Over the years, the topic of leadership has been greatly discussed. Countless books have been written about leadership in various fields: business, church, schools, etc. Seminars have been offered in attempts to “teach” people how to be leaders and define leadership. Articles have been written in many publications asking “Are leaders born or made?” And many colleges and universities now offer entire courses on leadership development.

One would not be hard-pressed to walk into a bookstore and see several shelves filled with books on the topic. And – speaking personally – many of us have dozens of books on the shelves in our homes or offices on the topic.

With all this published materials on the subject, one might think leadership is found in the big decisions or grand acts. We read or hear about a CEO or church leader turning around a business or church, saving it from catastrophic failure and think she or he must have done something spectacularly huge.

But I want to proffer a different idea: is leadership a matter of “big ideas” or is it a matter of degree?

I believe leadership is by degree.

Years ago, I was asked to perform a wedding. We had the rehearsal, as usual, the evening before the wedding date. I was invited to attend the wedding rehearsal dinner, held at a nice restaurant at a nearby lake. After the meal, the family of the groom, asked me if I would like to go sailing with them around the lake on their boat before I return home that night. I agreed to go…it would be a great way to end a long day.

During that two-hour jaunt around the lake in the early evening, John, the owner of the boat must have gotten tired of me asking him so many questions about piloting a boat that large. He asked me if I’d like to “man the helm” for a while. I didn’t hesitate and said “Sure!” After giving me a quick lesson on how to pilot such a boat, he turned the wheel over to me and simply said, “When you sail, you need only to make small adjustments in your course.” Pointing to a light on the shore in the distance, he said, “Keep the nose of the boat pointing at that light and adjust in small degrees to keep on course.”

I learned that night that it takes only small degrees of adjustment to make great strides toward a goal. Consider the following diagram:



This illustration shows that John’s words about small adjustments is right on target: taking small steps results, over time, in great advances.

Too often, we want necessary change to be immediate (and smooth!). But such a desire leads to frustration and, often, misdirection (what I call “tangential leadership”). Patience and small steps are key in leading change over time.

So, let me encourage leaders: don’t fall into the trap of believing that change needs to be big; nor that it must be quick. Rather than endure the stress of trying to figure out the big things, determine the direction your church or organization needs to move, the goals that are to be accomplished, then step back and determine what small things you can do now that will, down the road, result in great advance down the road.

The longest journey starts with a single (and often small) step.


Dr. Dyton L. Owen is senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lexington, NE.

© 2014