leadership #2: the space in-between

  • Does leadership exist, kind of like an entity or a thing in its own right?
  • Does leadership have to be embodied, in the form of a person?
  • Are leaders born or trained?
  • From where does a charismatic leader acquire their power?

So many good and interesting questions at the heart of this week’s second session exploring leadership in the church (with Trinity Theological College).  In these early weeks we’re mostly concentrating on addressing the questions “what is leadership” and “who leads” (you’ll no doubt notice the intentional use of the term ‘addressing’ there, and not ‘answering’!).

What emerged for me in yesterday’s conversations was a reminder that leadership is never independent of it’s context – and that context includes time, place, the leader/s, the followers, the situation or issues at hand.

And so in one time/place/context a particular kind of leadership might be significant, and at another time/place/context something quite different might emerge.

I was reminded of a story from my own experience.

In what sometimes seems like a past life I worked in outdoor education, helping young people discover answers to questions such as “who am I?” and learn team and life skills. Early on in this experience I was out on a program with a group of about 15 young students, as part of a larger camp with a number of other groups. We had shared a fairly good week, unpacking lots of issues and exploring the beautiful environment around Lake Moogerah, climbing, paddling, walking and playing. But I was captured by the approach of one of the other group leaders – a guy who was as intense as I am ‘gentle’, as loud as I am quiet, as crazy as I am sensible, as confident as I am anxiety-ridden.  We were polar opposites in the way we led our respective groups and his group was without question the ‘fun’ group to be in – his young people were having a wild old time. I found myself sinking into despair, feeling sorry for myself, sure and certain that I could never lead them in the way that Tim did with his group, knowing for sure that I was not cut out for leadership in outdoor education because I just don’t have those characteristics.

The poor kids in my group just totally missed out compared to those in the other group.

In the midst of my navel-gazing woe-is-me moment, and as I watched Tim yet again lead some hilarious and wildly successful interaction, the school teacher who had been co-assigned to my group wandered over sat down next to me.  His next words changed my perspective on leadership instantly, and have stayed with me ever since.  “You know Scott,” he said as we watched this inspiring leader at work, “I am so glad that our group had you and not Tim as our leader.  Don’t get me wrong, he is great, but I know the kids in our group well, and they just wouldn’t have handled his approach. Your gentleness and quiet confidence have been just what our group needed and I want to thank you for it.”

Naturally I didn’t point out that quietness wasn’t really confidence as much as it was abject terror, but his point was (and remains) well made.

Leadership looks different at different times and places. And it looks different for different people.  Leadership exists in the interaction, the interplay between leader and follower. It is inevitably shaped by the characteristics of the leader, by the nature of the follower, by the circumstance of their interaction.

Leadership happens in the space in-between.

There is a theory of leadership called “Great Man Theory” (let’s call it “Great Leader Theory”…accepting the term came from an age long ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then) that suggests leadership is confined to a few amazing people who change the world around them, who are event-makers on a grand scale. Following this line of thinking…leaders are born and not trained, it’s inherent within them. And those of us who are not Great Leaders? We’re consigned to lesser roles, to responding to the world rather than remaking it.  One does not ‘become’ a Great Leader – we either are, or are not.  At least that’s my rudimentary understanding of the theory.

Somewhere between this idea and the other extreme in which everybody is a leader (or at least everybody can be a leader), lies this notion that that there are many different types of people who offer leadership of different kinds to situations of different shape, and people of different nature.

In this picture, in this image of leadership as what happens in the space in-between, there is room even for the quiet, shy, gentle, anxious, sensible among us to offer leadership when the context suits.

Maybe there is even room for me. And for you.

NB: This is the second in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

NB #2: I remain genuinely impressed with Tim. He’s a phenomenal, insightful, genuine, imaginative leader. And hilarious. I’m still jealous. 😉

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