Supporting Article

Evaluating Leadership Development

In recent years, the emphasis on measurement has become a dominant issue in reference to evaluation. As the emphasis on science and scientific methodology has become more pervasive, and as the need for clear and defensible judgments has replaced the softer and less formal sort of decision-making, emphasis on strict measurement has virtually displaced the ordinary human assessment procedures.

A school of thought in philosophy has arisen in which it is now claimed that anything real can be measured. Thus, anything of worth must be objectively defined and described using numbers. Numbers can be trusted, it is argued. Anything that cannot be measured is likely not scientific and therefore must be unreal. And on it goes. The consequences of this sort of thinking are, first of all, to limit the meaning and applications of science to a very restricted domain that rules out or ignores aesthetic matters, moral judgments, and intuitive impressions. For some of us, these are not only important human processes, but they are also of greatest concern in such a time as today. These values issuesoften called “the soft stuff” of academic scholarshipconstitute the subjective processes that most need to be preserved lest they be swept away by devotion to objectivity, whether real or imagined.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest a more carefully grounded understanding of evaluation. Such an understanding would neither reject nor exalt measurement. Instead, it would be concerned with a series of judgments that will lead toward a unified commitment to the seeking of truth. It is precisely this search that gives science its orderly shape and unifies science and its educational mission. At the most practical level, the purpose of evaluation, like the purpose of science, is to further human understanding and enable responsible decisions.

This article is divided into three parts, using the three words of the title: evaluating, the task of examining and assessing the worth or excellence of something; leadership, the skills and emotional competences necessary for men and women to establish themselves as leaders; and development, the outcome of learning processes through which such skills and competencies can be shared from one group to another.


How much is it worth? Does it work? Is it worthy of human effort? Can it serve our purposes? All of these are evaluation questions. Evaluation is the task of assessing worth, of determining the value of something, of making judgments about appropriateness, effectiveness, and quality. Too often, we rely on tests and test scores to serve as the “evaluation” of an educational experience. Little by little, the word testing takes the place of evaluating. To avoid this, it is better to think of describing rather than measuring; although measurements are one form of description, the purpose is not so much to count things as to make a description of the shape, form, characteristics and other dimensions of the situation, circumstances, personality and competencies. Human beings are uniquely gifted with the capabilities and motivations to describe. Indeed, description, along with the procedures that enable description, constitutes the foundation of science. Moreover, description is a fulfillment of a creational mandate: as part of the process of creation, God commissioned Adam to name the creatures. God brought each of the creatures to Adam, “to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Gen.2:19). Thus began the first human activity in the scientific process.

Science depends on taxonomy, orderly and precise naming that provides the descriptions that are basic to investigation and communication. Another major task of evaluation is classifying according to values and qualities. Thus, standards and measuring procedures are brought to play. This task allows for ranking, classifying, rating, and scaling. These functions are closer to our common understanding of evaluation, but beware; they are not the heart of the process.

The most demanding and difficult part of the evaluation process is holding fast to truth. It is this commitment that is so often compromised, not only by carelessness and by misguided intent, but more often by inadequate understanding of rigorous research procedures. It has been said that if one knows enough, statistics can be made to lie. Indeed, truth can be easily compromised by prejudice and biasand just as surely by inadequate preparation of the researcher and sloppiness of the research methods.


The major concern is leading, not leadershipleading involves a human relationship in which a person emerges as the inspiring and encouraging voice of authority and the rallying point for consensus and action. Importantly, the character and life-qualities that are recognized as worthy by those who are committed to follow their leader become the major criteria by which the leader’s fitness and worthiness are judged.

Indeed, the scientific studies of leaders (those who are recognized for their visibility as leaders) reveal that each leader demonstrates both positive and negative behaviors. These actions, habits, choices, and coincidences add up to the behaviors of leadership. It is not incorrect to think of theseone would prefer the positive onesas the competencies of leadership. But acquiring these behaviors is not the key to becoming a leader. Far more important are the beliefs, values, and life-commitments that constitute the sources and sustaining energy of the leader’s life and thus determine the impact of the leader.

More research efforts have been invested in the search for understanding of leadership than any other single topic in social science. The most authoritative studies have focused on the skills and traits that can be observed in competent leaders. However, it is disappointing to discover that most of these traits and skills are not gained from ordinary educational processes. It is hard to make the lists of things to “teach” people in order to make them effective leaders.

Turning to the Bible as a source, some have assumed that it should be clear what sorts of backgrounds and learning experiences are evident in those who have been chosen by God to lead His people. Surely, from Abraham to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, we should be able to identify many traits in common. Yes, and no. What you do find that seems to account for the strength of the leader are matters that are very difficult to teach. (For starters, a very high percentage of the identified leaders in the Bible are Jewish. What can you do with that?)

Other common traits and characteristics are elusive and difficult to define. So, we tend to overlook and even to ignore them as being not scientific enough. For example, what does “compassionate heart” mean? How can you teach it? What is love? What sorts of experiences encourage faithfulness? Traditional modes of academic teaching and learning are of limited value in leadership development. The formal distance between teacher and learner is a handicap. Discussions are often more important than lectures. Helping leaders develop requires companionship through which the facilitator and the “trainee” work together in experiences through which best practices of human interaction can be discovered, named and combined into consistent patterns of competent lifestyle.

Some of the greatest developers of leaders have recognized that this is the very sort of stuff that lies at the heart of leadership. Once you make room in your person for the really important traits of warmth and genuine compassionate love for people, you discover the secret. Leading is not just a set of skills and a series of stylistic habits; leading is a matter of opening oneself to the basic rudiments of acceptance of others, respect, friendship, mutual support, and cooperation. Within a learning community, the style and manner of responsible leadership emerge as skills and abilities being knit together, while at the same time some of the ugliness and harshness that has been accumulated in earlier phases of life are being replaced. Thus, it becomes apparent that leadership is not only a matter of adding competencies, but it also requires the somewhat painful process of trimming away the stuff that impedes and obscures one’s path to further development.

In sum, there is great value in living in such a way as to teach by example. Mentoring has become the common name for it. To paraphrase an old adage, “What you do speaks so loudly that it makes what you say worth practicing.”


Becoming a leader does require learning. Few people know all they need to know to fulfill the many demands of leadership. Having acknowledged the cognitive skills and the information base that a good leader must develop and maintain, it must be emphasized none the less that what is most needed is a capacity to learn and to develop through the very experiences of leading. This sort of learning is not simply acquiring bits of information in order to give the “right” answers to test questions. It requires more than books and lectures. If one is serious about developing leadership competencies, it will require intentional change, often in the direction and for the purpose of reshaping one’s style of communication, one’s appreciation of self and others, and one’s moral and spiritual value systems. These changes are slow and profound. They cannot be expected as a result of scheduled events. They must emerge and develop into a solid wall of character and personal worth.

Those who help others become more competent and more thorough in their capacities to lead can best be described as facilitators of leadership development. Some call them “trainers of trainers.” For others, this will sound too much like the circus. Perhaps it would be clearer and more human to think and talk in terms of “development assistance.” People who are engaged in development assistance acknowledge the worth of facilitating facilitatorsserving those who are on a quest for the personal gifts and the competencies necessary to help others become the facilitators of other generations of leaders who, in turn, will fulfill this same role and purposeenabling others to become the sort of persons who inspire, encourage, support, and reassure others who are committed to becoming competent leaders.

The argument over whether leadership is an inherited trait or is learned in ways that can be planned and organized has perplexed philosophers for many centuries. Nature or nurture? This question will never be answered because it is based on the incorrect assumption that the answer must be a one-or-the-other choice. Leadership qualities, like artistic and musical talents, are gained through both nature and nurture. For some leaders it is more a matter of “giftedness”; for others, it is more a matter of acquisition—expanding on and adding skills and competencies through deliberate teaching-learning experiences.

Summing up the wisdom about leadership development we can say: Our major mission is creating and nurturing the environment for graciousness.

Remember: Discipline arises most surely from self-discipline.

Image courtesy of China Partners.

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Ted Ward

Ted Ward is Professor Emeritus of Education and International Studies at Michigan State University and Trinity International University.View Full Bio