Leadership and Leaders


There are many who are called to positions of leadership. Yet leadership is not about a title. It is not about gaining a consensus. Leadership is about burden, conviction, a fire burning deeply, a holy discontentment, a righteous indignation. There are many other ways to say it. Leaders lead by a burden that is lifted by a conception of what life looks like when the burden is lifted. That conception is called vision. Vision then gives life to mission. Values guide the way. All other strategies and plans are tactical consequences of burden, vision, and values. Leaders spend time surrounding themselves with capable people who believe in the burden, vision, and values that causes you to “burn alive.” They get so close to you that they, too, “catch on fire” themselves. Yet their job is to then help you figure out “how” to decode the burden, interpret the vision, and inculcate the values among others. Your job is then three-fold: (1) keep living, embodying, modeling, and proclaiming the burden, vision, and values, which you cannot help but do if it is authentic, but which you can be diverted from if your superior (s) and/or team underestimate the absolute necessity of that up-front modeling role, and desire that you join them as a “tactician;” and (2) entrust the critical and time consuming “how to” land the vision job to a trusted staff of lieutenants, resource officers, a cabinet, or whatever you call them—and (3) always “inspect what you expect” from these important people. And you  are inspecting for what? You are expecting and therefore inspecting your key resource staff for what you live for: the burden, vision, mission, and values. All questions about their tactical assistance and expertise in carrying out their assigned part of the plan must relate to those four areas. One other thing: be careful that they don’t confuse their roles. They bear the sacred responsibility for tactically implementing the vision of the visionary. They are not there to add to your vision, or adjust it, or replace it. If so, they have become visionaries deserving, or not, of their own mission. Again, they are in leadership but they are not the leader. This is not to diminish their own personal burdens and visions. The question is, “Has their passion matured or has God’s timing arrived to allow for a multiplication of leadership. Or, is their calling yet to remain in a supporting role? A supporting role is most critical. If you could ask Roosevelt how important Eisenhower was I think you know the answer! All are critical to success on a leadership team. Yet it remains: there can be but one in a singular enterprise. Competing visions lead to conflict and division in the most severe cases and inefficiencies and misunderstandings in even minor episodes. There is no shame in recognizing the emergence of genuine burden within an organization for senior leadership. To the contrary, that is a mark of growth, a sign of health. A member of the leadership team may also have become misguided, defeated, misunderstood, or isolated and will need encouragement to be redirected to pursue their tactical goals. Finally, there may be genuine usurpers who no longer share your burden, and thus lack your same vision; perhaps, then, no longer committed to the mission, or even at odds with your values. If this is discovered you will help these people by directly but pastorally clarifying the question. If your inquiry reveals any authentic diversion, they must be helped to transition out of the team. If the burden is that great, then the vision and thus the mission and tactical plans will be that important. A parting need not be acrimonious. Indeed, a leader may show genuine honor to another who has diverted from the vision due to changes in views or honest disagreements that can’t be reconciled. The spoiler may be malicious. Often, though, it is a matter of honest disagreement. Since most of us will disagree with ourselves from time to time we can be patient and charitable who disagree with us. Yet there will come a time when the burden will once again “appear” before, summoning you to give account for your handling of the mission that leads to the fulcrum to lift the burden: the vision. You will have to “inspect what you expect” and if what you find in your staff’s work is not in harmony with the greater mission leading to the vision that lifts the burden, then Christian leaders must act with firm and godly resolve to return balance and forward movement.

Recently, the passing of the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, allowed us to pause and reconsider just how rare and impacting undiluted leadership can be. The type of leadership that I have suggested was summed up with characteristic beauty by Peggy Noonan in her reflections:

“She [Margaret Thatcher] said once to her aides: ‘I don’t need to be told what, I need to be told how.’ Meaning I have a vision, you have to tell me how we can implement it. That stayed in my mind. Politics now, in England as well as America, is dominated by politicians who are technicians. They always know how to do it. They just don’t know what to do.” —Peggy Noonan (The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2013)

The same can be said about many in Christian leadership. We have a lot who study the “how” of leadership. What we need are those who are convicted by the “what” of burden.

Yet I have seen a new generation of leaders arising. I have heard from those who are broken over the need for revival and will not rest until the Church in the West is awakened to her need to pray and witness and seek holiness of life. I have sat in the living rooms of pastors who prayed, burning with a fire of compassion for small, forgotten, rural communities of North America, who cringe every time they hear that the city is the only place to be. I personally know women whose hearts are torn out by the sight of Muslim women living in chains and they have chosen to go and live among them.

Some of these people sense the burden and are in a struggle of prayer to see the vision—the new heaven and new earth motif of how life could be “if only…” Others know the burden, have “seen” the vision, but are wondering about the “pathway” to the Promised Land—the Mission. Some have not clarified what values are mission essential and what values are not. And some never will. Yet the world will always wait for that one who has the fire in the bones who says, “Don’t tell me what, help me with the how. I have felt the what. I have seen it. I live for it. I would die for it. I need help in getting there.” All of these things must be and then comes the dream.

We need those people now more that ever. For those are leaders. Those are the ones who have understood the depth of pain of the prophet Jeremiah when he spoke as one imprisoned by God and whose only hope was found in proclaiming His Word,

“There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).



About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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