When I was in seminary, we were asked in one class to introduce ourselves and share our vocational goals. I remember one student’s response: “Well, I guess I want to be a denominational leader.” His statement has always stayed with me not because of its audaciousness but its naiveté. One does not become a leader by willing oneself to be one or even acquiring a position of authority. The nature of leadership is such that one can be placed in a position of leadership but never really become a leader. Many pastors, CEOs, and Presidents of the United States have learned this the hard way.
What is a leader? Peter Drucker once said that “a leader is a person with followers.” In other words, you are a leader if people respond to your leadership. Real leadership is often recognized only when it is effectively exercised. People will tell you that they are not looking for a leader, but they respond when someone challenges and inspires them to accomplish a goal. Others who say they are looking for a leader only want someone who will cater to their preconceived ideas and prejudices. They would not know a leader if he or she wore a sign around the neck saying, “Leader.”
Perhaps leadership is only recognized when it is effectively exercised. Harold Geneen commented, “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” When someone really functions as a leader, those being led respond and suddenly realize that this is the type of person they were seeking all along, they just could not articulate their need. This is why leaders often emerge only in times of change or crisis.
Even though effective leaders may not emerge until they are placed in positions that challenge them, their passion to create, do, and serve moves them in that direction and often places them in the right place at the right time. In most cases, leaders emerge because they have been good stewards of the resources placed in their hands as managers or workers within the organization. The best denominational leaders are those who have served faithfully in “the trenches” in churches or denominational agencies or have been effective leaders in other organizations. In those roles, their commitment to the values of the denomination has been manifested in their daily work, so their responsibilities are increased.
This does not always happen, of course, but when a person is placed in a place of significant responsibility without having learned the skills that will make him or her a true leader, failure or stagnation often results. Geneen also said, “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.” Leadership is learned in the effective exercise of responsibility—no matter how great or small. It is learned in the proper use of what God has placed in our hands not matter what it is. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:48 embody this idea: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”