By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

So often when we hear the word “leadership,” we think about formal leadership and organizational charts. It’s true that formal or “positional leadership” counts for something. In fact, if you are employed, it counts for that – and that’s a lot.

But decades of research have made it clear that when it comes to influencing people’s behavior on a long-term basis, formal leadership all by itself doesn't count for much.

Indeed, you could argue that it counts more for why people leave jobs than for why they get them or keep them. One of the major reasons people give for moving on from one employer to another is the way they are treated by their immediate supervisor.

Relational forces

While people variously curse or praise their bosses, stay or quit their jobs, focus on excellence or sluff off, another life-shaping dramatic narrative is taking place in their lives. They are developing, nurturing or abandoning relationships that do much, in any event, to shape their lives.

It is only as we age that we begin to appreciate the influence, for good or ill, our parents had on shaping our lives. It is not unusual for it to be some of both.

I was blessed with a great dad. But we were not spared the conflict that comes with adolescence. By the time I was starting my own family, I had a definitive list of things I wanted to do differently than my father when it came to raising my kids.

It was a good list and for the most part I stuck to it. Only later did I realize I had a much longer list of things I was resolved to do exactly as he had done. They were just built into my character. Thanks, Dad.

Now, sometimes when I jot down a note, I see his handwriting in my own script – and I’m pleased.

Expanding webs

In the last century psychologist Erik Erikson and others outlined the expanding web of people who shape our lives as we grow to adulthood.

We begin life spending most of our time in the presence a primary caregiver. But the web of relationships that shapes us quickly grows to other family members, our neighborhoods, our schools and our communities. We make friends. We learn about their lives and families.

As we grow and learn, our awareness of our world grows even faster than our physical access to its many parts. In media we encounter people in other places and cultures. We discover that we live on a planet animated by vast diversity.

At some point – very early as recent research shows – we begin to prioritize the influence that various people have in our lives by trusting some more and some less, generally based on how they treat us. It’s a process that continues and usually becomes more conscious through our whole lives.

We begin to pick the people who matter to us -- who we will invite into our lives to influence and shape us.

For example, our nation has had 45 presidents. As presidents all of them are accorded equal formal authority. But how many do we look to as role models? Probably two or three: Washington, Lincoln and perhaps a more contemporary example. What about the rest? How many of them can you even name?

While their formal authority was consistent across the board, their impact on you certainly isn’t.

Most of them have exercised no leadership in your life. And it’s not a matter of proximity. The two that research says are the most influential – Washington and Lincoln – were long dead before we were born. In any event, the influence of lasting leadership has little or nothing to do with the formal leadership other people are given or claim for themselves. Let me offer another example closer to home.

In the formal realm of things, you had two parents, equally responsible in a biological sense for your existence. But in the social and developmental realm, it’s likely one of them had more influence on you than the other – and it’s also likely that parent continues to influence you in many ways even if they have been deceased for many years.

After that parent died, they had absolutely no authority over you. “So what?” you object. “He or she still plays a huge role in my life, affecting my thoughts and behaviors in countless ways.” That will be case as long as you draw breath. They continue to influence us because we invite them to. And we continue to invite them because of the relationship we shared.

Follower’s choice

As we grow and our world expands, more and more of our relationships are a matter of choice. We generally chose friends and mentors because of the way they treat us and the kind of relationships that develop between us.

Some of them – models and mentors -- exercise more leadership in our lives than others. Some we turn to for one area of expertise, others we turn to for other areas. These decisions are based on the kind of relationships we have with them.

In any case, we invite them to help shape our attitudes and our decisions – in a word, our lives. We try to behave in ways that make us think they would be proud of us. Often, if we can, we actively seek their affirmation.

These are the real leaders in our lives – the people who we invite into our lives to help shape us.

Some lessons

There are some lessons in the realization of how powerful, lasting leadership occurs.

  • If we want to be a leader – if we want to have a lasting influence on others for whatever reason – we should pay attention to the quality of relationships we have with others. It’s not simply a matter of being liked. Virtually every parent hears every child at some point in their lives shout, “I hate you.” As a rule, it’s a fleeting moment. Healthy relationships are built on trust, and trust takes time to grow.
  • If you want to benefit from good leadership, pick your leaders well. Of course you can’t pick all your leaders, but you can pick some – and you should do it carefully. Your choices will go a long way for determining the person you become.

In our Encounter we often engage in an activity that tests true leadership – the importance of various people in our lives. Reflecting culture, we ask teams to list the people who have received major honors in recent years. It might be the MVPs of a sports league or the names of Nobel Prize winners, perhaps recent Miss Americas.

Generally, working in teams, they perform poorly. (Sports maniacs are the exception – but only about the recipients of sports awards.)

Then we ask them, individually, to list the names of three teachers and three friends who have influenced them. Every blank line gets filled.

What does that tell us about leadership? It tells us that lasting, life-shaping leadership relies on relationships, not titles.

So no matter what titles you have – or don’t have – in your relationships you still have to deal with the question: What kind of leader are you going to be?

It’s a good question to keep with you as you move through Lent.