sense of welcome and inclusion the stranger receives? What about prophecy – is it the ability to speak inspired words, or the encouragement and insight the hearer receives? The gift of healing – the ability to heal, or wholeness and health bestowed on the sick? And so on with each gift.
They are given by God to those who need them – rather than those who deploy them.
Coming to leadership is not simply recognising our innate potential – a sign we have that leadership X-factor. Neither is it the just reward for diligent development of leadership skills and abilities. Maybe we do have exceptional abilities, vast experience, and highly developed skills. But of themselves, these are not the measure of, nor the doorway into, Godly leadership.
That also doesn’t make leadership training redundant. It’s important to develop the abilities God has given us and learn from those who’ve walked before us. We’re still to acquire new skills so we can motivate, engage, plan, and care.
But the answer to our original question – are leaders born or made – is radically changed by seeing leadership as beyond such things.
God provides orderly operation and purposeful action for his people through the personality and capacity of a faithful servant. He calls people through whom he intends to provide leadership.
This view sees leadership as a “vocation”, placing God at the centre and ascribing to him appropriate sovereignty.
It assures us he will complete the work he began, both in us and in the people we are called to lead.
Brendan Corr is the Principal of Australian Christian College – Marsden Park in Sydney, Australia. Originally a Secondary Science Teacher, Brendan is a graduate of University Technology Sydney, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While Deputy Principal at Pacific Hills for 12 years, Brendan also led the NSW Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have 4 adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterwards slightly more).