Leadership is Not Influence
In which I rant about the true meaning of leadership.
For nearly two decades I have heard this mantra constantly parroted in church and Christian circles it came, more or less, from John Maxwell (late 90’s). Though you can find it about a decade earlier (mid 80’s) in Chuck Swindoll’s book on leadership.
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Is influence related to leadership? Of course. But influence is a byproduct of leadership not the essence of the act of leading.
Why does this matter?
Because we live now in a culture where influence is currency. And anyone with enough money or anyone willing to dish out enough provocation can gain influence. This kind of “influence” is now sought by even the younger generations. I mean, we literally call people with big followings on social media platforms “influencers.”
Why do we call them that?
Because we associate the scale of their platform with credentials. Now, anyone with a following can say something about a topic and be considered an expert even if they possess nothing but a hobbyist curiosity.
We are told leadership is influence so we do our best to build influence and that is done these days by building a following. We say, “I want to lead so I better build a following.” How do I know this? Because I've been in meetings with organizations and church leaders who've literally said, “I want to leverage my influence or I need a book deal to gain a following.”
I'm not saying that every person with a huge following is not a leader or expert. It's not a false dilemma. You can be a leader in your field with a massive following precisely because of your expertise.
What I am saying is that it's inaccurate to say that leadership is influence. It's not. This is business-world-speak.
Rethink the Definition of Leadership
In Webster’s 1828 Dictionary the entry for “lead (verb-transitive) contains no less than 10 definitions. Number eight is “to induce, or influence.”
We only need to think of men and women we've known or read about who lead even when no one followed. If leadership is always connected to the actions of the followers then emerging generations will not understand that you can lead by standing alone.
In this old definition, you find ideas like, “to go first,” “to guide by the hand,” and “to show by way of conduct.”
What if we expressed the idea of leadership with less emphasis on how your followers respond to you and emphasized more the type of person you and I seek to be as people on the frontiers of life, going first, guiding, and showing by the way we conduct ourselves?
Taking You By the Hand and Guiding
Think of CS Lewis.
His influence still swells like a cultural tidal wave. Did he seek to influence? Or did he keep his inner circle small, put his head down and do the work required to produce cultural artefacts, like books, that would live on after he was gone?
Think of those men and women in your life who are not well-known (the cultural currency of influence” and yet do the work of taking you by the hand and humbly guiding you to the stream that gives life.
It is the man or woman who does the hard work in the quiet humbly before the Lord, lovingly guiding the ones God puts in his or her care, who leads with beauty and elegance.
Now there is an idea.
The Elegant Leader
What if we associated leadership less with business-world terms and instead associated great leadership with elegance, beauty, humility, harmony, and virtue? Perhaps we'd have fewer leaders like mark Driscoll and more like Mother Teresa.
And that's not to throw Driscoll under the bus. I believe the current church culture produces leaders more versed in secular ideas of business and marketing than what it actually means to shepherd people well.
There's a better way to teach the young about leadership.
I believe it begins in the wilderness, not a social media feed. It begins with understanding the upside-down ideas in Jesus’s economy of influence: “… servant of all.”1
What is your experience with the “leadership culture” in the church or in Christian circles in general? What are your thoughts, positive or constructive, on how the Church has emphasized leadership culture in the vein of popular culture? How do you see the marketplace influence in how Christian define and live out leadership in the community and in Chruch.
Can you share some examples of “Elegant Leadership” that you’ve experienced in your life, be it business, church, or otherwise?
What do you consider to be the most valuable characteristics of a leader?
Mark 9:35 - He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” (The Message)