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Neil Cole’s Organic Leadership, reviewed by Michelle Vondey

From Pneuma Review Fall 2012

OrganicLeadershipNeil Cole, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 314 pages, ISBN 9780801072383.

Organic Leadership presents a way for ordinary Christians to emerge as leaders both inside and outside the church. Cole argues that church leaders often get in the way of members participating fully in the life and mission of the church. The greatest leaders, he says, are those who produce other leaders.

The book contains five sections plus an introduction and conclusion. The first, and longest, section addresses how “true and natural leadership” is hindered from emerging in the church because of “weeds” that have infiltrated God’s kingdom. One prominent example is the false dichotomies that we build between what is sacred and secular and the clergy and laity. From their position as upholder of all things holy, pastors can inadvertently send the message that ordinary Christians are not capable or educated enough to minister and share the Gospel with others. When pastors act as gatekeepers of God’s Word, Cole argues, members abdicate responsibility for reading and understanding the Scriptures for themselves. When the pastor’s work is seen as sacred and the laity’s work is secular, members implicitly believe that Christians who work outside the church cannot do ministry because their work is secular. The result is a vacuum of leadership within the church.

The second section deals with how leaders emerge. Instead of recruiting leaders from other ministries, Cole suggests that church leaders should reproduce leaders from members of the church and those individuals who have not yet made the commitment to Christ. He argues that leadership development should begin “in the fields” that are ready for harvest (see John 4:35). “When the church reaches new people,” Cole writes, “the changed lives infuse the whole congregation with energy” (p. 138). He contends that it is not leadership development but disciple-making that allows for true leaders to emerge.

In the third section, Cole argues that a good leader begins by being a good follower. The better a pastor is at following, the better that pastor will be at leading. Cole titles this section “upside down kingdom” because he says God’s kingdom is counterintuitive. Jesus, though having equality with God, became a servant and humbled himself, even to the point of death (see Phil. 2:1-11). Humility, Cole says, is a “core quality” of organic leadership (p. 189). To drive his point further, he argues that even more than leaders, we need servants to make the world a better place.

The fourth section provides practical steps for growing organic leadership. The key to reproducing and growing leaders is mentoring. Cole recommends that leaders mentor others one at a time, one-on-one. Emerging leaders learn by on-the-job training and by teaching others what they themselves are learning. As mentees grow and mature, mentors provide appropriate need-oriented training.

Cole offers mentors “exit strategies” from the mentor relationship in section five. That is, when the emerging leader is ready to assume greater leadership responsibilities, it is time for the mentor to let go. The strategies are geared toward empowering others. Cole suggests that the real role of a leader is to equip others so that the leader is no longer necessary. The leader in effect becomes a “disposable” leader. Referring again to the concept of servant leadership, Cole explains that the one who wants to be great must be a servant of all. “As a leader in God’s kingdom,” Cole says, “your success is no longer to be evaluated by what you do but by what others around you are able to do” (p. 276). The author concludes the book with contemporary examples of leaders who live out the concepts he lays out in this book.

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Category: Fall 2012, Ministry, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Michelle Vondey, Ph.D. (Regent University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), has more than twenty years’ experience working in non-profit organizations. Her interests are focused mainly on developing followers in their roles in organizations. She teaches courses in leadership, critical reasoning, and Christian discipleship. 2012 dissertation LinkedIn

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