Neither Born nor Made By Scott Rodin
The Truth Beyond the “Born or Made” Debate
There’s an ongoing debate in leadership studies as to whether great leaders are born or made. The nature vs. nurture discussion has focused on the traits of successful leadership and asked whether these were inherent in the DNA of some people, or whether they were simply acquired skills that some people have learned and plied more successfully than others. The crux of this debate has focused on the qualities of leadership.
The ’born’ camp has attempted to identify innate traits in personality and behaviors that uniquely equip certain leaders for success. Whether charisma, self-confidence, or an aptitude for visionary thinking, successful leaders have used this intrinsic advantage to rise above others in the leadership ranks.
The ‘made’ camp points to the experience of many who, while not naturally gifted for leadership, still found success through study, practice, accountability, and mentoring. They were ‘made’ great by the external inputs that were able to overcome their inborn inadequacies for the job. It is the ‘made’ camp that has spearheaded the flood of leadership courses, books, training, and programs that overwhelm our inboxes.
While leadership training is useful and necessary, and while some innate traits can prove helpful if employed properly in leadership work, we are still faced with the rather stunning reality that we remain in a crisis of impactful leadership. So-called natural-born leaders are failing and flailing just as dramatically as those who learned their way into the vocation. After 50+ years of intense focus on leadership training, we face an adequate number of quality leaders in every area of business, politics, and ministry. What are we missing?
Part of the answer may be found in a flawed methodology. Consider that most leadership books start with the question, “What do I need to do to be a good leader?” The process they’ve employed begins by defining great leadership, comparing it to how we lead, then adjusting our behavior to that of great leaders. Then voila, and like magic, we become the great leader we are trying to emulate. Following this methodology, leadership books teach traits and techniques, implying that if you just do the things great leaders do, you will be transformed into a great leader. Of course, that seldom happens.
The problem is not with the quality of the leadership techniques they teach; it is with the assumption that leadership is mostly about what we do and only partially about who we are. That’s where we must depart from the common way of teaching about leadership and take a different route.
Freed to Lead
At the Center for Steward Leader Studies, we propose that the choice between born or made is a false one. There is a third way. Great leaders in God’s kingdom, leaders whom God can and has used to accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, are neither born nor made, they are freed to lead!
God frees us to be steward leaders.
Becoming a Steward Leader
The process of becoming a steward leader who’s been set free does not start with our life as a leader, but with our life as a follower of Jesus. We must first be transformed in our understanding of what it means to be faithful in our Christian walk before we look at its implications for the way we lead. That is the new methodology: from whom we are becoming as disciples of Jesus to the implications of that transformation when we step into a role of leadership. In addition to offering a third way in the nature-nurture debate, this is also where the steward leader is distinct from servant leadership. Both are biblical, but too often we can respond to the command to be a servant-leader with the application of behaviors that make us look like servants. When we ask the question, “How would a servant-leader lead?” we have already missed the mark. Put another way, we can practice the techniques of servant-leadership but never believe in our hearts that we are truly servants. Without a heart change, servant-leadership becomes just another technique in our toolbox we can use when we think it might work.
Focus On The Journey
We must resist the temptation to look for a set of rules or lists of principles or traits to follow. Instead, we must start by paying attention to our journey of becoming a faithful steward, and then discover what it means to be a steward leader. As we let the Holy Spirit transform our understanding of the life of a faithful steward and as we commit to go deeper with Jesus on that journey, we will be prepared to lead more faithfully and powerfully than ever before. Jesus first wants faithful stewards, and then he calls those stewards into leadership. When our heart is changed, our work as a leader will also be changed. Our word for this change is freedom.
This is a freedom that is wholly transformative and summons from us our obedient response. That obedient response determines the effectiveness of our work. Both the calling and the function of a steward leader are based on this transformation. As we are being transformed into godly stewards, we are freed to fulfill our vocation as steward leaders. It is God’s calling, Christ’s redemption, and the Holy Spirit’s transformation that we rely on for our success. In this way, leadership is a work of our triune God in us and through us. And if it is God’s work, and we are called to obediently respond, then we are freed to lead courageously and humbly and trust God for the increase.
This freedom does not come easily. Our enemy wants nothing more than to enslave us again to a bondage that will rob us of all we have gained. Tri Robinson comments,
In this journey toward freedom, we must remember that remaining in a place of freedom doesn’t just happen. The enemy is forever trying to thwart God’s best plan for your life through temptation and the lure of ‘something better.’ Once we taste freedom, we must understand that the only way to remain in that place is through the disciplined practice of spending time deepening our relationship with God.
For the steward leader, this bondage comes from a desire to forsake the freedom of the steward for the lure of absolute ownership. It may seem strange to oppose freedom with ownership, but that is exactly the battle we face. Ownership here means a thirst for control, for power, and, ultimately, lordship. Freedom requires humility and trust, ownership sings to us that we are indispensable, that we have all the answers, and that our organizations could not live without us.
This must be seen for what it is – the lie of the enemy that stands directly opposed to the truth of God. The life of a steward leader is a battle for truth. Steward leaders are truth-tellers because they know the truth that has set them free.
While you may have been born with certain traits that can be used in God’s service as a leader, and while you may be the product of years of education and practical training in the mechanics of leadership, God will only be able to use you to the extent that you are fully surrendered to him and are experiencing the freedom to lead as a humble and obedient steward of all that God has entrusted to you. May your leadership be richly blessed as you steward it for God’s glory.
Portions of this blog were taken from The Steward Leader (IVP, 2010) and Set Free to Lead (Kingdom Life Publishing, 2022). Both books will be discussed at the Leadership Intensive taught by Dr. Rodin and other leaders from the Center for Steward Leader Studies
 Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint. (Ampelon, 2008) pp. 90-91
R. Scott Rodin is Senior Consultant/Chief Strategy Officer for The Focus Group. Over the past thirty-eight years, Scott Rodin has helped hundreds of organizations improve their effectiveness in leadership, fund development, strategic planning and board development. Be sure to read Dr. Rodin’s newest book is titled, The Greater Mission.
Scott Rodin will be leading a 6-hour Leadership Intensive at the Outcome Conference 2023 entitled, Set Free to Lead. In this intensive, you’ll discover that when Jesus promised ‘Life in all its Fullness’ he meant that for leaders as well! If that is not your leadership experience, then prepare to engage in a rethinking of leadership from a one-kingdom, steward perspective. We hope to see you there!
What is Christian Leadership Alliance?
Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.
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