Discovering Your Leadership Style (David Olson) -- A Review

DISCOVERING YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE: The Power of Chemistry, Strategy and Spirituality.   By David T. Olson.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2014.  207 pages.

            What does it mean to be a Christian leader?  That’s a question for the ages, with multitudes of answers.  Sometimes the answers come in the form of a direct and unvarnished borrowing from contemporary management theory, while at other times these answers are offered with a veneer of religiosity.  Perhaps the medicine is easier to take when couched in religious and biblical language, but the question always needs to be asked – where are the theological connections?  Upon asking the question, then we must ask a further question – how does our theology get put into practice in the modern age (or post-modern age)? It will, of course, do us no good to pretend that forms of leadership in the church have not been influenced by contemporary situations – we just need to keep these forms in conversation with our theology.

            Discovering Your Leadership Style, written by David Olson, who has had leadership posts within the Evangelical Covenant Church and currently serves as director of the American Church Research Project, is an attempt to bring leadership theory into conversation with the life of the church.  He envisions a church in crisis, a crisis that is created at least in part by leadership failures.  Or better, a failure of leadership in the Christian community to understand their leadership styles.

In the course of his work in the area of Christian leadership, Olson has developed a theory of leadership centered on a three-legged stool.  The legs are spirituality, strategy, and chemistry.  One’s leadership style, and there are six --  sacred leader, relational leader, inspirational leader, building leader, mission leader, and imaginative leader –  is determined on the basis of one’s strengths that are determined by utilizing an on-line assessment tool.  The assessment tool asks one to respond to a set of questions that suggest which leg of the stool is longest (chief strength), intermediate, and shortest.  There are different assessments depending on one’s position in the church or Christian community.  This first set of assessments is free, but to go deeper and utilize for a team there is a fee. 

The book begins by laying out his model of leadership, suggesting that one’s gifts and passions help determine how one will lead.  From there he discusses the three kinds of strengths – suggesting that some are strongest in loving God (spirituality), some loving people (chemistry), and others loving the world (strategy).  All are expected to love wisdom, the seat for the stool.  Olson believes that this model is simple and useful – more useful that other spiritual gift assessments. 

The third section of the book outlines the six leadership styles, offering definitions of the styles, and suggestions on how one might strengthen weaker strengths.  There is a constant refrain of encouragement to pursue coaching/mentoring support.  He moves from the styles to the ways in which his model interacts with personality tests and spiritual gift assessments.  He makes use of the gifts list, but focuses on Ephesians 4, which is more leader focused, over 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, and Romans 12.  He mentions the gift lists but doesn’t define them or explain why the gifts in these lists (beyond Ephesians 4) fit with the six styles.  Committed to this six styles model, he suggests that there are six styles of servants (if you’re not a leader, then you’re a servant), and churches/Christian organizations.                
          What should we make of this book?  As the author of a book on spiritual gifts -- Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening --I am very interested in conversations about spiritual gifts and how they relate to the life of the church.  As a pastor, I’m also interested in developing leaders – and developing my own leadership gifts.  Over the years I’ve read my share of such books, some of which are helpful and some that are not.  I found much to like in the book.  I also found some areas of concern.  There are a lot of references to the Bible in the book, but at times I felt like this was more a spiritual veneer than a well-thought out theology of ministry.  The perspective is evangelical, with the expectation that the readers will likely be evangelical.  This is seen in part in the choices of exemplars for each leadership style.  Since I scored as a “mission leader,” I’ll lift up those exemplary characters:  John Wesley (historical), Franklin Graham, Henrietta Mears, Rick Warren, Dorothy Sayers, and Chuck Colson.  He suggests that one will get a better sense of this style by reading their biographies.  I’m pleased to be numbered among the compatriots of Wesley and Sayers, and maybe even Henrietta Mears – but not so much the other three, especially Franklin Graham, whom I have major difficulties (as will most mainliners).    

The book, while an easy read and helpful in many ways, is also written in a fairly mechanical, template-driven fashion.  There is also a consultant-centered focus in the presentation.  He comes across – in my mind – as overly confident that he has the latest great tool that will turn around the church.  It is a tool that can be useful, but it’s not the only tool, and it could use some theological augmentation.  It is, as I’ve noted, readable, accessible, a quick read, and it has a nice selection of online tools to make use of. 

My suggestion is that it be used in partnership with other texts, especially ones that will further develop the theology of giftedness and leadership.  Since I’ve mentioned my own book, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great AwakeningI feel comfortable recommending it as a helpful, more mainline, partner in determining one's place in the life of the church.  Ephesians 4 is a useful text to work from, but there are other riches that should be looked into.    


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