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Is leadership something you are born with or can you be trained to lead?

Nick's Leadership Notes #43

Is leadership something you are born with or can you be trained to lead?

In his book A Fish Out of Water (Integrity, 2002), George Barna says that everyone has some sort of gift that is useful in the leadership of a group.   However, Barna believes that godly leadership is a gift of God, i.e. it is something God has anointed just some people to have.

Pentecostal and evangelical leaders (such as George Barna and Peter Wagner ) generally lay great stress on “God's anointing” rather than formal theological training for leadership.   As such, they stress that leadership is something a person is born with rather than an ability that someone can be trained in.   Barna speaks of people with the natural gift of leadership as being “habitual leaders” and those who are not natural leaders but who have to lead because they have an official position as “situational leaders”.

He says that “habitual leaders are born that way.   You cannot be taught or trained to become a habitual leader.   ...   Leadership is in their spiritual DNA.   The Lord has crafted them for the purpose of directing others.”   Barna goes on to suggest that situational leaders, who have to lead but who are not natural leaders, will always find leadership a struggle.   We must therefore strive to understand the gifts God has given us so that we do not continually try and do things that God has not made us to do.

Some academics, perhaps not surprisingly, stress that much of leadership can be taught.   The psychologist, Daniel Goleman is one who says that “leaders can be made” although he also admits that there is “a genetic component” to effective leadership.

How much can a person be trained to be a leader?   The study of 350 pairs of twins by the University of Minnesota suggests that 61 percent of the leadership trait is inherited.   But that still leaves 39 percent that is determined by other factors such as training.

If Godly leadership is to be taught, at least three areas need to be addressed:
1    Spiritual vitality
2    Social competence (self awareness and self control together with social awareness and empathy)
3    Intellectual understanding (the knowledge of good leadership techniques)

Spiritual vitality

There are plenty of examples in history of gifted leaders who were evil and self-serving.   However, we are concerned with leadership that is motivated by love of God (John 14:21), informed by the word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and empowered by the spirit of God (Acts 1:8).   Put simply, Christian leaders have the great privilege of having access to God's resources (Exodus 35:30-34; 2 Chronicles 1:7-12; James 1:5).  

Social competence

Social competence is determined by a person's emotional intelligence, that is to say, their intelligence and ability to understand and control their own emotions and the emotions of others.   A leader can choose to improve this skill if they are motivated to do so.    Goleman et al. suggest that these skills are largely determined by emotional centers of our brain (our limbic centers).   They say we can, with great persistence,  train these sections of our brain in the emotional skills necessary for us to understanding ourselves and others, e.g. in developing skills at controlling impatience, improving listening skills, and growing a willingness to empathise with others so that we win their enthusiasm and trust (see “Leadership Notes 41).   Goleman et al. suggest that great leaders are made “as they gradually acquire, in the course of their lives and careers, the competencies that make them so effective.”

Intellectual understanding

We are talking here of developing an adequate understanding of good practical leadership techniques and processes.   We are not talking about simply growing an intellectual understanding of theology.   Some theological colleges which are led mostly by pure academics tend to train students to be the “resident theologian” rather than leaders able to attract a team together who will engage in a strategy to bring others to faith and minister to the needs of the community.   Whilst theological knowledge is important, being a custodian of theological knowledge (like some ancient Gnostic priest ) should not be confused with leadership.

An intellectual understanding of good leadership practices includes knowledge of the processes necessary to carry out a task successfully, e.g.:
1    diagnose the task
2    examine options
3    identify the strengths and weaknesses of each action
4    choose action
5    determine resources needed
6    delegate responsibilities and resource those delegated
7    undertake the action
8    review effectiveness
9    make any corrections

It will also include knowing the process to adopt when assessing the value of a new course of action, e.g. the SWOT analysis:
S = Strengths (What are the strengths of the current system?)
W = Weaknesses (What are the weaknesses of the current system?)
O = Opportunities (What new opportunities may there be?)
T = Threats (What are the threats that come from seizing a new opportunity?)


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