How Are Leaders Made?

“Leadership is a lifetime of lessons. It is not a set of do-it-yourself correspondence courses that can be worked through in a few months or years.” So wrote Dr. J. Robert Clinton in his book The Making of a Leader, a seminal study on the process of ministry and leadership maturation.

In his research, Clinton observed six phases of leadership development: Sovereign Foundations, Inner-Life Growth, Ministry Maturing, Life Maturing, Convergence, and Celebration. This development process applies to the life of any ministry leader, no matter their role, context, gender, or organizational “rank.”

The first phase is Sovereign Foundations. These include our family of origin, the environment in which we grow up, and historical events in our lifetime. Sovereign Foundations begin at birth, and we have little control over them. 

The second phase is Inner-Life Growth. During this season, God issues various “checks” or tests of our integrity, our obedience, and our ability to receive a word of God and allow Him to work it out in our lives. 

The third phase, Ministry Maturing, is a season of growth in the practical and relational skills and discernment needed for fruitful ministry.  However, as Clinton points out: “Ministry activity or fruitfulness is not the focus of Phases 1, 2, and 3. God is working primarily in the leader, not through him or her. Many emerging leaders don’t recognize this, and become frustrated. They are constantly evaluating productivity and activities, while God is evaluating their leadership potential.”

The fourth phase, Life Maturing, occurs as we experience isolation, conflict, persecution, illness, and other life and work crises. “In this phase the leader’s experiential understanding of God is being developed,” says Clinton. “Communion with God becomes foundational; it is more important than success in ministry. Through this change, the ministry itself takes on an increased relevance and fruitfulness.”

Ministry Maturing and Life Maturing peak during the Convergence phase, during which God may move a leader into a role that matches his or her gifts and experience. However, many leaders do not experience this phase, whether due to lack of personal development, organizational hindrances, or providential factors. 

Very few experience the last phase, Celebration (or Afterglow), during which “the fruit of a lifetime of ministry and growth culminates in an era of recognition and indirect influence on broad levels. Their storehouse of wisdom gathered over a lifetime of leadership will continue to bless and benefit many.”

From my experience and observation, the process Clinton describes is spot-on. As we develop other leaders, there are several important takeaways from the reality of this process:

  • First, leadership development should not be rushed. Yet too often we look for youthful enthusiasm, for talent, for availability, more than for maturity, for humility, for confirmation of calling.

  • Second, while it is important to teach leadership skills (Ministry Maturing), it is arguably more important to help potential leaders understand their story (Sovereign Foundations) and how to discern and obey God’s voice (Inner-Life Growth).

  • Third, while the pursuit of comfort and stability is a part of human nature, they are barriers to growth (Life Maturing). Instead of trying to eliminate difficulty, focus on providing and seeking challenges and on learning and growing from them. Hardship enriches the soil and enables true fruitfulness.

  • Fourth, remember that not every leader will experience ministry Convergence, but everyone has the potential to develop maturity and the opportunity to remain faithful.

How do you see your own journey reflected in these phases?
How can you integrate Clinton’s process to improve the way you develop leaders?

Angie Ward