Leadership is not simply a task: it’s a journey. Based on his doctoral research, podcast and other interviews with a series of leaders, Dr Alan Wilson shares five important lessons for any Christian leader whether in church ministry or public leadership) with public leadership coordinator Abi Jarvis.

1. Surround yourself with good people

In recounting their stories, many leaders look back to people who have helped inspire and encourage them. Biblical examples include Jethro and Moses, Moses and Joshua, Mordecai and Esther, Jesus and His disciples, and Paul and Timothy.


Sometimes mentors are readily available; at other times we have to go looking for them. Phil Emerson, a well-known Northern Irish church leader, told me about his practice, carried out for three decades, of contacting three or four smart leaders every year, offering to treat them to lunch or coffee in exchange for being able to ask them three questions to pick their brains.

At times, the most resourceful people in a leader’s life are his or her friends. Helen Warnock is principal of Belfast Bible College. She talked to me about what she believes is the myth of the lonely leader: the problem is that leaders have not invested adequately in friendship. But good friendships don’t happen by accident; they need to be cultivated – and that takes time. Helen has invested that time and seen the benefit in friends who have helped remind her of her mission.

2. Team matters

Another relational aspect of leadership is team. Ken Clarke, a retired (though he calls it refired’) bishop says that one of the most important pieces of advice for a leader is to avoid being a maverick: team matters, just as it did in the work of Jesus and Paul. It’s part of the leader’s task to build team relationships and encourage each team member to thrive. Ken referred to the wisdom of Sir Richard Branson, who said that people should be trained well enough that they are able to leave your organisation but treated well enough that will not want to.

3. Culture beats strategy

It’s an old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Trevor Ramsey, pastor of a large Baptist church in south Belfast, talks about how it is possible for a church to have all the right hymns and sermons but for there to be a sense in the air that something is not quite right.

The culture of a church or an organisation is the collection of assumptions (often unseen) and practices that are built in. One of the key tasks of a leader is to work to develop the right kind of culture that will allow the organisation to thrive, and he or she can do that by living out their values in their leadership. As Sir Nigel Hamilton, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, likes to point out, it can be the relatively simply gestures like hand-shaking or saying thank you that prove more important in some ways than visions, strategies or plans.

4. Be reflective

Sometimes leaders seem to go about the tasks of their leadership, such as team building or culture shaping, without really reflecting on exactly why they are doing what they are doing. The reality is that some leaders are intuitive, instinctive leaders. They lead simply by living out who they are. Such leaders can be inspiring, but they’re not always easy to learn from, unless we are content to be clones of our heroes.

The value of being reflective – perhaps something that comes with time and perspective – is that it makes it possible for other leaders to learn from good practice. The goal is not to create conformity or uniformity, but to help share good practice and to allow others to learn from a seasoned leader’s experience.

5. God loves you

This might seem too basic to merit a specific reference. Many of us who grew up in Christian environments learned to sing about this almost before we could talk. Yet, one of the most striking things I noticed in my research – and it’s a pattern that has been repeated in several of my podcast interviews – is that there seem to be times when God goes out of His way to reassure a leader of His personal love.

Details of people’s experience varies – and some are quite dramatic. But I’ve heard enough stories to make me think that this is something that leaders need to get hold of. No wonder Paul prayed it for the Ephesus church in Ephesians 3, when he talked about grasping the love of God in all its dimensions. And perhaps Henri Nouwen, renowned priest and author, was onto something when he wrote: You have to listen to the voice who calls you the beloved, because otherwise you will run around begging for affirmation, for praise, for success. And then you’re not free.”

Take a moment to reflect on your own leadership and ask yourself: are you applying these lessons? We would like to know the key lessons from your own leadership journey on, so share these with us on Twitter (@PublicLeaderUK)

Dr Alan Wilson is a former pastor who is a part-time visiting lecturer at Belfast Bible College, the Irish Baptist College and the Irish Bible Institute). You can subscribe to his podcast, The Leadership Journey, on iTunes or Castbox.

Photo by Christopher Rusev on Unsplash