The Ascent of a Leader

Book Contents

  • Chapter 1: A Different Ladder to Success
  • Chapter 2: Big Leaders on Short Ladders
  • Chapter 3: Creating Environments That Uphold and Empower Us
  • Chapter 4: Nurturing Relationships that Ground and Sustain Us
  • Chapter 5: The first rung – Stepping Up through an Act of Trust
  • Chapter 6: The Second Rung – Choosing Vulnerability
  • Chapter 7: The Third Rung – Aligning with the Truth
  • Chapter 8: The Fourth Rung – Paying the Price
  • Chapter 9: Chutes and Leaders – Stories from the Fourth Rung
  • Chapter 10: The Fifth Rung – Discovering Your Destiny
  • Chapter 11: Keeping Your Balance – Seven Challenges of the Fifth Rung
  • Chapter 12: Becoming the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow

Summary

The Ascent of a Leader is a practical guide to developing character and influencing others in the context of community. According to the authors, leaders can’t reach their ultimate potential simply by growing in competence. They must also climb the “character ladder.” When competence outpaces character, leaders are ripe for a fall. To improve our character, they recommend finding a gracious environment and engaging in healthy relationships. In this setting, we can climb the first two rungs on the character ladder – (1) learning to trust God and the people around us, and (2) allowing ourselves to come under the influence of others. We continue to ascend the character ladder as we commit to speaking truth AND to facing the truth about ourselves. Climbing the character ladder often involves accepting short term set backs. But those who endure will become the kind of leader people want to follow. The authors conclude by sharing stories of individuals who successfully climbed the character ladder. How did they get there? What did it feel like to reach the top? How did they avoid falling off the ladder?

Helpful quotes

  • “…a leader whose skills outstrip his character formation will eventually falter.” (14)
  • “In environments where the definition of success does not include healthy relationships and character traits like honesty and integrity, leaders may accomplish much but never amount to much.” (20)
  • “In the absence of grace, there will be no reaching for potential.” (29)
  • “Capacity-ladder-only organizations strive for accountability in order to get things done, but they do so at the expense of people’s hearts. When leaders lose the hearts of their people, their people’s productivity will suffer. Creativity will wane. Initiative will die. Achieving a vision requires a unity of hand and heart, of vocation and soul.” (50)
  • “Isolation … is the primary reason why leaders give themselves the permission to lie…” (76)
  • “Invulnerable leadership models, along with the unhealthy isolation engendered by their lack of trust, always create and environment in which character development is at risk.” (87)
  • “This is the true test of character: not just coming under others’ influence but acting on the wisdom and truth of their counsel. Aligning with the truth distinguishes between those who use transparency to manipulate and those who submit in vulnerability to lives of integrity.” (95)
  • “One of the first signs of an endangered leader is a decrease in his willingness to hear and learn from the experiences of others.” (154)

Key ideas / recommended chapters

  • Chapter 3 offers great advice on how to create an environment of grace and explains why this kind of environment is needed for real character change to occur. This is one of the few leadership books I’ve read coming from the business world that explores the relationship between community and leadership development.
  • Chapter 9 is a good check against leaders who pursue their goals at any cost. Good leaders put the needs of the people around them above “reaching the top.”
  • The authors tend to measure success by public acclaim. Our good conduct should draw people to God (Mt 5:16), but praise in the public arena is not always or even often a measure of success for Christians (Luke 6:26).
  • The emphasis on finding a safe environment in which to grow should be balanced with the Bible’s challenge to penetrate hostile environments with the love of Christ.

Chapter 1: A Different Ladder to Success

  • Character flaws in the captain of the Titanic ultimately sunk his ship.
  • What we don’t see on the surface can bring us down.
  • If we want to make a positive difference in our sphere of influence, we should climb the character ladder.
  • “This unique ladder calls you to create and live within safe environments.” () >> But we’re called to penetrate hostile environments with the gospel (Luke 6:26).

Chapter 2: Big Leaders on Short Ladders

  • 70% of leaders do not “finish well.”
  • Traits of leaders who don’t finish well:
    • They stop listening and growing.
    • The attractiveness of their character wanes.
    • They stop living by their convictions.
    • They fail to leave behind “ultimate contributions.”
    • They stop walking in an awareness of their influence and destiny.
    • They lose their once vibrant relationship with God.
    • They drop out, plateau and sometimes need to be disciplined.
  • Leaders can do pretty well for themselves through skills alone. “But a leader whose skills outstrip his character formation will eventually falter.” (14)
  • Symptoms of leadership skills outpacing character:
    • A growing breach between what we say and do.
    • Feeling “unfocused.”
    • Fatigue from dealing with negative or difficult people.
    • Feeling like you’re constantly reacting to crisis and change.
    • Declining performance.
  • By contrast, choosing right leads to appreciation from the crowd. (16) << Jesus: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you…” (Luke 6:26)
  • The rungs of the capacity ladder are, from highest to lowest:
    • Attain individual potential.
    • Acquire title or position.
    • Develop my capacities.
    • Discover what I can do.
  • “The capacity ladder, though necessary, is not sufficient to ensure that our abilities will result in positive influence or an enduring legacy.” (19)
  • “In environments where the definition of success does not include healthy relationships and character traits like honesty and integrity, leaders may accomplish much but never amount to much.” (20)
  • “When leaders with undeveloped character rise up the capacity ladder, their actions have a negative impact on those around them, and these relationship issues can sap the strength of leaders and their followers like a viral infection.” (21)
    Symptoms of this:
    • Fragmented friendships.
    • Manipulation and deception.
    • Being threatened by challengers.
    • Undervaluing others.
  • Leaders need to intentionally ascend the character ladder.
  • Needy people are especially susceptible to misplaced trust (trusting in high competence leaders with low character).

Chapter 3: Creating Environments That Uphold and Empower Us

“… to motivate change and growth, leaders must master the dynamics of culture.” (26)

Grace (unmerited concern for each other) is a key part of culture that leaders need to mobilize. “In the absence of grace, there will be no reaching for potential.” (29)

Characteristics of a Culture of Grace Characteristics of a Culture of Ungrace
People feel safe. Mistrust.
They grow up. Conflict.
They trust each other. Rigidity.
They live authentically. Decreased problem solving abilities.
They celebrate each other. All sense that favor and love must be earned.
They laugh a lot. Loss of hope.
They produce better. Distorted view of reality.
They feel empowered. Declining productivity.
They sense who they are is OK, but know that greater things are expected. Manager loses credibility.
They feel free to make important contributions.  

You have to climb the character ladder to build an environment of grace.

Ways to cultivate an environment of grace:

  • Let people be themselves.
  • Increase communication and shared experiences.
  • Express care and concern for one another.
  • Set aside your personal agenda.
  • Accept people who look, act and believe differently.
  • Admit your own failures and declare your strengths.
  • Receive and depend on other people’s strengths.
  • Examine your expectations: do they release people to perform or reinforce your personal biases?

Think about the environments of grace you have been part of in the past. What did the leaders do to create this environment?

Chapter 4: Nurturing Relationships that Ground and Sustain Us

“The most significant factor affecting organizational productivity was… interpersonal relationships that we developed on the job.” (44)

People have needs that only God can meet: needs for attention, significance, protection, security and provision. Unmet, they will fall short of God’s purpose for their lives.

Two ways to increase isolation:

  • Running from relationships during tough times.
  • Pursuing relationships to achieve power over others.

“Capacity-ladder-only organizations strive for accountability in order to get things done, but they do so at the expense of people’s hearts. When leaders lose the hearts of their people, productivity will suffer. Creativity will wane. Initiative will die. Achieving a vision requires a unity of hand and heart, of vocation and soul.” (50)

“An organization without accountability is like a ship without a rudder. But to maintain a basis for healthy accountability, the organization must also accept its role as a community.” (53)

Chapter 5: The first rung – Stepping Up through an Act of Trust

Rung 1 of the character ladder: Trust God and others with me.

Chapter 6: The Second Rung – Choosing Vulnerability 

“Isolation … is the primary reason why leaders give themselves the permission to lie…” (76)

We escape isolation by choosing to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is more than being transparent.

Part of being vulnerable is allowing ourselves to come under someone’s influence… “submitting yourself to other’s strengths.” (81) The Bible calls this submission… letting someone love you, teach you, or influence you.

Vulnerability develops better character and produces much better choices on the capacity ladder. Other effects:

  • People gain access to your life.
  • You gain access to their life.
  • This promotes authenticity and integrity.
  • Integrity is uncompromising adherence to the truth… but must be exercised not just as a virtue but for the benefit of others.
  • Integrity elicits trust.
  • All this expands influence and productivity.
    e.g. Apollos’ teachability/vulnerability caused Priscilla and Aquilla to trust him with teaching and with people.

“Invulnerable leadership models, along with the unhealthy isolation engendered by their lack of trust, always create and environment in which character development is at risk.” (87)

“We must pursue intentional vulnerability, both individually and corporately, to go above and beyond our personal best.” (88)

Chapter 7: The Third rung – Aligning with the Truth

Van Gogh was a great talent but he wouldn’t take input.

“This is the true test of character: not just coming under other’s influence but acting on the wisdom and truth of their counsel. Aligning with the truth distinguishes between those who use transparency to manipulate and those who submit in vulnerability to lives of integrity.” (95)

“The climb up the character ladder is a climb towards interdependence.” (96)

“The truth about who we are cannot be wholly known without interaction with others. We all have blind spots that only others can see.” (98)

Character cannot be developed outside of intimate, authentic relationships.

“In Hebrew philosophy, a belief was not a belief until it was acted on. In Greek philosophy, belief could be separated from action.” (101)

“Obedience from the heart does not mean setting aside our God-given right to question or appeal. It does not mean giving up our right to affect our own destiny And it certainly was never intended to strip us of our sense of ownership in the work of our hands. Obedience from the heart does not mean a loss of self. Obedience from the heart does not mean compliance.” p. 104

The true test of compliance vs. obedience is where we place the blame when things go wrong. Compliant people blame others.

Trusting and vulnerable communities that radiate grace help us reach our full potential.

Chapter 8: The Fourth Rung – Paying the Price

On the fourth rung of the character ladder, there is daily tension between (a) enjoying the privileges of the climb on the capacity ladder and (b) setting some of those privileges aside so that we can make a profound difference in the lives of others.

Danger: “We may subtly shift our emphasis from what’s best for those under our care to what’s best for our ego, elevating the importance of a position above a higher purpose. We may succumb to the myth of arrival, confusing our capacity goals with our ultimate destiny, leading us into arrogance.” (112)

Paying the price implies suffering. It also requires trusted friends who can provide objectivity. If you lose objectivity in the midst of paying the price, you may lose your grip on the character ladder. Objectivity can be hampered by:

  • Crises.
  • False assumptions.
  • Unresolved life issues.

Two starting points for regaining objectivity: FAILURE and TRUTH.

How to turn back towards objectivity:

  • Acknowledge powers greater than yourself by entrusting yourself to God.
  • Consider the needs of the people around you above your passion to reach your goal.
  • Acknowledge risk and prepare yourself.

The fourth rung is tough, but worth it.

Chapter 9: Chutes and Leaders – Stories from the Fourth Rung

Good leaders willingly accept and endure pain, loss, or penalty for doing the right thing. They embrace the personal costs associated with putting their faith into action.

What is our ultimate goal? The character and influence that we were designed for and that frees us to become who God intended us to be.

“…climbing the character ladder can seem downright unfair at times. The higher you climb, the more you will be prone to wonder if sticking your neck out for truth, justice, grace, or love is worth the personal suffering that may result.” (128)

Resist the urge to escape potential setbacks associated with character ladder choices.

“When trained behaviors are distinctly different from who we really are, those behaviors will vanish under crisis, pressure, or competition.” (131)

“Paying the price can never be about winning in the short term – about competing or proving yourself against others. It’s about something beyond winning. It’s about reaching your destiny by entrusting yourself to the capable hands of God.” (133)

“Paying the price involves choosing to lead and follow from conviction, rather than reacting to circumstance.” (135) The type of environment we’re in will affect our ability to do this.

Chapter 10: The Fifth Rung – Discovering Your Destiny

Discovering your destiny (AKA synchronicity, serendipity, harmony, congruence, inner peace) depends on the process of developing character in the context of the right relationships and environments.

Examples of 5th rung leaders:

  • Mother Theresa
  • General Marshall (post WWII)

The goal is to reach the top of the character AND the competency ladder. Meshed together, both ladders extend each other.

All of this is ultimately up to God… “God places people he can trust into the right places at the right time. He tests and refines them on the character ladder so that when the right opportunities arise, they are ready for the challenge.” (146)

Chapter 11: Keeping Your Balance – Seven Challenges of the Fifth Rung

Challenges fifth-rung leaders must face in order to finish well:

  1. Confront complacency – avoid “overdependence on patterns of safety and security that can lead to indifference, smugness, and loss of creative energy.” (150)
  2. Search for new ways to care for and improve the circumstances of others.
  3. Continue to change and grow (which requires interdependency). “One of the first signs of an endangered leader is a decrease in his willingness to hear and learn from the experiences of others.” (154)
  4. Don’t measure yourself against some standard of arrival… place your destiny fully into the hands of God. Don’t pursue your potential at the expense of conviction and character.
  5. Share the rewards of your ascent. Fifth-rung leaders choose to benefit with their team and community, rather than just benefiting from them.
  6. Learn to manage your time according to your priorities. Honor your responsibilities in the right relationships at the right time.
  7. Continuously work to resolve your character weaknesses. Work through your unresolved issues rather than just wink at them or hope you can manage them away.

Do all this in an interdependent community where you give and receive love and pour your life out in service to others

Chapter 12: Becoming the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow

See Bill Thrall’s testimony of turning to God and giving up high-profile opportunities to do something that he and his wife felt was important.

“The character ladder is not about gaining greater control or a higher position or a larger quantity of influence. Rather, it’s about an ascent to a higher quality of influence, where we gain the integrity to find the right position at the right time.” (175)

“Community is the context for developing character.” (178)

How do you begin climbing the character ladder?

  1. Find friendships in which you can explore inner needs and strengths alongside issues of capacity. Find people you can speak truth to and receive truth from. Find an environment where there is unconditional acceptance.
  2. Practice managing and put time into it.
  3. Be comfortable with the idea that community will expose your weaknesses. Community is the context for developing character.
  4. Be ready to step UP or step DOWN and remember: “Each step brings us closer to our destiny if it leads to greater love for God and others.” (178) Helping others win is what matters. (top)