ascent of a leader, The
The ascent of a leader. By Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 1999. 205 pp. $25.00.
How do we become the kind of leader whom others want to follow? “Today’s leaders seem to have competence and charisma, but they fall short in the character dimension” (ix). Thrall, McNicol, and McElrath’s purpose is to articulate some practical principles on how leaders can develop the character that is necessary to lead and influence others. They encourage the readers to face these challenges with courage and faith in order to get to a place far above and beyond their own individual best (12). In short, their purpose is to help readers become the kind of leaders whom others want to follow by finding God’s plan for their lives and following it. For the authors, leadership is something that none of us can avoid, because we all influence others. Therefore, they address this book to any people who want “to make a positive difference in whatever sphere of influence God has granted them” (11); that is, husbands, mothers, bosses, secretaries, pastors, teachers, students, artists, factory workers, and the leader in all of us (5).
The authors’ main claim is that leaders who want to lead their organizations, families, friends, or communities into a better place and leave an enduring legacy need to develop extraordinary character and influence in ordinary relationships. According to them, character is “the inner world of motives and values that shapes our actions-is the ultimate determiner of the nature of our leadership” (1). Character empowers our capacities while keeping them in check. It distinguishes those who steward power well from those who abuse power, and weaves such values as integrity, honesty, and selfless service into the fabric of our lives, organizations, and cultures (1, 2).
In approaching the subject the authors use the ladder metaphor to build up an analogy between the “capacity ladder” and the “character ladder” that leaders can choose to climb in order to reach success. They start to describe the ladder most are familiar with, what they call the capacity ladder, constructed from four basic rungs. First, discover what I can do, which refers to specific skills, natural leadership inclinations, personality, a dynamic influence, or an ability to craft a compelling vision or to persuade. second, develop my capacities that grant more influence to leaders because they sharpen their talents and gifts. Third, acquire a title or position that comes as a result of scaling the first two rungs. Lastly, attain individual potential at the top of the ladder. The authors claim that though necessary, the capacity ladder is not sufficient to ensure that our abilities will result in positive influence or an enduring legacy (17-19). Furthermore the danger with the capacity ladder is that the rails of the ladder must rest on environments of mistrust and ungrace, and relationships of power and leverage that make leaders become isolated.
In contrast, the authors propose the character ladder, which, unlike the first one, requires environments of grace and relationships of grace as the rails that support its rungs. First, to define environments of grace, the authors define grace from a sociological perspective by saying that “grace means we show unmerited concern and favor to each other… we treat each other better than we expect to be treated ourselves” (29). Environment includes organizational style, sentiments, expectations, and certain artifacts. Earlier in the book they state that a kind of environment is needed to live and work-one that nurtures the integration of heart and hand, word and deed, spirituality and everyday life (1). Thus, environments of grace are those in which individuals can soar above and beyond their best, because they feel safe, grow up, trust each other, live authentically, celebrate each other, laugh a lot, and produce better (29-31). Second, by relationships of grace the authors refer to those “committed relationships that meet needs” (58). These relationships are built on community in which we can meet our deepest needs by a gracious care and concern of others, through expressions of our love, unconditional acceptance, affirmation, and honesty.
Following the ladder metaphor the authors also present five key principles as the rungs of the character ladder. First, trust God and others with me, which starts by focusing on what God can do, since it is God who has the ultimate responsibility for determining our value and destiny. secondly, choose vulnerability-“to be vulnerable means to come under another’s influence” (77). Thirdly, align with truth, which is considered the true test of character since it has to do not simply with coming under another’s influence but acting on the wisdom and truth of their counsel (94). Fourthly, pay the price, which means “choosing to lead and follow from conviction, rather than reacting to circumstances” (135). This implies a kind of suffering that brings maturity as a result. Lastly, discover your destiny that depends on the process of developing character in the context of the right relationships and environments. According to the authors, discovering destiny “occurs at just the right time. It can’t be forced, and we can’t rush it. God takes the initiative to lift us up when he chooses… Discovering destiny depends on God giving us the eyes to find it” (145-6).
The authors’ final claim is that “Leaders who aspire to the fifth rung must continue to take risks, because it is taking risks that identifies and develops the fifth-rung leadership” (149). Leaders take risks by facing the following challenges: 1) confront complacency, avoiding patterns that may lead to indifference or hubris, 2) serve others on the basis of your compassion and convictions, 3) continue to change and grow and mentor others who want to change and grow as well, 4) place your destiny fully into God’s hands, 5) choose benefits along with your team and community, rather than just benefits at their expense, 6) give the right attention to the right relationships at the right times, and 7) aggressively seek to resolve your own character issues and weaknesses, continuing to trust others with your vulnerability and to align with the truth, even when it exacts a high price (150-164).
The contribution of this book lies in Thrall, McNicol, and McElrath’s approach to the development of the leader’s character from a biblical perspective. They correctly base the process of developing character upon spiritual principles and values. It is very important, for example, how they emphasize the role that relationships within community play in climbing the character ladder, or the fact that all of us need to recognize that it is God who ultimately decides our destiny at the top of the ladder rungs.
Another important aspect is that early in their book the authors make a disclaimer that regardless of the fact that each of them professes a faith rooted in a biblical understanding of grace and truth, they do not attempt to convert the readers to a posture of faith. They assume that most readers (nine out of ten) would say they believe in God and frequent some place of worship (2, 52). However, the authors do not provide any direction for those who do not profess faith in God, but are being exposed to these principles nonetheless. How would they then respond to the challenges in this book without having to make a decision about letting God take the control of their destiny in a humble submission to Him?
I agree with the authors’ proposal for developing character, but with some qualifications. Even though they support all the principles they suggest for leaders with biblical truth, they do not provide sufficient biblical exegesis or explicit mention of key scriptural passages to support what they are proposing. It would be helpful to more fully explain the basis upon which they build their argument and not just assume that all the readers understand what they are talking about.
Another concern is that the authors define grace sociologically. Although this is just a way to show how grace can contribute to building an environment, grace is an important spiritual truth and might lose its real meaning and value as framed within sociological or meteorological definitions, as they do. For this reason, it was helpful for the authors to point out that in tracing an act of grace back to its roots, one can find that “ultimately its source is God” and if followed to its conclusion “eventually it leads people back to God” (29).
Even though the authors mention the role of culture and the importance of taking into account its underlying assumptions, they do not clearly address this element. Neither do they point out what these assumptions are in the capacity ladder and the character ladder, and how they could vary from one culture to another. It would be helpful to give more attention to this part and to clarify when they are talking about organizational culture or culture in general.
A final aspect of disagreement with the authors is that even though they claim that this model is for all kinds of people, the majority of the cases and examples they use are from leadership in organizations or related to what mainly is recognized or accepted as leadership and a few examples from other contexts. It could be of great benefit to provide more examples and suggestions on how to apply it at home, at the church, and at environments where ordinary people play important roles.
The character ladder model presented in this book is appealing and a timely challenge to all of us that want to integrate the secular principles of leadership with biblical and theological foundations to understand God’s plan and purpose in letting us exercise leadership. It is worthy to note that even though the capacity ladder is not sufficient to produce the character needed to influence others and to leave an enduring legacy, it has its value when fused with the character ladder, such as the example of Mother Teresa.
Review by Orbdina Eguizabal, Christian Education, Central American Theological Seminary (CATS-SETECA), Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Copyright Talbot School of Theology Fall 2004
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