Years ago, several denominational executives summoned me to discuss recruitment for a yearlong leadership development program for young clergy. As the meeting got underway, it became clear that they were particularly concerned by the fact that the program was enlisting youth ministers.

Why, they asked, did I think youth ministers were leaders?

These denominational leaders believed that leadership is limited to people with certain roles and titles, with work that has particular scale and scope. They were — and are — not alone.

In the Industrial Age, American Protestant congregations and related institutions all too often adopted a mechanical view of their employees. Leaders could afford to hire more people and push ineffective or inefficient employees to the side. With labor plentiful, it was far easier to bring in someone new than to cultivate talent within the current employee ranks. Everyone was replaceable.

Today, the distinction between leaders and followers is increasingly complicated in most organizations. In many places, nearly all the employees are involved in producing services, managing budgets and developing relationships.

Given the complexity of the challenges most companies face, innovative solutions are needed in every aspect of the work. Improving services, controlling costs and managing multiple priorities is the work of every employee.

These challenges require employees, across levels and roles, to exercise leadership skills to understand the situation, make sense of how to respond and involve others to make things happen. They also require senior leaders to adopt a new mindset about nurturing talent to prepare employees at most levels of responsibility to work in this increasingly complex environment.

The mindset that informs the way many organizations look at developing leaders is more akin to agriculture than to industry. Those with responsibility for guiding the organization cultivate the conditions for the work to flourish. This means cultivating the people.

But how? 

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