Leadership development is exciting work, especially in the area of community development and Christian ministry. But over the years, I have grown increasingly convinced that if you are committed to leadership development in the context of this kind of work and the people whose leadership you have been cultivating aren’t now leading you–even after several years of investing in them–you have more than likely failed in your commitment. Again, if your student/mentee/community is still following your drumbeat after ten years or more and you have not yet got behind their leadership with a sincere sense of needing to learn from them, you are probably not as committed to leadership development as you thought you were.
Maybe you tend to focus more on your personal success than you do on the success of others. Perhaps you struggle with an addiction to power and control and don’t know how to create space for others to lead. Or maybe I’m being too presumptious–you probably mean well. You’ve just never been provoked to think about this stuff and in the fast-paced tendency of work life, you’ve grown accustomed to lead with an almost exclusive focus on your own work’s mission and not on the leadership development of those you lead. Whatever the case may be, my challenge is valid: if you’re committed to leadership development but are not intentionally setting yourself up to follow the leaders you helped cultivate, you need to re-evaluate your paradigm.
By definition, leadership development indicates progress. This means that there should be a sequence of positive growth between your leadership and the leadership of those you lead, especially as it relates to the mission/vision of the work you share with them. If you are in youth ministry, the young person you invested in the most over the years–who is now done with high school–should be leading the youth group or helping you lead it more effectively. If you are engaged in community development work, the board or advisory committee you helped create for a particular neighborhood you serve shouldn’t just reflect the demographics of that neighborhood but should consist of people who are personally part of that neighborhood. As a leader, you are called to catalyze new heroes for the mission, not successors of your legacy; innovators for the cause, not technicians for your projects; leaders you will follow, not advocates who can get others to follow you. Being a successful leadership developer means that you are wholeheartedly committed to creating spaces where you diminish in the shadows of your pupils.
John the Baptist is a perfect example of this paradigm. Though controversial, John was a popular leader in Israel during his time. He was radical in his faith and had a large following. When his younger cousin, Jesus, began to emerge as a new leader in Israel, John’s disciples worried that they would be forced to recede into Jesus’ shadow. But this didn’t bother John. Instead, John replied, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:3). In other words, “I was just a precursor. Jesus is the next level. Let us get behind him and follow him.” And if you think that Jesus considered himself the end of the mission, just listen to what he tells his disciples during his last supper with them, before his departure: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Wow! What humility is in Jesus: he elevates his disciples’ leadership over his own, even though it is nearly impossible for anyone to draw a comparison with him!
John and Jesus’ leadership development paradigm is in clear opposition to the kind of leadership development paradigm that I am challenging: You know–the kind that seeks to maintain the spotlight, the control, and the glory; the kind that, together with the mission, begins to die when the established leader or his/her popularity fades away; and the kind that wages war with the next generation of leaders because, like Cain, it is determined to resist being cast into another’s shadow.
If we are to take Jesus seriously at all, then shouldn’t we take his paradigm in leadership development seriously? Shouldn’t we, like him, also be willing to practice humility and tell ourselves, as we invest in others, “They must increase; I must decrease”?
Yes, of course we should! And to be honest, this is a much better paradigm for leadership development than what we have known.