At some point or another, every leader goes through a leadership transition – a handoff from one senior leader to an upcoming leader or team. This is a critical moment for any organisation, which can either erode momentum or catapult an organisation into its next season of growth.
In his new book, The Magnificent Exit: Mastering The Art Of Leadership Transitions, Mergon Foundation’s Neil Hart delves into the traits of exceptional leadership and successful leadership transitions, looking to Jesus, the master leader, as the ultimate example.
Having time studying Jesus’ methods and techniques for raising up leaders, and drawing from the collective wisdom of diverse leaders, he brings us seven insights into what he believes to be ‘Christ’s pattern for us to follow’. Here is an overview of the chapter entitled ‘How to raise leaders’.
“Jesus called his disciples to a connected lifestyle,” writes Neil. “He asked them to belong before he asked them to believe. ‘Follow me’ wasn’t a statement of faith as much as it was a statement of family. Jesus’ first step in developing his leaders was cultivating belonging.”
He notes that although character is critical in leadership selection, there are many characteristics that do not tend to emerge in the normal settings of our modern-day working life. “For example, you may never see how someone treats their spouse or children. You may never know how they live out their faith or what they delight in when they’re running free. Prioritising quality time outside of a work setting is therefore essential to know and grow leaders.” He encourages leaders to ask themselves, what characteristics do I look for in new leaders? What would have me trust someone implicitly?
“Nobody follows you through the darkness unless they believe that light will eventually break through,” writes Neil. “The first step to raising a leader is not to give them your vision but to fill them with a vision to which their heart can respond. If you’re trying to convince people to serve your vision, then your vision is either too small or doesn’t need another person to serve it. If your vision plays an important part in the coming of the kingdom, then others will already be prepared for it. When you cast that vision, you should see people’s eyes sparkle as they recognise that this is why they were born. This is the first step in raising a leader,” says Neil, “and Jesus demonstrated it.”
Jesus showed us that encouragement, above all, yields the best results. But, Neil notes, there’s a stark difference between flattery and encouragement. “Flattery is excessive or insincere praise that will most likely be used to further someone’s own interest. Encouragement, on the other hand, is not always easy. It requires us to cultivate an eye for seeing what God has placed in people and then calling that to the surface, repeatedly and tenderly.”
Jesus taught us to appreciate and nurture the power of diversity. “Have you thought about how diverse his team was? Fishermen, a freedom fighter, a tax collector – each bringing an authentic expression of who they were.” Neil reminds us that Jesus worked with these differences and shaped them to create true leaders who would eventually be martyred for that vision. He adds, “They learned who they were through affirmation. They connected hearts because they knew they were seen, really seen.”
“Scripture is filled with the tests God has provided – never to fail, but to strengthen,” he writes. “Abraham was tested with faithfulness to trust God. This happened through many circumstances – a delayed promise, the offering of Isaac, foreigners, Lot, a beautiful wife, and the spoils of war. Joseph was tested with greatness. This happened through dreams, favouritism, slavery, prison, lustful temptations, and eventually facing his family. The list is long,” Neil says, “but the point is clear. Test those leaders with whom you want to work. Test them repeatedly so that they can be shaped by the hand of God in all these circumstances. This was Jesus’ technique for separating the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Correct and commission
Traditional testing methods only offer two outcomes – success or failure. But Neil suggests that Jesus taught a crucial lesson beyond the test. “Jesus showed us that failure is not final – it is an active ingredient in our development. If we try and minimise failure, then we fail as leaders to develop people thoroughly,” he writes. “We must commission our potential future leaders with work even if there’s further failure to come. When we commission up-and-coming leaders and allow them to make mistakes, we create perfect opportunities to correct them in a loving way. They will make mistakes, either then or at a later stage when the stakes will probably be much higher and the consequences far worse.”
“It’s not enough to raise leaders. We must release them,” he writes. “The generosity of senior leaders is seen in how open their hands are with those they raise. Will they direct them only toward their agenda or that of the kingdom?”
Neil recalls the account of Luke 9, where Jesus sent out his disciples without cloaks or money. Then in Luke 10 he instructed them to take a moneybag and knapsack. The difference in each scenario, he notes, is that they needed to be equipped differently. “Of course,” he writes, “the key factor for their equipping is the Holy Spirit (‘Wait until you are clothed with power from on high’). Likewise, we must ensure that we don’t release leaders without proper equipping. Whether we minister the infilling of the Holy Spirit or provide finances or teams and so on, we must send them with the very best of whatever they need to succeed.”
“When your time comes, how will you leave?” Neil asks. “How will you create enough space for the next generation of leaders to thrive?” Neil notes that so many leaders struggle to let go in fear that the next leader or leadership team will fail or do things differently. Jesus, on the other hand, suggests that leaving is essential, and good leaders plan well for their exit.
Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
“Jesus makes it clear that these rough-hewn humans, these fishermen and zealots and tax collectors, would be able to be all that he called them to be – and now much more because of the Holy Spirit. He knew they would lead out of their authentic and unique personalities like Peter did, imperfect but passionate. Complete leaders plan to leave while they’re still leading. They do it well, and they do it with joy.”
Reviewed by Sam Jooste