What is Leadership Emergence Theory?

J. Robert Clinton’s (1988, 1989) Leadership Emergence Theory is particularly meaningful to me, because it was the theoretical basis in my own research for my doctoral dissertation.  It is a model of leadership development that originated out of research of the formation of leadership in biblical leaders and in significant historical ministry figures, and so is specifically applicable to a Christian view of leadership.  Clinton describes this theory as the concept that “all of life is used by God to develop the capacity of a leader to influence” (1988, p. 9) including internal processes, external processes, and divine processes, both formal and informal.

Leadership Emergence Theory divides the leadership formation and emergence process into six stages, or phases, over the lifetime of the leader. The first, Phase I, is called the Sovereign Foundations phase. It is in this initial stage that God providentially works with the foundational items in the life of the leader-to-be in preparation for future leadership, beginning from birth. Phase II is the Inner Life Growth phase. In this stage, the emerging leader receives both informal and formal training, and there are four predominant means through which the training takes place:  imitation modeling, informal apprenticeships, mentoring, and academic study. Phase III is the Ministry Maturing phase. In this stage, emerging leaders serve in ministry as their prime focus, and get further training, and it is also during this phase that the discovery of giftedness takes place.  The following stage, Phase IV, is the Life Maturing phase, during which the emerging leader is able to identify and begin using his combination of gifts, training, and experience (called “gift-mix”) with effectiveness and impact, and learns to develop its use to its full potential. The pivotal stage is Phase V, the Convergence phase, in which the leader becomes most effective in his role as a leader and in his ministry, as his potential is maximized and exercised.  Unfortunately, only a few leaders ever experience this phase in their lifetime.  Even rarer is the final stage, Phase VI, or Afterglow.  This phase follows the active ministry of a leader by influencing a community based on a lifetime legacy of leadership.

There are three variables which are essential to the explanation and formation of this theory: the process variable, the time variable, and the response variable. The time variable refers to the previously defined phases of leadership development. The time spent in each of those phases can vary, and in some instances can overlap, from person to person. The response variable refers to the way in which the leader responds to people, processes, and events that God brings into the life of the leader. Often, the response directly affects the progression and spacing of the time variable. The process variable, however, is “the core variable around which the theory integrates” (1989, p. 29). This variable is defined as “critical spiritual incidents in the lives of leaders . . . sprinkled densely throughout their lives . . . [that] are often turning points in terms of leadership insights” (p. 29). “Processing is central to the theory. All leaders can point to critical incidents in their lives where God taught them something very important” (p. 25).

In addition to the three variables that affect the lifetime of development, there are also three concepts that are “foundational to understanding the analysis of a person’s life” (1988, p. 42): patterns, process items, and principles. Patterns “deal with the overall framework, or the big picture, of a life” (p. 42), and describe a repetitive cycle in leadership development that may involve “periods of time, combinations of process items, or combinations of identifiable concepts” (pp. 251-252). Process items “deal with the ways and means used by God to move a leader along in the overall pattern . . . those providential events, people, circumstances, special interventions, and inner-life lessons that can be God’s way of indicating leadership potential” (p. 42). Principles “deal with the identification of foundational truths within processes and patterns that have a wider application to leaders” (p. 42). In the emergence of a person’s leadership, these three items provide an understanding of the shaping of that leadership, and provide application to further personal leadership development and to the development of others.


Clinton, J. R. (1988). The Making of a Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress.

Clinton, J. R. (1989). Leadership Emergence Theory. Madison, WI: Printing Plus.



  1. Matt Vander Wiele says:

    Jeff. Thanks for the systematic description. In making the difficult connection from leadership theory to church leadership or a correct philosophy of Christian education. I was wondering what your thoughts are on where shared leadership fits into this idea especially in the second phase of imitation modeling?

    Second, as a Christian leader, how does the emergence theory address the affirming of a leader through biblical community (local church) as opposed to someone just following the stages… Getting to the end and proclaiming themselves a leader. In other words is it possible that someone could individually move through the stages and come out being a poor leader? Is there a measurable evaluation outcome for the success of the theory? I would assume this would lay in the hands of church leadership?

    The issue of mentoring is extremely important. Edward Smither wrote a great book called Augustine as Mentor.

    How important do you think shared leadership is to successful leadership?

    nice blog
    Thanks Jeff,

    • admin says:

      Imitation modeling is one of the ways through which leadership development happens in the life of someone. Typically, in this phase, someone is in the “learning process,” not the “leading process.” In other words, at this stage someone is still in “school” (both formal and informal). In church leadership, this would be the experience of being mentored and taught, and the developing leader learns from the example of someone. An individual generally begins leading while still learning in the next phase.

      An important part of the process of leadership emergence involves the choices that the developing leader makes. The individual chooses whether to respond to the process items and experiences. So the emergence of good leadership still depends on the how the person chooses to respond. Keep in mind, Leadership Emergence Theory is a descriptive model, not a prescriptive model. It describes what the process looks like in the life of a Christian in whom leadership has developed, rather than prescribe how someone becomes a leader. Clinton’s research identified what the process looked like in the development of Christian leadership, first by studying leaders in the Bible, then by studying historically significant Christian leaders in ministry.

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