Let me warn you right up front — my goal is to change the way you think about leadership. I do not aim merely to add one more voice to the conversation about leadership, I want fundamentally to change the way leadership is understood and practiced.
For the better part of the last three decades, leadership has been a major cultural preoccupation and a professional obsession. Walk into an airport bookstore and you will find the front tables filled with books promising to make you a better leader. Apparently, people passing through airports have a healthy appetite for books on leadership. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and you will find ample evidence of the same hunger.
If you are like me, you have probably read a small library of books on leadership, attended numerous conferences and seminars, and you likely read leadership newsletters and professional journals when you find the time. Hotel conference rooms overflow with people listening to speakers deliver talks on leadership and colleges and universities have gotten into the business as well, offering majors, degree programs, and even entire schools devoted to leadership studies.
And yet, something is missing.
I was born in 1959, right at the center of the golden age of American management. The ‘managerial revolution’ was in full swing, and America’s corporate leaders were managers of the first rank, but no one considered them leaders. President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, assembling a cabinet of youthful and technocratic managerial experts, largely drawn from America’s leading corporations. Writer David Halberstam was later to call these men “the best and the brightest.”
Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President, was considerably impressed by Kennedy’s collection of managerial expertise. When he gushed about them to former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, the Speaker retorted, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as bright as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
We get his point. Those managers were among the brightest of their generation, but they managed the nation right into the disasters of the 1960s. Evidently, management is not the same thing as leadership.
As a teenager, I was already looking for examples of leadership. I read about Winston Churchill, and I recognized that he was no mere manager – he was a leader of world-changing courage. When he spoke, a nation was given hope and determination to fight a war that simply had to be won – against odds that left even many of his own friends and family convinced that England’s future was already lost.
I cut my political teeth working as a high school volunteer in Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Early that summer, no one had to ask me twice to be part of the line welcoming Governor and Mrs. Reagan into War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale for a major speech. I got to shake Reagan’s hand, and then hear him speak. He did not talk about vague policy goals and political bromides. He spoke with passion about ideas and the possibility of changing the way Washington was run.
I recognized that he was a leader, and that his leadership was transformational. I knew that he believed what he was saying, and I could see that he persuaded others to believe with him.
Reagan did not win the nomination in 1976, of course, but he went on to carry 49 states in the 1980 presidential election. By that time, regardless of partisan identification, Americans were learning again to look for a leader.
In college, I studied political science before landing as a religion and philosophy major. If my exposure to political science was any indication, those folks cared very little about leadership. Every class seemed like a statistics assignment.
In seminary, I had to take classes then called “Church Administration.” Trust me on this – the classes had little to do with the church and a lot to do with administration, but nothing to do with leadership.
I had to create my own leadership studies program. You will discover, and you probably already know, that the same is true for you. I read historical biographies, observed the national and international scene, and began to read the emerging literature on political and business leadership. I took every opportunity to watch leaders up close, and spent time with as many as would give me time.
The Leadership Renaissance
Fast forward a few years and I am, at age 29, editor of one of the oldest Christian newspapers in the nation. I received a call inviting me to join a small group of Christian leaders for a meeting on national drug policy at the White House. President George H. W. Bush was launching a major new initiative intended to stem the drug problem. We flew together up to Washington, and on the plane I noted something new. Almost all of the pastors were talking about someone I had never heard of before. A California pastor named John Maxwell was recording sessions in which he was training his own staff in leadership.
Pastors were buying his tapes and passing them around like the old Soviet dissidents used to exchange samizdat – forbidden political literature. Before long, John Maxwell was teaching leadership all over the country and his books were showing up in those airport bookstores.
By the 1990s, leaders were flocking to Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, where pastor Bill Hybels had started his series of giant leadership conferences. I attended one of the earliest of them, and by the end of the decade you likely could not even get a seat in Chicago, and would have to settle for a regional site elsewhere.
What is going on here? The hunger for leadership reaches every sector of our society, including business, government, education, cultural institutions, and, of course, the church. Christians, along with the rest of the society, were looking for leaders, and to develop leadership.
It was not always so, of course, though it is hard now to imagine a time when leadership had something of a bad name. The twentieth century was a brutal and murderous laboratory for leadership. All you have to do is think of names like Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong.
In light of these horrors, many people began to wonder if leaders and leadership were themselves the problem. Theodor Adorno and his colleagues at the University of Chicago suggested this in 1950 in their book, The Authoritarian Personality. They seemed to suggest that any ambition to lead was based in unhealthy psychological needs and would produce dangerous results.
This mentality took root in the culture of the 1960s, where counter-culture groups demanded the abolition of many leadership positions and the larger society grew increasingly nervous about the nature of leadership. Educators followed suit with classrooms in which the teacher was to be just a fellow learner, no longer “the sage on the stage.”
Of course, it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. It turned out that even anti-leadership movements needed leaders. The nation needed leaders. Businesses needed leaders. Teacher had better know more than the students.
And, of course, the church desperately needs leaders as well. Congregations and Christian institutions need effective leaders who are authentically Christian – whose leadership flows out of their Christian commitment.
The last three decades have seen the emergence of a renaissance in leadership, and the deep hunger for leaders has never been more evident than now. Like me, you want to grow as a leader and to be ready for all the leadership opportunities that you may be called to accept.
So, what is the problem? It is not a lack of interest, a shortage of books and seminars, or the disappearance of all those leadership development programs. The problem is not a lack of attention to what leaders do and how they do it. The problem is a lack of attention to what leaders believe, and why this is central.
This is why I have written The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters. I have been very thankful for the reception of the book, and I am very hopeful that it will help any leader to be more faithful by learning to lead with conviction. The Conviction to Lead is released this week, and is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble stores, barnesandnoble.com, and your local bookstore.