“Ascent of a Leader”

Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, Ken McElrath, The Ascent of a Leader. How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999): i-xiii, 1-203

The three authors are all involved in various aspects of leadership development, building primarily upon experience in the corporate world, but with a commitment to following Jesus. As they say in the preface, they are exploring the definition and foundations of influence as the key to good leadership practice. Relationships and the environment in which we experience them are the key elements in developing good leadership. Their worldview is expressly Christian, although they seek to write for a larger audience, one that does embrace a relationship with God as significant.

The fundamental premise of their book is that “character – the inner world of motives and values that shapes our actions – is the ultimate determiner of the nature of our leadership. It empowers our capacities while keeping them in check.”(p.1). The goal is “to become the kind of leader whom others want to follow”(p.1). They write for people who desire to be leaders and to achieve their leadership potential. In their view, this cannot be accomplished merely by one’s own personal abilities, but is dependent upon “a certain kind of environment in which to live and work” (p.1) and relationships “to help you become more than a leader” (p.1).

They contrast two ‘ladders’. The first is a ‘short ladder’ that commonly is the focus of leadership development. They call it the “Capacity Ladder” (figure 2.1). It exists in environments of “mistrust and ungrace [sic]” (figure 4.1) and within relationships of “power and leverage”. This is the ladder that most people try to climb in order to become successful leaders, using their capacities and position to achieve potential. The authors reject this ‘ladder to success’ because it is fundamentally flawed by selfishness and has no centre of virtue.

What they put in its place, or rather seek to integrate with the ‘capacity ladder’ is the ‘Character Ladder’ (figure 10.1). People ascend this ladder by creating environments and relationships of grace. They have a deep trust in God that allows them to embrace humility, submission, obedience, and suffering/maturity, while being willing to “choose vulnerability”, “align with truth”, and “pay the price” in order to “discover (their) destiny”.

The authors believe that “our culture [i.e. American culture] is ready for leaders who climb a different ladder”(180). They have had enough of leaders who strive for their destiny purely on the basis of the capacity ladder. Their vision is for leaders who will pay the price to climb the ladder of success that integrates character and capacity (figure 10.2). Only leaders of this kind can truly help us shape and develop environments of grace.

The authors incorporate some stirring examples of people who, in their view, have demonstrated the values intrinsic to the character ladder. There are also times when they do reflect on the teachings of Jesus as foundational for their argument. As well, they encourage all people to consider themselves to be leaders in some respect and context.

The focus upon character as essential to good leadership, particularly good leadership in the church, is certainly welcome. For too long leadership has tended to be seen primarily as a toolkit of techniques and skills. Paul’s outline of ministry leadership qualifications such as is found in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 certainly focuses upon character, but character that is empowered and shaped by the Holy Spirit.

The idea of environments and relationships filled with grace also merits serious consideration as a way to conceive of family, church, and corporate contexts. Here again a fundamental biblical principle gets woven into their argument. They urge leaders to ‘align with the truth’ and again we applaud this biblical mandate.

In the midst of these positives, I think there are at least three cautions that have to be expressed. First, the symbolism of the ladder carries connotations that jar, in my view, with the vision of Christian leadership. In the Gospels discipleship tends to be symbolized by a journey, following Jesus, and in this posture expressing God’s calling to love others through sacrificial service. Ladders convey a sense of hierarchy. In the business and professional world people do conceive of their progress as climbing the corporate ladder or getting to the peak of one’s discipline. However, in the context of Christian ministry, these are not helpful metaphors because they tend to be self-focused, power-laden, and expressive of ambition. I do not think the author’s desire is to express these things through the symbol they chose, but regardless these are inherent dangers. The picture Paul gives us of the Messiah in Philippians 2:5-11, as he carries out God’s will in human history, is a downward journey, like descending a staircase. There is no ascent until after the resurrection.

Second, although the authors seek to ground the development of character in religious experience, how valid is this premise? Yes, we can agree that religious instinct can motivate diverse people to altruistic service. However, it can also move people to acts of incredible hatred and hostility. I think Paul has it right when he argues that without love, all of our efforts lack worth and lasting value. In Paul’s view this love is God’s love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Good ministry leadership that is selfless and loving has to be the product of the Holy Spirit’s incredible work in our lives. The ideal the authors put forward cannot be achieved without the continual work of God’s Spirit in the lives of individuals and communities.

Third, the authors have a very specific view about the way virtue works in a human being.

The heart – the inner life, shaped primarily by trust – molds our motives. Our motives establish our values. And our values govern our actions. What we believe about ourselves takes root and is nourished in our hearts. And it’s from the heart that our destiny — our ultimate influence and value – flows.(63)

The authors do expand on what they mean by trust. However, the concept of ‘motive’ does not receive much explicit attention in their volume. The word is not listed in the index. I could not find any definition of it in their work. Yet, it sits at the most crucial juncture – between heart and values. Unless we are clear about our motives, our ultimate loyalties (i.e. to love God, to serve God, to advance God’s purposes), we will not be clear about our values or our actions. Perhaps the authors feel they have addressed this, but in different terms. If so, a clearer connection needs to be made.

The authors offer an interesting discussion of the complex relationship between capacity and character (or competency and spirituality). Sometimes the call of God, our destiny, is not to the pinnacle of power, but rather is to the humiliation of a cross. If this is so then leadership in Christian terms must be our descent to humble, suffering service as our only ascent. It is this paradox that Jesus expressed in his words to the apostles – “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43).

Reviewed November 1, 2005.