This article first appeared in the MB Herald Mar. 9, 1990.
“Nothing grows under a banyan tree.”
This South Indian proverb speaks of leadership styles. The banyan is a great tree. It spreads its branches, drops aerial roots, develops secondary trunks, and covers the land. A full-grown banyan may cover more than an acre of land. Birds, animals, and humans find shelter under its shade.
But nothing grows under its dense foliage, and when it dies, the ground beneath lies barren and scorched.
The banana tree is the opposite. Six months after it sprouts, small shoots appear around it. At 12 months, a second circle of shoots appears beside the first ones, now six months old. At 18 months, the main trunk bears bananas, which nourish birds, animals, and humans, and then it dies. But the first offspring are now full grown, and in six months they too bear fruit and die.
The cycles continue unbroken as new sprouts emerge every six months, grow, give birth to more sprouts, bear fruit, and die.
Many leaders are like banyan trees. They have great ministries, but when they pass from the scene, there are no leaders to step into their shoes because they have trained followers, not leaders.
It is gratifying to train followers. They are an appreciative audience that makes us feel important. They imitate our ways. They don’t challenge our thinking, or go beyond our teaching.
It is easy to train followers. We decide what they should learn and how they should learn it. We encourage them to raise questions, and we give the answers. We teach them to follow our directives and to guess our minds.
There’s an immediate success in training followers. We can mobilize many to build our program. This approach is also efficient. But its success is short range. When we depart, we leave sheep but no shepherds.
As husbands and wives, and as parents, it’s easy for us to treat our spouses and children as followers – to demand they obey us and think and behave as we do.
As ministers, it’s easy to train our parishioners to be followers to make them dependent upon a professional leadership to carry out the ministries of the church.
As missionaries, it’s easy to treat indigenous converts as followers – to not trust them as long as we are around, and to make certain they carry on the work as we do.
In each case, we create dependent people, and kill the leadership potential in others. Such spouses, children, parishioners, and nationals never grow up. To do so, they must rebel against us.
Training leaders is less rewarding for our egos. We must teach people to think and decide on their own, to challenge our beliefs, and to argue with our decisions. When they take over, they will go beyond us and take credit for their own growth.
Training leaders is more difficult. We must value their input, and encourage a critique of what we say. We must grade them not on how much they agree with us, but on how well they think. We do not ask them to guess our minds, and we avoid putting them down, even though their initial responses are naive and simplistic.
We focus on problems they must solve, rather than on fixed bodies of information. Instead of making them memorize “Two times two equals four,” we ask them, “What times what equals four?” for in answering this, they discover the full nature of numbers.
Training leaders is less efficient in the short run because it takes time and effort that could be spent on the task. Decisions must be negotiated, plans constantly changed, and we must adjust our own schedules and goals. But it is more efficient in the long run.
Our reward comes when we find ourselves surrounded by young leaders discovering new abilities, assuming new responsibilities, and raring to take over and go beyond us.
Spouses who encourage their husbands and wives to be leaders develop family styles of mutual submission.
Parents who build their children as leaders begin early to teach them to think, and to treat them like young adults.
Pastors who teach their laity to be leaders encourage Bible studies and lay initiatives in the ministries of the church.
Missionaries who train nationals as leaders give them responsibilities early and support their decisions.
All must allow budding leaders the greatest privilege they allow themselves, namely, the right to make mistakes.
Training leaders who train leaders
Training leaders, however, is not enough. Too often we train leaders who, in turn, train followers. We teach them to think ideas, but not to build humans. They learn to use people to build programs, not programs to build people.
It is hardest of all to help young leaders catch the vision of training leaders and pass that vision on, but this is essential for a successful family, church, and mission. Paul writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
—Paul G. Hiebert was a missionary and anthropologist. Raised in India by MB missionary parents, he returned to India as principal of a Christian school after graduate studies in cultural anthropology. A prolific author, he taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Cal., and Trinity Evangelical School, Chicago. He died in 2007.