Leadership: Being or Doing?

January 10th, 2013 / 7 Comments

In light of an upcoming leadership conference I’m directing, I’ve been thinking about issues of leadership. The process is pushing me to think anew about the role and nature of leaders.

The NNU Wesley Center conference, “Leadership in God’s Reign of Love,” is coming soon: February 7-8. (Here’s a link to register if you have not already done so: register.) We’ve got a great line-up of speakers, including Walter C. Wright, Jr. , Tom Nees, Ed Robinson, Tammy Condon, and Sherri Walker.

Why, How, and What?

All of my preparation work has ignited a desire to think more deeply about leadership in general and my own style of leadership. Two more general leadership books have helped me.

In his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek writes about the “what,” “how,” and “why” of leadership. He says most people concentrate on the results – the “what” they want to accomplish as leaders. Others realize getting to the results is not likely without a good strategy or plan – the “how.” So they spend most of their time thinking about the process of getting results.

Sinek argues that the big and most important question is the “why” question. He offers many examples of companies and leaders who became very clear about their purpose and passion. This clarity and the drive to stay true to it brought them success in the other areas.

At the Leadership in God’s Reign of Love conference, we’re going to spend a great deal of time with all three questions. I’ve asked about two dozen people to lead table discussions that allow conference participants to wrestle with these three major questions in their own leadership contexts.

The second book I’ve been reading is called, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter. The book basically argues that small conversations are often the most effective way to develop positive change. Getting people together to talk about what matters most in leadership can lead to amazing transformation!

Missional Leadership

Each year, I teach a graduate level course on missional leadership. While other courses in the missional leadership program focus on a variety of issues, my class takes the doctrine of God as central to thinking about the topic. We ask, in short, what kind of leader might God be?

In most classes, students report that the discussions we have about God’s power are most insightful. I ask about divine sovereignty, and I wonder aloud if God has the power to coerce. We then talk about persuasion and coercion for God as it might relate to human leadership persuasion or coercion.

Most students report that they believe God works persuasively, which includes inviting cooperation and contributions from others. And they say missional leaders should imitate God in this kind of leading.

All of this leads me often to ask about a classic philosophical question: does it matter more who we are or what we do. In leadership terms, is leading more about being or doing?

In my mind, the “being vs. doing” issue inevitably leads me to emphasize both. We don’t think leaders act as leaders unless they “do”: they lead. But leading shapes our character and develops habits in us that create us as leaders: we “become.”

Join Us!

I’m looking forward to the February leadership conference at NNU. I honestly think the kingdom of God – God’s reign of love – will be positively influenced by those who come together at this conference to consider what leadership looks like today.

I hope you can join us at the conference!

Add comment


John W Hawthorne

Tom: Thanks for this. About 20 years ago I came up with a leadership analogy I’ve always liked and has served me well.

Some leaders try to lead as if they’re driving a motorboat—just accelerate and overcome all obstacles to make things happen.

The best leaders act as if they’re piloting a raft—the point is to find the current and stay in it while navigating around the obstacles along the way.

In my best administrative days, I was piloting. Whenever I got in trouble and/or faced lots of conflict, I could be sure i was oversteering.


isn’t human-being always a matter of doing(s)?
have you read Jack Caputo’s work on the “weakness” of God?
I would recommend some serious reflection on the dangers of the tyranny of the means, in so many organizational efforts what had been designed as means to specific/contextualized ends all too often become the effective (and often unreflected upon) ends.

Andrew Henck

Tom: some great thoughts on important questions we should be asking in our own leadership contexts. I’ve been a big fan of Simon Sinek’s TED talk for a while. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

As for your classic philosophical question: I think the call for countercultural leadership puts decades of theory and practice and flips it on its head. With modern ideas of leadership being grounded in models of position and power, we’ve realized that this is not only no longer valued in most contexts but also diminishes the influence and potential of “followers.” Burns’ transformational leadership model recognizes the importance of elevating followers’ needs above their own. I would see this to be most symbolic of God’s work in us and the Kingdom. If you haven’t read “The Hole in Our Gospel,” by Richard Stearns, I recommend it—especially for your missional leadership students.

Unfortunately, in a status-driven culture where social interactions begin with “what do you do” rather than “tell me your story,” we’re enamored with the pursuit of climbing ladders “to the top” of our workplaces and organizations. If we reframed our understanding with these questions, I believe we would see not just good, but great leadership that exists to meet the needs of others while transforming them for the future.

Gary Condon

Thank you for this article.  My thought has always been that God is an enabler.  He enables me to do His work.  My part is to step into the vision provided and follow the doors of opportunity He opens.  That’s His leadership method.  I have tried to follow this principle and so far it has worked fairly well.

Thomas Jay Oord

Al Truesdale writes:

I enjoyed reading our article. I think that Sinek is correct.  You are correct as well to conclude that “being” and “doing” must travel together.  How one “is” will inevitably be expressed in what one “does.”

I have seen people fail when assigned to leadership roles because they didn’t have the required “being.” Sooner or later, “being” “outs.” One of the intriguing things for me is that often people who have no great desire to lead continue to be thrust into that role, and often do quite well.

Another intriguing piece is that leadership is easily “theorized.”  But in the trenches the thousand little “gruntwork” pieces of leadership usually don’t look very theoretical.


John W Dally


In response to your 1/11 post: Working for an engineering company in the ‘70’s there was an approach to developing leaders. They used the Peter Principle, “If you elevate someone they will rise to the higher level.”  People were continually elevated in the company. However, when they failed at a new level they were let go. An industry publication spoke against this process. Instead of elevating someone until they failed and then letting them go, back them up where they could be a valuable leader at that level.

Leadership cannot be taught or coerced. It comes out of our being. As we seek to find our “being” we may fail and fail often. But when we find our being our leadership becomes natural and effective.

lige jeter

Dr. Oord, I had the privilege of sitting in Dr. Phillips (Louie Bustle’s Father-in-law) class at TNC. I also attended his church while living in Smyrna Tn. On occasions I was asked to speak and there was a plaque on the pulpit that quoted John [12:21] in part; “Sir, we would see Jesus.” The high water mark of leadership, for me to strive for, is found 1Corinthians [11:1] where Paul said; “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”  For me this is both being and doing with nothing to hide.

In comparison secular leadership is somewhat different from Christian leadership. In the secular world a manager or supervisor can dictate the task to be performed and use his or her rank to get the job done regardless of example set forth.  In the Christian community we cannot demand support and our leadership is volunteer based and depends largely upon our ability to lead those to join in the appointed task. The world would be different if all would lead by example.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Type in all 5 of the digits below to leave a comment. * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.