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Whole Leaders and Thriving Ministries By Dr. Rob McKenna

How can we build up leaders- whole leaders?

In order to create thriving communities of faith capable of withstanding the storms ahead for the sake of reflecting God’s love to the world around us, we must build up whole leaders. So, what is happening at the intersection of the Gospel and some really rigorous psychological science regarding developing leaders? And, what question could you ask yourself or others to begin the process of deep-seated leader development in your sphere of influence?


These are the traits we bring as leaders; extroversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness and even neuroticism. Self-awareness about these traits in us helps us understand how we will show up as leaders, and helps others develop their own frameworks for how to work with us. It’s nearly impossible to lead alone; knowing where we’re starting with regard to personality is critical as a foundation. And, our persona goes deeper than our personality. It includes our character and willingness to change and to consider the tensions inside of us between courage and reluctance, integrity and vulnerability, and even humility and conviction.

Question: What should others know about your personality and character that will help them to work with you as a leader?


We know that a leader’s presence, especially in high pressure and high uncertainty moments is powerful. A leader standing firm in the midst of the storm, providing clarity and calm when the rest are spinning into anxiety is key. What we often don’t think about is that a leader’s capacity to stand strong is built on a deeper level of awareness regarding their own tendencies under pressure. Fighting the temptation of crippling anxiety causes either over-correcting toward their own agenda, or peace-mongering to everyone else’s. Leaders with a strong presence are aware of their habitual response and choose to stay connected to the needs of others while being clear about their own convictions.

Question: Under pressure, are you more likely to get over-convicted and authoritative or over-connected and in a peace-mongering state?


Experience matters, but not because it means we won’t make the same mistakes in the future. Experiences matter because they make up 80-90% of the laboratory where leader development occurs. And, our past experiences represent the portfolio of challenges that has created our current level of competence to lead. We learn how to delegate, to inspire others, to navigate failures, to build strategies, and to communicate vision. For that reason, understanding our experiences – present, past, and future – is a key part of our whole leader formula. Being fishers of fish was relevant to being fishers of people. The same is true for leaders.

Question: What lessons have you learned from your past experiences that are guiding you as a leader today?


Leadership can be lonely, but leaders should not be alone. Research has shown the power of social support in buffering the stress and anxiety that life brings, especially for leaders. I would be reckless not to think strategically about who is surrounding you. However, it’s not only getting surrounded that is key. Part of our job as leaders is to begin to intentionally make an investment in the short list of leaders around us. All that requires is realizing that their story and developmental needs are like ours, specific to them and an intersection of many things.

Question: Who is surrounding you right now that is providing feedback, support, and advocacy, and what are you doing to intentionally invest in the development of other leaders near you?


The final and most fundamental piece of our deep-seated developmental picture is about calling and purpose. Calling and purpose are the keels that balance our ship in the midst of the storm. Our research on the most powerful strategies allowing leaders to show up well in high pressure moments made one thing clear. A leader’s personal sense of purpose (why they are leading in this moment) is critical. Calling and purpose include two different anchoring statements of will and direction – God’s will and our will.

Developing an alignment between God’s will for us and our own will compels us to a process of questioning that takes calling from a churchy, overused statement to something personal between God and us. As people created with agency, the Lord is interested in what we want as we discover ourselves more deeply, but never fails to provide the direction we need to live in accordance with His will. But, it’s often through a deeper process of questions, answers, and discernment similar to Jesus talking with Peter at the end of the book of John that brings that alignment.

Question: What is God speaking to you lately and how does His voice support or contradict what you want?

It will take more than leadership training classes, quotes from famous leaders, or airport books to get to deep-seated leader development. It requires us to take what we know already, and be willing to see leaders, to ask them questions and prepare them before the storm. Development that will sustain our ministries begins with questions that integrate the parts of a leader that are already connected in their experience, but rarely connected in their preparation. We owe those questions to them before they’re forced to answer the questions during the storm, and answer them alone.

All we need to do is start the conversations, for us and for them.


Dr. Rob McKenna is the founder and CEO of WiLD Leaders, Inc., creator of the WiLD Toolkit, and served as Chair of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Research & Development at Seattle Pacific University. He is also the author of Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure and he was recently Forbes and featured  among the top 30 most influential I-O Psychologists.


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