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Developing Leaders for the Third Millennium

Now that we've managed to stumble into the Third Millennium, those of us who have a little tread left may pause to wonder what sort of world we (or our children or grandchildren) will inherit.

  • Colonel V. Doner,
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Now that we've managed to stumble into the Third Millennium, those of us who have a little tread left may pause to wonder what sort of world we (or our children or grandchildren) will inherit.

Will Western Culture continue to root out the last scintilla of Christian influence on its headlong rush to self-immolation? Or will we witness a renaissance of Christendom — a culture broadly based on Christian principles?

Part of the answer will depend on the quality, quantity, character, and commitment of the next generation of leaders. The fundamental question is: will Western Protestantism resolve to produce cultural leaders . . . or will we continue to fall back on an unappealing mix of TV evangelists and politicos as our designated hitters in the culture wars?

Assuming that at least some elements of Western Christianity summon the resolve to produce such a leadership cadre, we might ask what qualities do we need to look for (or instill) in would-be leaders?

Mission and Vision
A leader is a man with a mission: to build a bigger church or a better product; to make a better world (or to find a new one); to defeat a threatening enemy: war, disease, famine, ignorance; to help the poor, sick, handicapped, or orphaned (to see that justice is done); to steward God's good creation (by stewarding a part of the creation: art, science, church, family, business, government, environment, etc).

To accomplish his mission a leader must also be a visionary. That is, he must provide followers with a vision of what can be — of a new possibility — that will ignite their energy and capture their loyalty. To do so leaders often have to think "outside the box": seeing things in a new way, stepping out of the dominant paradigm that denied possibilities. Think about it: where would we be today if a few leaders hadn't been able to defy their paradigm of the day? Consider:

  • Columbus vs. The world is flat
  • Galileo vs. The universe revolves around the world
  • Pasteur vs. There are no such things as "germs"
  • Edison vs. Electricity is impossible
  • Luther vs. The Pope is always right
  • Founders of the vs. Dispensational Paradigm

Christian Right (political activity is a waste of time)

One could add hundreds of other examples, but you get the idea.

The leader must not only present a vision, he must convincingly demonstrate it's possible to realize and, generally, show how to get there, i.e., how we get from "A" (where we are now) to "Z" (where we want to be). To do this the leader must act as a "Pathfinder" or "Pioneer," charting a course through virgin terrain. This entails a strong gift for strategic analysis: a realistic assessment that counts the costs, identifies and analyzes obstacles as well as resources. This knowledge must then be painstakingly developed into a clearly articulated strategy. Otherwise the vision remains a dream the old clich� addresses: "Good ideas are a dime a dozen." How many men have had brilliant ideas for new products or causes, which failed to materialize? They lacked a strategic plan — or the ability to implement it.

Like the visionary, strategists must also think in new ways. How can a heretofore impossible objective be attained? History is rife with men who found a new "path" in pursuit of their mission:

  • Hannibal taking an army of elephants over the Alps to attack Rome
  • Ford inventing the assembly line to mass produce his product
  • Calvin writing the Institutes as a new expression of historic orthodoxy
  • MacArthur saving Korea by his Inchon landing
  • Cromwell deposing the English Sovereign

While these examples represent a rather grand scale, the need to think "out of the box" to find the most effective path is the same no matter what the goal: building a local church or business, conducting a fundraising or political campaign, or garnering support for a cause, civic organization, or investment venture. By definition, achieving a vision which has never (or seldom) been realized presents a complex set of challenges. Thus, the strategist's role is to solve complex problems in order to reach "the Promised Land."

All of this talk about defying dominant paradigms or stepping out of the box implies some strong, non-conformist tendencies (i.e., as in conforming to expectations and assumptions of "the people" or "current wisdom"). Most people are externally validated, that is to say, they are dependent on the opinion of others for confirmation of their direction. "Others" provide key approval for everything from one's career, "you're doing well," to appearance, manner of speech, and acceptable topics or attitudes. Talking, thinking, and dressing like everyone else in one's peer group in order to "fit in," to avoid any criticism, is paramount.

In contrast, the healthy leader is internally validated. He knows within himself whether his work is excellent or mediocre. He knows what he's a master at and what others are inferior at and weighs their opinions accordingly (just as important, he must also recognize the areas where he is weaker and seek out "masters" who can offer tactical assistance for his overall strategy). A misstep here — overestimating one's own competence — can be, and often is, fatal. So too, relying on other's supposed "expertise" can result in disaster. It's a difficult balance and takes decades to master the distinctions and nuances involved.

This is not to say a leader doesn't want to be liked, approved of, commended, or agreed with. It's simply that unlike Bill Clinton (or most politicians) he can live without it. When a leader receives such affirmation it is well received, but a little goes a long way. What carries him through is the courage of his convictions. Conversely, if he has not read widely, has not mastered his chosen field of endeavor or its requisite skills, has overlooked important advice from men of proven wisdom (definitely not your average Joe!), and has failed to learn from his own mistakes, his convictions will rest on some faulty assumptions — and his courage will drive him, his convictions, and his flock of lemmings right over the nearest cliff. In this century alone, witness the thousands of wacko cults (many of them self-proclaimed as Christian), malevolently insane utopian causes (communism, Nazism, etc.), and at least several crusaders within your own group of acquaintances whose vision crashed and burned (usually with a lot of other passengers on board).

A leader is only human (which he can often overlook) meaning he will be ignorant in many areas, some critical to his success (no one can be a visionary, teacher, scholar, people person, administrator, writer, speaker, cash flow manager, etc.). Most "leaders," however, choose to remain blissfully ignorant of their ignorance (i.e., they don't know what they don't know). Because the leader is usually brilliant in a few areas, he is tempted to cover his lack of knowledge with arrogance. He assumes that since he's a genius at theology or physics or medicine, he must be adequate, if not exceptional, in all areas of endeavors: from people skills to political strategies to investment analysis. In this case, the leader's ignorance is only exceeded by his arrogance. Unfortunately this weakness is pandemic among leaders. How many Christian leaders do we know who have missed opportunities for true impact because of lousy "people skills" or "financial judgment," missing links which they ignored or denied? How many political or Christian strategies have gone unfunded because erstwhile entrepreneurs think they're also political or theological experts?

So, what's the remedy? While valuing one's intuitive sense, the leader must be on guard against his most common enemy — hubris. A good place to start is recognizing one's sinfulness and imperfection. Anglican scholar John Stott interprets Christ's maxim, "Blessed are the meek," to entail a "true estimate of one's sinful nature and motives." If one has difficulty conducting a realistic self-assessment, consult your mate! Secondly, listen carefully for "feedback" from how you affect others. You think you're a master organizer, scholar, gifted leader, and saint. What is their experience of you? The dissonance may be sobering. For this reason, and the profound insecurity which drives many to "be leaders," such revelations will be avoided at all costs — including the success of one's own mission. When one's fragile self-identity is at stake, too many leaders will choose "being right" or "saving face" over achieving the stated objective.

This brings the question of motivation to the fore. Why do we want to be a leader? Power, glory, compensating for some internal insecurity? Or simply to get the job done and serve? Here's one test: if you're not as sure as you possibly can be (given that none of us can be totally objective in assessing our own motives) that a given course (political, theological, etc.) is in the best interests of the people you would lead, are you still compelled to lead?

A leader must mobilize people to overcome numerous obstacles to realize his vision. He must energize them through his passion which in turn is rooted in conviction. Today we seem largely to have many passionate leaders without convictions and a few dispassionate men of great conviction. Neither will do. Passion for new possibilities is contagious. Likewise is a lack of enthusiasm. If you're not excited about the difference you can make, why should your audience be (a simple and clear definition of "enthusiasm" is "God" [theos] "en" [within]). People will be inspired by the godly vision or inspiration within the leader.

Yet a new vision of the future, no matter how passionately expressed, falls flat unless it connects with its intended audience. Consequently, the leader must not only have a profound knowledge of the hopes and desires, but also of the frustrations and bedevilments of those he would enroll. He must, in fact, share a deep empathy with them.

Empathy is not sympathy or even compassion. Empathy entails a "connection" which allows one not only to see through another's eyes, but to "feel" what he feels. When we identify with people on a visceral level they intuitively "get it." An astute audience can tell whether your identification with them is authentic or opportunistic. If the leader is authentically empathetic, his words resonate within the hearer: "Yes, he's right. This is the answer." The leader must also value those he would lead. A leader like George Patton or Robert E. Lee could demand (and receive) superhuman effort from their men because at a gut level those men knew they were not viewed as just cannon fodder (even though it may turn out that way). Conversely, when the flock figures out the shepherd really doesn't care all that much about their personal welfare, they scatter. The old adage "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care (about them)" would have saved more than a few pastors the loss of their parish.

A leader must be ever vigilant for any opportunity which allows him to advance or strengthen his cause, mobilize new resources, or exploit a new opening to circumvent troublesome obstacles. Carpe Diem (seize the day) — let no day or opportunity slip by — should be his morning mantra. Consequently he must constantly be willing to take risks, which alone may qualify one as a leader, in that as the vast majority of men are "risk averse" to the extreme. To be successful, however, the leader must learn how to carefully weigh each risk, to have a "contingency plan," to take a prudent risk, if you will. The wisdom required (and the humility to obtain wise counsel) will once again set the successful leader apart from many who would lead but will fail because they never learned to calculate risk or pack an extra parachute.

Large Spirit
A leader needs to be generous in overlooking human frailty and in rewarding and acknowledging others' contributions. In other words, he needs to be magnanimous. No one wants to follow a small-minded, mean-spirited, glory-hogging cheapskate. "And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore" (1 Kn. 4:29).

Another cliche, time worn but true: there's simply no substitute for reading deeply and widely to understand your strategic situation. How did your business, product, church, cause, etc. arrive at its current status? What historical, political, economic, sociological, or environmental factors play a role? What do your critics say, and why? What about opposing strategies? What sort of ideas are shaping those whom you want to influence? What insights can authors offer you about your general context, your own presuppositions, your opponent's worldview, etc? History does repeat itself — every several generations. If we read widely (meaning not just the guys you agree with) we save ourselves a lot of wasted time, effort, and embarrassing miscalculations. Plus, we'd have the additional benefit of being well educated and well rounded. Ideas have consequences.

As I wrote in my book The Samaritan Strategy, many Christians, particularly those with a strong theological or political orientation, are anxious to lead but unwilling to earn the right through service. They want a big following or to be elected to Congress because of their superior ideas. Unfortunately, most people are slow to recognize such "brilliance." What they do notice is that you have your own agenda and don't seem particularly concerned about helping them formulate or advance their own. Leadership is earned through service. When we serve, we volunteer to take responsibility for whatever it is we've volunteered for. When we serve well with responsibility (ability to respond) to our tasks, we are awarded authority concomitant with our responsibility. Thus, the more responsibility we take and discharge well, the more authority we're granted. Sooner than we think, we work our way up from bus boy to manager, from club secretary to club president, from lowly volunteer to press secretary, from volunteering on city committees to being elected to the city council, from altar boy to pope (well, okay, there are some exceptions!).

Who Is God?
Many leaders, in seeking to serve God, eventually tend to confuse their will with the Almighty's. A common joke among all too many Christian staffers goes something like this, "What's the difference between God and (name of leader)? God doesn't think He's (name of leader)."

Lest we think too much of ourselves and our mission, let us remind ourselves that we are but briefly passing and thus will be briefly used. Solomon, in probing the mysteries and meaning of life and calling, exclaimed: "Let us state the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all" (Ec. 12:13). If we focus on Solomon's advice, the rest will, in God's sovereign hands, fall into place.