Defining Moments In Leadership Development

I was thinking about all the defining moments I have experienced or others experience that make them great leaders.  A defining moment is a point at which life takes a new turn because of some deep or penetrating insight, experience or expanded awareness.  Defining moments come in many unique ways and when they come they deeply alter perspective and action. I think of four specific ways defining moments enter the life of a leader.
Defining Moment of Reflection

I thought about a statement one of my students made the other night in class. “I cannot truly know myself by seeing myself just from the inside, I know myself more fully by hearing what others see on the outside.” This student faced a defining moment that will impact the rest of his life. He understood his connection to others in a way that he never had before. The defining moment came as an involuntary insight resulting from the rigor of academic study.  He was struggling with new ideas that challenged deeply held assumptions about himself, his context and his faith. Thinking theologically about what he realized I turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where Paul wrote:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.[1]

My student understood himself in a new way. His new insight sent him on a quest of attentiveness to the voices of those who reflect the impact of his behavior.  My student’s insight demonstrates that possessing a sense of belonging in relationship to others does not diminish a sense of self-identity it amplifies it.

If I reflect on this student’s statement psychologically then I turn to the work of Kegan and see that this young man has emerged from a time of differentiation to a new understanding of his interdependence on others. His new self-awareness has provided a new confidence and sense of contribution in life.  If my student did not pay attention to this defining moment he would have become a fearful leader isolated from the advice and help of others.

Defining Moment of Success

The most effective leaders I know recognize defining moments when they face them and they pay attention to them. The April edition of Harvard Business Review was devoted to how people deal with failure and success.  One article noted that people and organizations don’t learn as much from success as they do failure.  It is not that success doesn’t have something to teach us but that we don’t really investigate success.  The result of not thinking about why we are successful or what we should learn from success allows blind spots to occur.

In light of this observation about success I was delighted to read about a defining moment that came as a result of success in the life of a pastoral leader.  Mindi Caliguire writing in Christianity Today described a defining moment rooted in success:

Not long ago a pastor told me: “Mindy, we have a lot of young leaders. Most of our staff is under 40. We’ve launched two new campuses, finished a building campaign, and are making inroads into serving the marginalized in our community. The staff has been running hard and fast for a long time. I’m wondering what the trajectory of our ministry will be two years from now if we don’t intentionally focus on the well-being of our souls. Which marriages are likely to collapse by then? Which young leaders will be run over and left for dead?”[2]

Consider the power of this pastor’s reflection on his own success.  What would have happened if this pastor ignored the defining moment success brought about?  Defining moments are unsettling at any point but I have found that defining moments around success are deeply challenging in part because I have to consider the frailty of success and the reality that success is not an end it is a door way into a far greater challenge.  If this pastoral leader had not allowed the discomfort of this defining moment to challenge his success he would become a toxic leader – a reality clear in his own question.

Defining Moment of Change

Times of change also provide opportunity for defining moments to sneak up on leaders. Jack Connell wrote about his process of change moving from a familiar house and community to a new place.  Packing up his library lead him to reflect on what he would do differently in the future.  He wrote and article titled, “Ministry Mulligans – if I had it to do all over again.”[3] He gave five:

  • More collaboration, less competition
  • More pastor, less CEO
  • More rest, less rush
  • More friendships, less isolation

When I review the insights provided by Jack Connell I find a leader who has chosen to allow the exposure of his own limited perspectives to become a leader of greater capacity. If this leader had not allowed the exposure of his limited perspective and skill while packing his office he would devolve into a leader dependent on habits and blinded to the opportunities change put in front of him. Leaders blinded to opportunity ultimately become hopeless and cynical.

Defining Moment of Prayer

In the situations above, reflection, success and change, defining moments emerge that altered the course of a leader’s life.  But there is another situation that opens up deep processing and new defining moments – it is prayer.  The defining moments initiated by prayer are often realized over time and in hindsight.  King David wrote:

1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the LORD
and put their trust in him.[4]

For David patient and persistent prayer turned into a profound realization – God hears our cry. There is something about a leader who prays that affirms the reality of God and the acute insight that the Almighty’s attention encompasses personal struggles and turmoil – God knows me.  Leaders who are defined by prayer are leaders who know what it means to be present in the here and now.  These leaders see people not just big plans. Leaders who are not defined by prayer often leave their footprints over the backs of those they trod to success. Leaders who are not defined by prayer can fall prey to the illusion that leadership is all about them.  David understood that leadership was all about living the kind of life that ultimately draws people to the perception they can trust God.


There are no doubt other contexts where defining moments occur.  The outcomes however are similar. Leaders who embrace and not run from defining moments are leaders who: grow in confidence about their contribution (and not stagnate in fear and isolation); see success as a door way to greater challenges (and not becoming a toxic leader characterized by a lust for more); see opportunity (and not barriers that leave them hopeless and cynical) and see people (and not raw ambition alone).  What defining moment has entered your life?  Did you embrace it or run from it?  Are you the kind of person or leader you hoped?  Take a moment and re-engage your most recent defining moment – let its lessons sink deep and bring about transformation.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NIV)

[2] Mindy Caliguire. “Thruway or Partway?” (Source:; accessed 5 April 2011).

[3] Jack Connell. “Ministry Mulligans: If I had it to do all over again” (Source:; accessed 5 April 2011).

[4] Psalm 40:1-3 (NIV)

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