Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

February 2020
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Leadership Letters

You’re Growing Oaks, Not Cabbages: Building Leaders Takes Time

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

There was once a young man who was exceptionally bright. When he was ready, his father went to enroll him in a fine university and said to the President of that school, “Since my son is so gifted, would it be possible for him to finish the courses in less than the normal time?” “It all depends on what you want your son to be,” the wise president replied. “If you want him to be a great oak, it will take a while. But if you want him to be a cabbage, I can have him ready in no time.”

We should not be unrealistic about the amount of transformation that is possible in a short period of time. No leadership learning process that is only brief can claim to produce a mature leader. It takes a lifetime to build a mature and seasoned leader.

For example, Moses spent years in the remote desert in preparation for his ministry. Joseph spent years in slavery and jail before he received his leadership assignment. Paul spent many years in preparation for his apostolic ministry.

Jesus only began to minister when He was thirty. Thus, Jesus spent 30 years of preparation for three years of ministry. Even more extreme was John the Baptist who spent 30 years in preparation for six months of ministry. That stands in contrast to our practices today – usually we spend a short period of time in preparation for a long period of ministry!

It takes time for a leader to become mature. Traditionally, learning institutions give their students degrees when they finish the prescribed course. Sometimes this can be quite damaging – both to the student and to his community – because the degree gives the appearance of a maturity and qualification that may or may not actually be present in the person’s life.

There is a sarcastic Chinese idiom: “Pull the root up and help the plant grow faster.” Of course, this does not work. In fact, it will probably kill the plant, even though in the short term the plant will appear to be taller.

What Is Our Goal?

Our goal in a short-term learning community, for example, should not be to build the whole “building” but to lay a good foundation for the person’s life and ministry.

With a good foundation, a wonderful building can be built.

Thus, our goal should not be final and complete maturity, but the laying of a sound and comprehensive foundation in the life of the emerging leader.

Our goal should be breadth of learning as well as depth of heart penetration. We should not try to build up but to build deep and wide.

We should not attempt to produce mastery of every concept but rather broad exposure to a number of ideas and subjects.

Our purpose should be to teach the emerging leaders to pray, to get them connected to God in reality, and to impart passion of vision, zeal of heart, and a willingness to suffer.

We should also seek to teach them how to think, how to learn from their experiences and how to act. Moreover, we want to give them a love for learning. Our purpose should be to help the participant become a lifelong learner, one who will properly build on the foundation for the rest of his life.

Leader development occurs over a lifetime. Crash courses will not suffice. Extensive and diverse experiences can only occur over time, as does the learning that comes from experience. This is one reason why an individual’s calling develops progressively over his or her lifetime – it rarely comes all at once.

You’re Not the Only Influence

Consequently, although you may be an important influence in another’s life, you will rarely be the only influence. For example, there were multiple leaders involved in Paul’s life as he grew: Gamaliel, Ananias, Barnabas, the other apostles, the leaders at Antioch, God Himself directly (2 Cor. 12:4). In Mark’s life there were Jesus, Barnabas, Paul and Peter.

This is quite healthy. The best approach to mentoring involves bringing an emerging leader into as many quality relationships as possible. We tend to imitate both the good and bad elements of a mentor’s life; this can be mitigated by having multiple mentors. In addition, each mentor will impact the emerging leader with his own unique style, strengths and priorities.

So, while a measure of protectiveness is appropriate, do not be possessive concerning the leaders you build. Instead, deliberately expose them to other men and women of God who can fill in the inevitable gaps. They don’t belong to you but to God (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

Of course, it is easy to be possessive when you have invested so much time and energy in a person, but, if you really love him and believe in him, you will want him to be exposed to other influences and thus find greater strength and maturity.

In addition, the role of the learning community or formal training process should continue long after “graduation” with the facilitating of ongoing mentoring and coaching relationships, learning opportunities and challenging assignments for the maturing leaders.

In conclusion …

We cannot seek a quick fix in the issue of leader development. It takes time to build leaders.

In one Asian country, the influence of foreign ways of training has been quite negative. After a couple of years of training, young people graduate with degrees from schools that are funded and controlled by foreigners. These young people may not have planted a church in their lives, they have probably not spent time in prison for their faith, and some of them may not have even led anyone to the Lord. Yet, now they each have a degree – apparently, they’re qualified.

In contrast, the older leaders have planted hundreds of churches, won thousands of people to the Lord, have suffered for their faith for years in prison and have built the church movements with their own blood, sweat and tears – but, they don’t have any degrees. Suddenly, who appears to be more “qualified” to lead? This dynamic has led to some degree of social disequilibrium within the church movements.

We must recognize that merely because someone has attended a training institution does not mean he is necessarily yet qualified to lead.

It takes a long time to build a truly qualified leader. Our “fast-food” mentality will not succeed. We must instead have a long-term perspective similar to this ancient Chinese proverb:

“If you are planting for a year, plant grain.

If you are planting for a decade, plant trees.

If you are planting for a century, plant people.”

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