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Leadership Book Interview with Tom Harper

Tom Harper, president of Networld Alliance, has written a new book called Leading from the Lions’ Den. Tom has a passion for churches and leadership, and I thought that it would be good to interview him for the blog.

Ed Stetzer: You’ve done a lot of founding of new ministry ventures. How does ministry look in your life right now?

Tom Harper: I’m president of NetWorld Alliance, a business-to-business media company that publishes industry information portals in retail, banking, restaurants, and technology. We also publish ChurchCentral.com, a leadership megablog that’s been online since 2002. We originally partnered with Thom Rainer to get it off the ground.

My first book was Career Crossover: Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry, published in 2007 by B&H. It tells the amazing stories of several people who made the switch from secular vocations to ministry. They also gave tons of valuable advice for others considering such a change.

ES: You recently published Leading from the Lions’ Den. Why another leadership book? How is it different from other books on the same subject?

TH: The business and leadership books that have impacted me the most actually teach concepts from the Bible. For example, the works of John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard, Jim Collins, and others have sold in the tens of millions. I read Maxwell and Blanchard for years and never knew about their Christian backgrounds nor how heavily they drew from the Bible. Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leader matches the description of Jesus in many ways. So I thought, why not go to the source and pull out more of this material and not be quiet about where it came from?

Several years ago, I led a study on the book of Proverbs and probably learned more than the other guys in the group. The practical insights and bullet-point wisdom were astounding. As I looked through the rest of the Bible for similar insights, I was overwhelmed at the volume of practical information. There is so much in those ancient pages that is still waiting to be discovered! I want to open the eyes of leaders in the church and the marketplace to these riches.

ES: What is the book about?

TH: Leading from the Lions’ Den is a survey of leadership principles throughout the entire Bible, supported by modern research and illustrated by personal experience.

I love leadership books. Over the years, I’ve read so many that they all started to sound alike. But when I decided to read the Bible through a leadership lens, fresh concepts emerged from the timeless wisdom, and I had to share what I found!

My goal was to find some concepts from Scripture that aren’t widely known or taught. These principles are practical in whatever kind of organization you lead – whether a business, church, small group, non-profit, sports team, military unit, corporate department, division, or project team.

ES: Why do you use the term “lions’ den”?

TH: I call leadership a lions’ den because many people watch leaders stumble, take hits, deal with conflict, deflect criticism, or fail, and they simply step away to watch what the leader will do, sort of like spectators watching to see if you’ll survive the gladiator pit.

We’re all surrounded by challenging people and situations. Conflict, pain, arguing, lack of excellence, and laziness often make the leader’s job hard. Also, leaders deal with the stuff no one else wants to deal with – they must break up fights, absorb criticism, deflect cynicism, and feed people’s hunger for fulfillment. And they must do it with the confident smile of a lion tamer.

The Bible offers all kinds of advice and examples on how to successfully lead while in the midst of the lions. Most people have heard of Daniel and the lions’ den, so we chose to refer to it in the title. Plus, Daniel’s trip to the den is a great example of leadership under fire.

ES: How do you apply these principles in your own professional life?

TH: As I was studying some of the principles, I would occasionally try them out on unsuspecting coworkers. Other times, when I had no idea what I would write about in a particular chapter, amazingly something would happen at the office that broke my writer’s block and fit perfectly into the book. That happened probably a dozen times.

I’ve found these principles aren’t easy. But they’re true, and they work. Praising your critics is hard. Going easy on your people seems counter-intuitive. Hiring blemished people surely can’t be wise.

But looking back on my personal experiences and experiments, I can say without doubt that the Bible was proven right every time. The more I saw this, the more I trusted the Scriptures for my leadership and the more excited I got about trying more of its concepts.

ES: What is the most valuable leadership principle you are applying in your life currently to keep you on mission with God’s kingdom?

TH: The chapter I wrote about Esther, which I call “Expect 50 Answers When You Ask Why,” has helped me deal with daily chaos and unpredictability. Esther couldn’t see God working in the moment, when the odds kept stacking against her. And yet at the end of the story, we see how the unmistakable hand of God had directed the people and circumstances that led to the salvation of Esther and her family, not to mention her entire people. This long-range perspective helps me see how my life can be God’s movement in this world, no matter what’s going on around me right now.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.