Learning to lead

Learning to lead in the Lord’s way has been a focus of building the kingdom since the days of Joseph Smith.

Zion’s Camp, that epic journey from Kirtland, Ohio, to help recover the lands and property illegally taken from Church members in Missouri in 1834, had as a prime purpose the development of leaders “who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham” (Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood course of study, Teachings of Presidents of the Church, Joseph Smith, p. 283).

“We gained an experience that we never could have gained in any other way,” said Wilford Woodruff, a member of Zion’s Camp and fourth president of the Church. “We had the privilege of beholding the face of the Prophet and we had the privilege of traveling a thousand miles with him, and seeing the workings of the Spirit of God with him, and the revelations of Jesus Christ unto him and the fulfillment of those revelations.”

When it came time to lead the Church west, Brigham Young and others knew how to lead in the spirit of Israel having been tutored and coached firsthand by the Prophet Joseph.

The call for seasoned leadership continues today.

“Where have all the leaders gone?” laments a recent report from the Center for Creative Leadership, a research study that shows a disparity between the leadership skills that are critical for success and current skills of leaders today.

The weakness of today’s leaders, states the report, stems from a lack of vision, communication, integrity and self-awareness.

The report notes that many CEOs of major corporations “may be leaders in their industry, but have not shown to be very good at leading people.”

“We seem to have lost our focus on leadership,” the report continues.

A leading researcher and author in the field of leadership described this leadership void by saying, “Around the globe, we currently face three extraordinary threats: the threat of annihilation as a result of nuclear accident or war, the threat of a worldwide plague or ecological catastrophe, and a deepening leadership crisis in organizations.

“Unlike the possibility of plague or nuclear holocaust, the leadership crisis will probably not become the basis for a best-seller or a blockbuster movie, but in many ways it is the most urgent and dangerous of threats we face today, if only because it is insufficiently recognized and little understood” (Bennis, W., Managing People Is Like Herding Cats, 1999, p. 21.)

In response to this void in leadership, Thomas Martin, a member of the Church and then-doctoral candidate, conducted a survey to determine whether mission service develops leadership skills, and whether the missionary program provides a model for other programs to imitate.

To quantify and qualify the effectiveness of the missionary program as a training model, the study identified some of the key elements of leadership to be vision, communication, integrity and self-awareness.

The doctoral survey supported what any returned missionary could intuitively testify — that the rigors of missionary service cultivate the finest qualities of self-development and leadership. Interestingly, the survey found that leadership development came less from the high-profile leadership positions of district and zone leaders but rather from the experiences of the companionship. Daily planning, resolving differences, setting goals, exercising initiative and striving to improve are elements best experienced in companionships.

Among its conclusions, the survey found that the best environment to learn leadership is where an experienced leader serves as a role model of correct behaviors. Such settings provide young leaders with opportunities to observe leadership in action and receive counsel and training.

It also concluded that the natural result of proclaiming the gospel was to grow in leadership skills. All aspects of leadership were developed and honed. Missionaries learn to work through difficulties with a vision and commitment. Character develops in the process of subjecting one’s will to the Lord, while learning to serve with heart and soul.

As a result of selfless service, missionaries come to know who they are, grow in confidence and, by their words and actions, are blessed with the Holy Ghost to stir others with their conviction.

The survey concluded that missionaries accelerate in maturity and understanding, making them more desirable as capable leaders.

In the experience of Zion’s Camp, the Lord provided a pattern of developing leadership by calling leaders who teach others by example and precept, while subjecting future leaders to the rigors of service in real-life situations. Missionaries repeat this pattern. Unspoken, but intuitively felt, missionaries who apply themselves with heart and soul to the cause of the kingdom are tempered and trained to serve still more. In the process, they learn to lead.