Tag Archive for Leadership Emergence Theory

Do As Much As You Can Until You’re 40

When I was in my teens and early 20’s I really didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do with my life. This was a struggle for me, as I searched for what I thought should be my purpose, and where I thought I should use my gifts and abilities. I worked at a variety of jobs, went to college and graduate school, and sought counsel from others, but still felt like I wasn’t sure where I was going and what I was supposed to do. And then I had a conversation with my dad, and he shared with me a life principle that I had heard him share with others, and over the years since that time I have begun to understand the real meaning and value behind his statement. What he said to me during the time of floundering in my life was this: “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”


At the time, I only saw a lesson on the surface– do as many jobs as I possibly could for the next 15-20 years of my life, and then pick one of those and focus on that one – but that wasn’t the lesson he was trying to teach me. In reality, I did get to participate in a wide range of work experiences, including construction labor, mason’s tender, laying carpet, electrician’s apprentice, waiting tables, retail sails, meat butcher, teacher, family therapist, restaurant manager, newspaper delivery, door-to-door sales, and a number of others. All of those things were valuable for my development (which, it turns out, was part of the lesson), but his message to me wasn’t that I should do all those jobs, and he wasn’t trying to tell me to seek out as many different jobs as possible. His message was that I needed to be a learner first, learning from every experience that I would encounter, and then I could begin to apply what I learned into the life purpose that developed.


I think I may have first realized this true lesson in his statement when I studied Leadership Emergence Theory as part of my doctoral program. Leadership Emergence Theory, based on research conducted by J. Robert Clinton, views leadership development as emerging out of the stages of our life. He breaks our life experience down into several smaller stages, each characterized by particular principles and events, and it is through these stages that the combination of your experiences and the skills you develop eventually merge together in preparing you for impact and leadership in a particular way. Ironically, we usually are not able to see how these things all converge until after it has happened and we look back on the road that brought us there. It is then that we can often see the variety of events and experiences that played such an important role in shaping who we have become. This was the lesson that he was trying to show me, that every experience I would have, whether I realized it or not, would be part of shaping who I would become and how I would discover the best use and fulfillment of my gifts.


Jim Collins, in his book Great by Choice, describes the concept of firing bullets, and then cannonballs, to explain how successful organizations intentionally apply limited resources to a variety of ideas until they are confident of which one will work, and then apply great resources to that one. I believe we can make a parallel application to our lives. There is a lot of value in “firing bullets” with our lives, by shooting at a variety of opportunities and experiences, and then learning from those until we can hone in on the best use of our own specific skills and abilities. Then, once we have begun to focus in on our purpose, we can still pull many lessons from those other experiences that will help us where we are now.


So, when dad said to me, “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life,” I now know that what he was really trying to teach me was to be a learner, learning from every experience, and to apply what I learned, and that would eventually take me to the place in my life where I could do something well and lead others in the process.   Interestingly, I realized this same truth several years ago in the Bible, in a study of the book of Ezra. One particular verse in that book (chapter 7, verse 10) caught my attention, when I read, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” I was struck with the knowledge that Ezra, a leader of the people had first taken time to learn (“…to seek the Law of the Lord,…”) before he was ready to apply what he had learned (“…and to do it,…”), and it was only after that, that he was prepared to teach others and to lead.


I now pass the same wisdom on to you, even if I don’t say the same words that my father said: learn as much as you can, and apply what you learn, until that body of knowledge and experience shapes you into a person of purpose and influence. But if it helps you to remember, I will say it like he did – “Do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”

A Leader is a Reader

When I was in high school, I remember my father often sharing nuggets of wisdom with people (he still does).  One such pearl was a statement he would make about the importance of reading: “If you can read well, you can learn to do anything well.”  He would make this comment when the conversation around the dinner table was focused on one subject or another in school, or how one of us – his children – was doing in a particular class, or what we were learning.  He would say something about the value of that subject, but then he would add his statement about the value of reading.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that I grew up in a family of readers.  When I was little, my father read to us every night (I can remember listening to him read the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I have since read to my own children, along with the Chronicles of Narnia books, by C.S. Lewis).  As I grew older, it was not uncommon, on a quiet evening, to find us all sitting in the living room, each reading a good book. And I have continued to read as much as I can as an adult; although, to be honest, there have been periods when I found it nearly impossible to find the time to read.

As I reflect over the time that has passed since my childhood, I can identify several books and/or authors that have had a significant influence on me.  The Bible would be at the top of the list; as a follower of Jesus, it has shaped my worldview (and continues to do so), and profoundly impacts how I understand and navigate the world.  Reading most of Louis L’amour’s western fiction as a teenager helped to shape my independence and determination, and influenced my perceptions of the characteristics of rugged manhood.  When I read Earnest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my 10th grade English class, the poem by John Donne that was referenced at the beginning of the book and from which the book gets its name struck me in a way that I have never forgotten: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this one poem helped me to understand the importance of relationship and connection, which has in turn shaped my views on leadership (I have quoted that line a number of times in conversations about leadership and organizations). I could add a number of others to this list of personally influential books, including books like The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien; Man to Man, by Charles Swindoll, All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot; and even Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson, and Gary Larson’s The Far Side had an effect on my sense of humor (or, perhaps better stated, reflected my sense of humor).

When I was working toward my Ph.D. in leadership, two books in particular had an effect on me early in the program.  The first was called Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley.  This book explored the scientific principles of Chaos Theory, and translated those ideas into leadership principles.  The impact of this book for me was not so much the content and the leadership principles, as it was the fact that, in reading the book, I began to make connections in my own mind between truths of the Bible and effective leadership principles and practices.  I don’t believe that Wheatley is a Christian author, and I’m pretty sure that was not her intent in the writing of the book, but it was a turning point in the way that I read books on leadership.  The second important book for me was called The Making of a Leader: Leadership Emergence Theory, by J. Robert Clinton.  This book presented a theory on the formation of leadership that, as I read, resonated deeply with me because it reflected precisely how I viewed my own development of leadership.  As I read through Clinton’s stages of leadership emergence, I could look back over my life and see that I had followed the same process he was describing.  In fact, the theory of leadership presented in this book became the supporting theory for my doctoral dissertation.

I continue to read regularly, and with variety.  My personal habit is to be reading four or five books at any given time – typically one on leadership, one on Christianity or spiritual growth, one on history or general knowledge, a work of classic literature, and a book of enjoyable popular fiction (at the time I am writing this, I am in the process of reading The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Chabris and Simons; Disciplines of a Godly Man, by Hughes, Victory at Yorktown, by Gingrich, and Don Quixote, by Cervantes).  Some books I read purely for entertainment and enjoyment, but some I read in order to intentionally learn and grow.  For those books (usually the books on leadership and the books on spiritual growth) I take notes on 4” x 6” note cards, summarizing and outlining the main ideas of each chapter, and I keep those sets of note cards stored alphabetically by book title in a file box to keep them handy for reference at a later date.

You don’t have to read in the same way that I do, but you should be reading.  You should read books that challenge your thinking, books that help you to learn in your particular field of work, books that help you to grow as a leader, books that broaden your general knowledge.  All of these types of books shape your thought process and ideas and stretch the muscle of your brain.  In the process, they can help you to become a more knowledgeable and effective leader, because you will learn.  So I would challenge and encourage you to be disciplined and intentional about reading.  Read for enjoyment.  Read to learn.  Read.

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.