Three Aspects of 21st Century Leadership

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Leadership in the 21st century has three aspects:

  1. Fearlessly DEFINING Reality
  2. Mindfully DISCERNING the Meaning in the Mix
  3. Creatively DISCOVERING New Paths Forward

In my new book, Makers of Fire, I layer this TRIAD of defining, discerning, and discovering on two others. The triangle of combustion and the triangle of social change.



FUEL            |       OXYGEN        |    HEAT                    = FIRE


Leaders have to stare reality in the eye. What’s out there? What’s really happening? If I had to give a one line description of reality I would say that we live in a time of “redefinition.”


“If I had to give a one line description of today’s reality
I would say that we live in a time of “redefinition.”

(Click to tweet)

Marriage is being redefined. Gender is being redefined. History is being redefined. Identity is being redefined. Nation States are being redefined. Right and wrong, good and evil are being redefined. In this time of redefinition, sources of authority are challenged. Standing on the Bible, the Constitution, an interpretation of history, a tradition, or even on “what works” are no longer credible supports for what is good, right, and true.

All of these are “Artifacts,” things humans make, ways humans think, patterns in which human organize themselves. They are future artifacts. Future archaeologists will study the things we make today and try to understand us. We can also study them as a way of studying the potential futures we are making possible.


I wrote Makers of Fire to help reorient the church towards the future that it might better influence the present. Preorder your copy today.
I wrote Makers of Fire to help reorient the church towards the future that it might better influence the present. Preorder your copy today.

To make our time of redefinition even more complex, media keeps everyone alert to the fact that there are contrasting “redefinitions” emerging. Not everyone agrees on what marriage means, whether the United States is right or wrong, whether murdering infants in the womb is good or evil. Not everyone even agrees that there is such a thing as good and evil.

Leaders must look for meaning and purpose within this chaos. They must create compelling narratives, which give context and meaning to human existence, in which others can see themselves fitting and belonging and becoming the people they desire.

For Church leaders this means learning to be comfortable in a setting in which their narrative is not the narrative of the majority, but of a niche. But “narrative” doesn’t mean just a tagline. It means telling a story one deeply believes and believing the story one tells enough to inhabit it.


Leaders must nurture new communities which will create new ways forward. For church leaders and churches this will mean “living out” their story with daring and risk. Rather than seeing the Bible or tradition as a limiting factor, it needs to see these as launching pads for improvisation. There’s an old joke that if, while playing a guitar, you hit a bad note, it’s a mistake. If you hit two bad notes, again, it’s a mistake. But of you hit three bad notes, it’s jazz.

Well, no. It’s not.

Improvisation is not just hitting any random note, as if anyone can do it. Improvisation is best accomplished by those who know the fret board best. When you know how a line is supposed to go and you deviate from it in search of something new and fresh, then you’re improvising.

Our season of “redefinition” is not always one of improvisation. We’re often just hitting bad notes.

Leaders and communities who know their story well, believe it, and live it out, will need to improvise… will want to improvise …even if we hit a bad note here and again, in the pursuit of their mission.

To make gains in the public sphere, leaders will need to become media savvy because “social” is the new campfire around which the stories that shape us are being told. Story telling and story tellers will open up possibilities for the future. Communities that live out the future they prefer will redefine the world. (Click to tweet)


6 responses to “Three Aspects of 21st Century Leadership”

  1. Mike Avatar

    Thanks for your insights Alex. What you write about defining and discovering, in particular as it relates to improvisation and the Bible, spurs my own thoughts. When we use the Bible as a “launching pad” for improvisation it forces us as leaders to embody the narrative and apply it to life in a meaningful way. Just like improvisers accept the suggestions from the audience when performing improv in the theater, we build lives off the “suggestions” given to us from the Bible. This invites us to be creative, responsive, and adventurous in our lives. When improvisers accept the suggestion without condition they communicate that the suggestion has value in and of itself. When we do that for the Bible, we in a similar way, show that the Bible has credibility and value, not only in an of itself, but because we’re building life on it. When we use the Bible only to define life, we treat the Bible as a script to live within.

    1. alexandermcmanus Avatar

      Thanks, Mike.
      And even if we look at the way Jesus used the Bible, it was improvisational.
      He created his own mashup of the storyline and it’s trajectory.
      In fact, if modern Pastors used the Bible the way Jesus did, they would be called
      heretics. Oh wait, there are some who do improvise and they are called heretics.
      Come to think of it, Jesus was called a heretic too. Well, there you have it.

  2. primalpurpose Avatar

    Reblogged this on Primal Purpose and commented:
    As usual, another brilliantly thought out contribution by Alex McManus on the future of the Church and leadership.

  3. Joseph Avatar

    Alex, as usual a really stimulating and thought provoking contribution to understanding the need to be deeply engaged in telling the story we believe, as well as understanding that we’re often telling the story amidst conflicting narratives in which ours may well not be the majority accepted story. I love that I get to lead in a time of redefinition because it gives me ample opportunity to live out what I believe while exploring the horizon for new ways to tell my story.

    1. alexandermcmanus Avatar

      Thanks, Joseph.
      So true. Building our narratives on a “horizon” rather than a “foundation” is key to narrative creation at this moment. Thanks again.

  4. […] you know it or not. And, an important skill for leadership in the 21st century is the ability to fearlessly describe the present. But, just in case, here are some processing questions for you and your […]

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