What’s the big deal about leadership? How hard can it be?

No one ever says it out loud but sometimes the question hovers.

What really makes leadership such a challenge in these times? I have been making a list. This is what I have so far.


Whether people choose to use the Ron Heifeitz language of adaptive challenge or not, the key observation remains that many are very stressed because leadership/life/church is no longer business as usual. In the church, clergy sometimes feel they aren’t exactly sure what they should be doing – “This is not the church I was trained for.” When the future is not yet clear, how should we plan for next year or even the next six months.


One observation of younger leaders, in particular, is that in a church setting they often feel as if they are in an intercultural situation with different generations representing, in essence, different cultures.  How can I help different groups relate on more than a superficial level? In an organization where almost everything seems to be in flux almost every aspect of life can contain skill issues.


A related stressor is lack of knowledge. Often clergy ask me a form of the question, “Do you know where I could go to take a course on …?” After that the reference can be anything from learning Twitter to understanding postmodernism, the diminishment of the American empire, congregational governance systems to the more general “Does anyone know what’s happening out there?”


Another of those seldom talked about but real challenges is motivation. Take the generational groupings question – sometimes leaders may know, intellectually, that they need to be about this work but, in truth, they don’t really want to do it! Lack of motivation leads to lack of action which leads to the blossoming of guilt which sucks the joy out of almost anything!


Sometimes commitment is talked about in the same breath as motivation but they differ. Commitment involves a matter of what one is willing to give oneself to. A lot of leaders now struggle with (another unsaid issue) of whether they really think this form of the church is worth the commitment of one’s time and energy. Integrity issues arise when commitment sinks into the quicksand of indifference but the paychecks are still cashed.


I believe that great leaders possess outstanding skill and knowledge, honed through effective practices and exercised within a character marked by authenticity & integrity. If one’s life is marked by falseness or a lack of integrity it shows. Even if there is no scandal, people can sense the dissonance and grow reluctant to walk alongside, especially through any kind of mucky terrain.


Many leaders seem to find themselves in a nightmare. They are called up on stage to play a piano concert in front of an attentive audience who scrutinize their every move. Only trouble is that while once they knew something about scales, harmony and counterpoint they never practiced. Quite simply many leaders do not do the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly practices it takes to get into and remain in shape for the concert (or big game if you’re a sports fan).


In many cases, the challenges before congregations and their leaders are huge. It is not unusual that almost any area of an organization needs work – governance, physical plant, relationships, communication, program, worship, etc. When many congregations/organizations turn to their leaders for guidance they often, subconsciously also expect the leader to get it done (by themselves). Can’t be done and work overload, role ambiguity, boundary setting and all the rest quickly come into play.


The resource question relates to the matter of support. How many technical upgrades can one get done for $35? How strong a children’s ministry can be sustained with one person and four felt markers?


At its best leadership is a team sport. Ideally none of the members should be the same or perform exactly the same function. Many leaders though find themselves on the ice surface alone. Instead of six players coming over the boards, only 2 show up. Talk about lonely. No wonder leaders burn out.


For some leaders the major challenge feels like an attack upon the spirit. It is difficult to be a great strategic leader if one does not feel like they are accepted or belong, if matters of guilt (and forgiveness – sought and given) are not attended to, if life (and the hard decisions) are not seasoned by a sense of grace and if there is no hope.

And just in case this is not challenging enough, often one of the above masquerades as another! And they often hang together, feeding off one another! Yikes!

  1. Keith – apologies for what’s to come….

    The note above assumes that leadership can be learned… unless you mean the note above to be a reference point for telling whether or not someone else is practising it.

    For the most part leadership cannot be learned; indeed, the kind of leadership that arises for one context and culture will neither work nor be appropriate for another.

    Maybe it’s just me; my reaction to the list above as well as the stuff presented at places like the Justice Institute is one of guilt. Ok, hours of therapy are in order, I know…. but like Amos of old, leadership arises and then gracefully subsides and takes a support role or goes back to the other kingdom and disappears from the recrod all together.

    At my lofty age with the grey and aches to prove the years, I’ve come to believe that leadership is terribly, terribly contextual, and that the worst aspect of it is when it does not (eventually) take a loyal support role to a new age…. the things listed above, although true – with the possible exception of the one titled “Spirituality”) need to be seen in with the subtexts of context, and the context’s ebb and flow. There needs to be cultural analysis and of the leaders’/community’s place within it before taking about leadership.

    I think I’m up to 4 cents by now.

    1. Hi Stu:
      I’m not sure everyone would agree with you that leadership cannot be learned. Sharon Daloz Parks, “Leadership Can Be Learned,” has pretty much made a good career out of the opposite assumption. 🙂
      That said, I do agree with your point about the context. In the Studio I’m participating in at VST the first two sessions are devoted to “Paying Attention” – to oneself and to the context. Misread the context and you’ll look up and be walking alone.

  2. The “Trait” theory of leadership assumes that leaders can emerge across a number of contexts, while still not explaining why those same traits prove ineffective in others. Yes, two crucial elements in the theory of trait-based leadership can be learned, somewhat, esp. as one ages, and those are self-confidence and self-esteem. On the other hand situational leadership is a modern form of the point I made above, that the situation defines who emerges as a leader, rather than the other way around. The two crucial trait elements don’t always translate well unless one is also highly adaptive to a new situation (like what I assume Emerging Spirit was involved in).

    So, yes, there are plenty of theories of leadership that say it can be learned. From the little reading I’ve done on that side of things, though, I am more convinced they are describing mangement styles, rather than leadership styles, and thus more than likely not relevant to what E.S. was about. I am assuming that what the Emerging Spirit was interested in was “leadership”, and not even “management” in it’s most creative definition.

    In the sense someone or a group of providing some sort of emotional-leadership through what might be called a paradigm shift, rather than a leadership through a fine tuning of or improving an existing culture, might quickly find themselves in such a fast paced changing scenery that it becomes very difficult to learn at the pace required to be useful.

    And, yes, there is nothing wrong with “paying attention”. The main benefit of that is discerning whether one has the ‘oomph’ to continue in leadership in the new setting. Self-awareness plays big too.

    I think I’m up to 6 cents.

  3. This paragraph makes no sense, even to me!…… “In the sense someone or a group of providing some sort of emotional-leadership through what might be called a paradigm shift, rather than a leadership through a fine tuning of or improving an existing culture, might quickly find themselves in such a fast paced changing scenery that it becomes very difficult to learn at the pace required to be useful.”

    TRY THIS – It is one thing to exercise leadership through a fine tuning or improving of an an existing culture. It’s quite another to do it through a paradigm shift. Someone who provides emotional-leadership through a paradigm shift, might quickly find themselves in such a fast paced changing scenery that it becomes very difficult to learn at the pace required to be useful.

  4. Keith – my Bible on leadership of late is, “Forces for Good: the six practises of high impact non-profits”. The two immediate criticisms of it are that it does blur the line between management and what should be called “leadership”. It is also not fully translatable into the church – either by polity or church culture….

    What’s surprising, though, is how much it, as a secular reference, strays into language most associated with faith – and esp. an evangelistic faith which sees itself as advocating for a powerful cause, and which seeks conversion from others to the cause.

    I am involved in two high impact non-profits in the Lower Mainland, am a director at the Surrey Food Bank and am president of the 411 Seniors Centre at Homer and Dunsmuir. With this background I recognize “Forces for Good” as touching on key aspects of leadership dynamics which offers a bit of a different view of what is successful – the list at the top of this blog has important overlaps, but there are important additions.

    “Forces” looks at six of the most successful international (some American) non-profits and gleans a further “six practises” which are common to them, the most notable being Habitat for Humanity. I worked with HfH and regard “Forces” to be bang-on as to why HfH has garnered such a strong reputation, while being unembarrassed about its sense of evangelizing society about the need for low-income housing. HfH has perfected their practises to never stray far from their twin focus of advocacy as well as actually building housing units. The way they twin those two things, and how they feed off each other is pure genius.

    Strangely, to revert back to another comment of yours, HfH survived a leadership scandal some years ago, and (to the outsider) seamlessly transferred that leadership with little damage to its reputation as a housing advocate and housing provider.

    Where “Forces” is useful to the church is that it DOES go into language more traditionally associated with the church, as its chapter called “Inspire Evangelists” rather bluntly puts forward. For instance, you should hear the HfH “evangelists” when they get going, it’s impossible not to join them in swinging hammers on site! HfH is not embarrassed to link the cause to their own institution, which we in the United Church are embarrassed about. Too often, the institution of the church is our cause.

    The two chapters most relevant to the discussion about, and esp. in relation to Emerging Spirit, are the ones called “Master the art of adaptation,” and “The power of collective leadership”. Those are two of the things the most successful non-profits have mastered, most notably HfH.

    “Adaptation” in the book refers more to “innovation”, and the way various internal cultures of the various non-profits are either resistant to innovation, or have already internalized a culture of adaptation. As you may guess, this is most directly related to your initial comments of why you think Emerging Spirit was not as successful as it might have been.

    The “power of collective leadership”, though, is the chapter most directly relevant as it goes beyond issues of management. It explores the relationship between someone identified as the one, key leader in any of these six effective non-profits; but also how they have mastered the talent of co-operating within a shared leadership model.

    It is not the “key leader” who grants “leadership status”, but the “key leader” cannot be seen as working at cross purposes with the “collective leadership” because in actuality they all have the same impact on effectiveness.

    I can say wayyyyy more, but this is long as it is. This is my looooong way of addressing the “can leadership be learned” issue. I have not read Sharon Daloz Parks, but I am assuming that what she is talking about is “can management be learned”, once a leader emerges within a context. In the larger non-profit world there are millions of examples of “leaders” who came forward with a timely idea, who had passion, who had an evangelical spirit surrounding the passion, who gathered other leaders around them – but who then had to learn the management skills so that the passion could survive and thrive in the long-haul. The Quest Food Exchange on Dundas Street in Vancouver comes to mind as a group who followed that path.

    If there is an Emerging Spirit II, I believe a good starting point would be “Forces for Good”. It would not be a case of the church selling out to a secular resource, it would be a case of the church and secular “forces for good” meeting at the point where we need each other.

    1. Hi Stu:
      Thanks for the reference, it sounds very much I should look into it. Is that a book title you posted, a paper or a link?
      And, at least from my perspective, I would appreciate any other observations about its applicability to organizations like the United Church. If you do not want to post them as a blog response, maybe a link?
      Thanks again Stu.

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