This paper will constitute a review of Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders,1 with attention given to the disciplines themselves, as well as the rationale and method that McNeal believes will lead to leadership success. The work begins with a quotation from Elton Trueblood that sets the tone for the book’s contents. Trueblood states that “Deliberate mediocrity is a sin,”2 and to be mediocre is to be without discipline. McNeal penned this work to highlight the disciplines that lead to greatness, both spiritual and in leadership. Interestingly, the listed “Disciplines” require a course of action on the part of the reader; and this implies not being idle or in the words of Trueblood, mediocre. The “Disciplines” comprise seven chapters and are noted as follows: The discipline of self—awareness is crucial as it safeguards the leader against unhealthy views of self and needs as well as from task oriented rather than people oriented. The discipline of self—management supports the claim that great leaders are great managers, not merely of others but, primarily and chiefly, of themselves.
The discipline of self—development is indicative of all great leaders. They will never stop learning and developing. The discipline of mission honors the propensity of great leaders to sacrifice themselves to great causes. The discipline of decision making sets great leaders apart from good or average leaders. The discipline of belonging characterizes great leaders’ ability to retain and nurture significant relationships that in turn nurture their lives. The discipline of aloneness celebrates great leaders’ ability and grace not only to endure the loneliness of leadership but to actually build solitude into their lives.
The over-arching theme of the book, is the spiritual leader that is truly “great,” achieves that distinction not “for what they do for themselves or even as a way to become recognized as great leaders. Their end game is about expanding the kingdom of God.”3 Great leaders are cognizant of their inner selves and the signals they send to others via actions. In Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend list four boundary personalities that can derail a leaders’ ability to maintain trust and influence in those they lead. These boundaries are noted as “Complaints, Avoidants, Controllers and Non-responsives.”4 To augment the above, McNeal cites Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima’s identification of the leaders’ “dark-side” comprised of the following characteristics:
1. Compulsive Leaders
2. Narcissistic Leaders
3. Paranoid Leaders
4. Co-dependent Leaders5
McNeal notes that “Great leaders are great managers—not just managers of projects or other people but mostly of themselves.”6 Yet they are also distributors of “blessing and encouragement”7 with their work done in humility and in a servant mentality, guaranteeing “extraordinary character and exceptional competence developed over time.”8 The author writes with people in view first, and then delves into the varied aspects of leadership based on the disciplines listed in the contents of the book. McNeal draws from years of ministry and teaching experience to demonstrate from Scripture that biblical leadership is possible if one is committed to looking at themselves in light of what Scripture states regarding our condition.
Current patterns and preconceptions must be dealt with before change can be implemented; and McNeal provides support from biblical characters who, while not perfect, heeded sound wisdom and learned from experiences so that they would be able to become prepared for what God had planned for them to do. In this regard, McNeal states that all spiritual leaders must flesh out superlatives to distinguish the essence of their call from God to ministry. Questions to be asked in this regard below, will aid the future/current leader in providing answers to questions he/she might have regarding their present ministry or avocation:
a. What people or cause do you feel drawn to?
b. What do you want to help people do or achieve or experience?
c. How do you want to help people?
d. What message do you want to deliver?
e. How do you intend to serve or have an impact on the world? f. Why did you say yes to God to begin with?9
Mc Neal expounds on leadership and those who will seek to carry it out. the work is not overtly religious, yet it is balanced in the biblical references included. The illustrations of real people in real situations and with real leadership styles are instrumental in bringing clarity and focus to an exhaustive subject. The author has clearly demonstrated his objectives set out in the introduction, and has provided examples for leadership that are able to be implemented in all business applications and not merely the church only. This work is to be commended for anyone interested in not only what makes leaders great; but as well, how they arrived at the summit and are able to remain there. Two things are clear from a complete reading of this book: 1. Great spiritual leaders are committed consciously and intentionally to the spiritual disciplines 2. Great leaders feel blessed, have an attitude of gratitude and have chosen excellence before God and men.
One major life experience that this book triggered involves the section of “Managing Expectations in The Discipline of Self-Management.10 I had recently been promoted to assistant manager at my place of employment where I was to be responsible for the implementation of new sales protocols. In reading McNeal, and in retrospect, I realize that because an understanding of self-awareness was lacking, I set expectations so high my natural and learned abilities could not stay even with them. I failed in goals I set and therefore lost confidence in my ability to manage others who worked under me. I knew that there were things which were wrong in how I was doing things; yet I could not figure it out.
I arrived at the point where I felt that I would become ill anytime I had to make decisions on the job. I sat down and cried because things seemed to have no solution where it seemed, I was able to find solutions and fix things. I remember hearing a preacher once who was teaching on the wisdom of God and the finiteness of the mind of men. I took my Bible out and went to the concordance where I searched for words and phrases relating to wisdom, mind and knowledge, and I was led to Proverbs 3:5-6 which states to 5 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. 6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths (KJV).
After studying these verses, I realized that not only was I lacking understanding of self-awareness, I was lacking in acknowledging God faithfully considering his infinite wisdom and sovereignty. This was the point where I had to confess my sins of ingratitude and ignorance of God and his power and wisdom. I knew in my heart that I would have to pray and listen to God through his Word more than I ever had; and I knew that I would have to be disciplined so that I would not find it easy to revert to where I had been before in my working life without him.
One question that immediately came to my mind the further I went in this book was why McNeal did not incorporate more Scripture references than he did, or at the least alluded to? The “disciplines” of extraordinary spiritual leaders, one might think, would be found in Scripture with an excursus into what these disciplines entail. Were the decision left to me, I would have drawn especially from the teachings of Christ; and from various leaders found within the pages of the sacred text.11 In retrospect, McNeal gave considerable attention to various disciplines within the teaching (illustrating) and ministry (practical) of Christ; yet the reader would likely desire more from the author in these regards than what he did present. There were areas of this work that read more as a psychological development course than the dynamics of spiritual development as the sanctified life of the leader will become apparent within his or her duties regardless the arena they work in. In reading and discussing this book with my husband, I feel that a sense of balance would have been achieved were McNeal delved a bit more into biblical application of the topics he presented throughout.
In terms of fleshing out the ordinary from the extraordinary, McNeal provides generous circumstances and situations from his own ministry life to demonstrate that every aspect of self-awareness and development hinge upon how the person views him/her-self in light of the truth. These “truths” are the non-negotiable prima fasciae of obedience to God and his will. In terms of readability, this work does not pose difficulty in determining where the author is headed in his teaching. The main issue is that more references to biblical characters might help to balance the illustrations of modern day people within various ministry or organizational structures.
One of the first things I aim to accomplish in my life is to focus more on God and his wisdom rather than my own. It is so easy and tempting to second guess what one should do to achieve desired results; and more often than not, I have been guilty of over-guessing what I should do to the point that I am correcting every aspect of something to the point of micro-management and monarchial temperament. In the second place, I must set aside daily and consistent times to be alone with God in prayer and meditation on him rather than myself and my needs. I realize that most issues may be solved with remembering that “he must increase while I decrease” (Jn. 3:30). The power of God is not going to be neither availed nor prevalent if one does not fully relinquish the reins of their life to him, thus following rather than leading him.
The above can have no time-table for measurement, so it seems best to state that it is a daily discipline that only grows and develops properly over a course of time never ending. My ministry now and in the future will very likely utilize vast sections of this work with a focus on the three “Self’s:” Self-Awareness, Self-Management and Self-Development. I must commit to long-term developed and sustained growth interspersed with bench-marks as a measurement to demonstrate that I am growing and ministering properly.
The people I will eventually teach and lead have a right to know what will be expected of them; they also have a right to point out the missteps leaders can make. Here is where I need to be receptive to criticism and rebuke; not wearing my emotions on my sleeve, rather, considering what is being said and then praying to God for the mind to take the necessary steps to corrective action and further development. I know where I am at now, even if I have not fully figured out everything about myself. I do anticipate a long road ahead toward restructuring and complete discipline; yet I believe that “the race does not belong to the swift, but to those who will never quit” (Eccl. 9:11).
McNeal, Reggie. Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.