Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

February 2004
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Leaders are Built a Few at a Time

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

In this Letter we return to a subject we touched on previously: the building of leaders.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31-32)

When we look around at the world we can easily be overwhelmed by the size of the need. Yet, today there are about 667 million “Great Commission Christians” out of a world population of 6.2 billion people. In other words, approximately 1 in 9 human beings alive on the earth is a “Great Commission Christian.” This means that God really doesn’t need you or me or our ministries. He has hundreds of thousands of churches and ministries around the world, and hundreds of millions of sons and daughters who can do the job for Him. If you or I disappeared tomorrow, it is not likely that the cause of the Kingdom would suffer too much!

However, what was the situation when Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago? How many “Great Commission Christians” were there then? Arguably, only one – Jesus! Thus, Jesus had no option; He had to succeed. The future of the Kingdom of God entirely depended on Him! No one else could do it. If He failed, it was all over. Can you imagine the pressure He was under?

Here’s the contrast. We are overwhelmed by the need around us and our thoughts are usually along the lines of: “The need is so great we have to train thousands of leaders! How can we set up a ‘production line’ of some kind so that we can produce the multitudes of necessary leaders quickly?” And whether we live or die does not mean that much – in reality, it does not. But when Jesus looked at a much greater need, instead of thinking of production lines He chose twelve men and concentrated on them for three years! That was His response to the incredible need that He faced.

Surely we can learn from His example that it is far better to do a lot with few, than a little with many. In response to a far greater crisis of lack of leadership than we will ever face, Jesus’ focus was not on numbers, but on quality. He did it right! Jesus concentrated on building only a few leaders. He built only 12 (or 11) main leaders who would head His entire organization that would change the world! This was the model He gave us.

Since leaders personally build leaders, one leader can build only a few other leaders at a time – that is, if he wants to do it properly. He cannot personally build thousands of leaders. As much as we might like to flatter ourselves that we can build thousands of leaders, it would be wise for us to remember that Jesus built only a handful and it took Him three years to do it!

The Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest Builder of leaders who has ever lived and He focused on a few. His vision was huge; His vision was a church that would eventually number in the hundreds of millions! His vision was the taking of the gospel of the Kingdom of God to all nations! Yet He focused on a few men – 12 to be exact. Twelve men to change the world. Twelve men to whom He would commit the monumental task of building His church. And one of them failed, leaving Him only 11 in the end! With these few men He spent much of His time; into these few men He poured His life; to these few men He committed His entire future agenda for the world.

And did Jesus’ strategy succeed? Today’s 667 million “Great Commission Christians” are proof that it did indeed succeed!

From this we can learn that when it comes to building leaders it is better to be deeply committed to building a few great leaders than to be under-committed to building many mediocre ones. This is such a hard lesson for us to learn. Overwhelmed by the admittedly huge task before us we repeatedly attempt to set up spiritual “production lines” to turn out leaders by the thousand. Too often, unfortunately, the leaders we turn out are under-built, still entangled in the unresolved struggles of their pasts, not sufficiently grounded in either the Word or the Spirit of God, not sure of who they are or what they’re to do, and not really competent to do it anyway.

Leadership building does not happen on a production line. It is far better to build a few leaders right, than to build many leaders poorly.

Paul and other biblical leaders pursued leadership development the same way. The idea of personally raising up “thousands of leaders” is not a biblical one. The biblical model is more like this: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). In other words, build a few good leaders, who in turn will each build a few good leaders, who will each do the same, and so on. In a relatively short time, we will have the dramatic multiplication of leaders we need. The difference is: they will be good leaders. This is the “mustard seed” principle: the small seed becomes a large, fruitful tree.

We must not allow the overwhelming size and urgency of the great task ahead of us (e.g., “the whole world needs to be reached!”) and an exaggerated sense of our own capacities or importance in this regard to dictate sloppy and insufficient approaches to leadership building. We must do what is necessary to build good leaders. Forget the production line! Let’s do it right!

We must lay down our “production line” mentality, which is often driven by our prideful desire to be known for having done something “big.” God’s ways are not our ways. We desire greatness in the eyes of man. Let us instead seek greatness only in the eyes of God. Let us pursue the obscurity of reality rather than the fame of superficiality.

The American scholar Henry Adams wrote,

The difference is slight, to the influence of an author, whether he is read by five hundred readers, or by five hundred thousand. If he can select the five hundred, he reaches the five hundred thousand.

The Kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32). This is how we will influence the lives of multitudes: through the obscurity of reality.

Our next Leadership Letter will continue in this same direction concerning building leaders.

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