Identifying Leadership Potential: Distinguishing Managers from Leaders


How do you know if a young leader can lead? Learn how to unlock and develop leadership potential with the 5 essential steps.

Everyone Can Be a Leader! Right? 

I guess it depends on how you define “leadership?” 

If leadership is influence, then yes, we are all leaders. In organizations and churches, though, leadership is more than just influence.

Organizational leaders move people (and therefore the organization under their leadership) to a preferred future by identifying and solving problems, adjusting to cultural, community, and customer change, and innovating to opportunities.

In a church context, this means leaders (pastors, department directors, etc.) move the church forward.

This means only some people we call a leader are leaders.

Lead Pastor or Managing Pastor?

I spend most of my time working with pastors and churches, so I’ll use these organizations for our conversation. But the content applies to any context.

Every church has a lead or “senior” pastor. Yet the majority of churches are plateaued, declining, or dying.

This is a problem. And what do organizational leaders do? Solve problems and move the organization forward.

So, it is potentially safe to say if a church is stuck, one reason may be a lack of organizational leadership.

Now, that may sound a bit offensive. I get it. It’s not that all of these pastors aren’t working hard. They are. Incredibly hard! The problem is that all of their time is required to orchestrate what exists rather than what it could become.

This is a crucial difference between leadership and management. Both work with people, places, and things, but leaders are primarily concerned with where we are going, and managers spend most of their time ensuring what currently exists happens.

Therefore, by the job’s default, most pastors are more managers than leaders. And most church staff members are managers, too.

How to Decide if You’ve Got a Leader on Your Team

Because most church work revolves around the execution of an event (Sunday church services), it’s challenging to know how much leadership horsepower your team possesses. In many cases, you may have some dynamic leaders around you, but they are all so busy working in it that they don’t have time to work on it (and solve problems, innovate ideas, etc.).

The solution to this identification dilemma is relatively simple: Project Delegation.

Now, delegation is an entire series of conversations by itself. Luckily, I’ve written about it extensively:

Once you understand how to delegate well, it’s time to learn more about each team member.

To help identify your leadership horsepower, take these steps:

1. Set a Goal

For each team member you test, set a specific goal that will require critical thinking, problem identification, solution ideation, implementation, and progress measurement.

But here’s the next critical step…

2. Don’t Set the Path

You need to set a goal, but you cannot, as their leader, define how to achieve it. You need to give them a target, but they need to discover the obstacles, solve some problems, fail a bit, evaluate progress, and course correct along the way.

Their process and their progress are the tests.


3. Remain Available to Ask Questions

But refrain from giving hints or providing solutions.

A newer or growing leader should see the goal and occasionally come to you for advice. Seeking counsel shows wisdom and humility – two positive traits in great leaders. But you’ll need to resist the urge to give answers. Remember, you are helping grow their leadership muscle by forcing them to train and flex.

When they ask you, “What problems do you see hampering my progress?” you answer, “That’s a great question. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve identified thus far.”

When they come to your office for just “5 minutes” and ask, “What step do you think I should take next?”, you respond with, “Great question. Let’s talk about what steps you’ve already taken.”

The goal is to teach them to lead, not follow.


4. Support Their Failure

You knew it was coming!

“The only failure is a failure to learn.” – Every Leader!

It’s a common saying because it is entirely accurate. No leader makes progress without occasional setbacks. Leadership is about tackling big problems and uncharted paths. Leaders cut their way through with a machete, not clean off the already created path with a broom.

We aren’t hoping for failure, but we are refusing to step in to protect them from failing. Every great leader must fail to learn that failure doesn’t kill us but grows us.

5. Evaluate their Process, Progress, and Outcome

I’ve worked with many people who felt the outcome was all that mattered. If you’ve ever reported to someone like this, you know how untrue that belief is.

Mediocre leadership accepts decent outcomes from terrible processes. As you allow team members to take on projects or meet goals, don’t just evaluate the product. Evaluate the process.

One way to do this is to require some version of a 360 review at the end of the effort. Few things are more helpful in an evaluation than the experiences of other staff around the leader during a project effort.


This assignment is not meant to help identify who is better or worse. It’s not meant to help you decide who to retain and fire.

This assignment is all about helping you understand the capabilities of each team member so you can better align your team and grow each member.