By Dan R. Ebener

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles by Dan Ebener on leadership in the Catholic Church. They are excerpts from his latest book on leadership, to be published this fall.

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Pastoral leadership is a vocation. Anyone can be called to leadership. It is part of what Lumen Gentium called “the universal call to holiness,” a phrase quoted by every pope since Vatican II. Recognizing this universal call raises the hope that the challenges of leadership can be embraced by clergy and laity – and that change will happen in the Church and the world.  

Distinguishing leadership from management

Viewed separately, leadership and management are necessary but not sufficient. Viewed together, they offer a recipe for organizational success. Leaders deliver strategy. Managers develop structure. Leaders promote change. Managers provide security.

Management provides structure in our lives. Leadership promotes life in our structure. Someone else can appoint you as a manager. But no one can appoint you as a leader. You can be promoted into a position of authority. But leadership? Leadership is your choice. 

Managers, teachers, parents, coaches and pastors can and do practice leadership at times. However, they are not leaders per se. Leadership is not ex officio. We do not engage in leadership activities simply because we hold a title or position.

My Definition

After reading hundreds of definitions, I have gravitated toward the work of two authors, Joseph Rost and Ronald Heifetz, in defining leadership as:

“… a voluntary, interactive process that intends adaptive change”.

Leadership begins when you feel passionate about changing something. You invite, influence and inspire others around you to join you in a change effort. When they begin to join you – voluntarily join you – you are leading!

Leadership can be hard to distinguish from good management. The main difference is that leadership creates change. Management focuses on the implementation of that change.

In management, it is clear who the authority figure is. That position does not change from day-to-day. In leadership, the change agent can rotate at various stages of the change process. However, such rotation becomes difficult when some members of the team have authority over others.

Leadership gets complicated when the change agent is a person in a position of authority, especially when that person is charismatic or when others report directly to that person. The tendency is to heap unquestioning loyalty upon the authority figure. The higher the authority, the more positive the praise.

Leadership and management are both important. Here is how I see it:

Leadership ...

  • strategizes for change;
  • involves a voluntary and interactive relationship; and,
  • strives toward a shared vision or common goal.

Management ...

  • structures the order of a workplace;
  • involves an authority relationship between a boss and direct reports; and,
  • administers operational tasks such as human recourses, finance and techology.

Whether you are the best player on your soccer team, or the pastor of a church, if you are at the top, the people will most likely proclaim you as a “leader”. Just remember that being promoted to a position of authority does not make you a leader. You must choose leadership.

Words matter. Words frame our reality. They define our meaning. Words used carelessly can change the meaning of a sentence. Or a headline. If leadership is a core value – and it is for me – then how we define it is more than a scholarly exercise. It is fundamental to my mission in this book. Developing pastoral leaders has become my life’s work. 

Next issue: Leadership is a collective activity.