For the past three years, Elder Kim B. Clark has developed and taught a course on leadership and the gospel of Jesus Christ, titled Becoming a Disciple-Leader.
This article is based on that course. “Working with our remarkable BYU Marriott students brings me great joy,” Clark says. “I feel a deep love for them, and I have great hope that these students will become the Lord’s disciple-leaders. I have the same hope for those who read this article.”
As Taylor Henderson entered the BYU Marriott MBA program, he looked forward to the experience but was uncertain what to expect. Now a 2022 MBA grad, Henderson points to the Becoming a Disciple-Leader class as fundamental to the growth he saw during his time in the program.
“Prior to returning to BYU for my MBA, my testimony was good but not great, my desire to be a disciple of Christ was fine but not fantastic, and my love for my Savior was strong but maybe not as solid and understood as it could or should have been,” Henderson says. “The class Becoming a Disciple-Leader became the focal point and foundation from which my transformative journey took root and will forever be grounded.”
Abide in Christ
We live in a day of great light and spiritual power. It is also a day of great darkness and spiritual peril. However, no matter what our situation may be, there is hope, joy, and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is also divine guidance in the scriptures, the Holy Ghost, and the living prophets and apostles.
President Russell M. Nelson has invited us “to do better and be better”1 and to “become even more valiant disciples of the Lord, standing up and speaking up for Him, wherever we are.”2 I believe this is a call to become disciple-leaders.
I love the images that the Savior used when He taught about what it means to be a true disciple. Consider, for example, the image of a tree. The Savior said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”3
The connection between the branch and the trunk begins at the cellular level as fibers grow out of the trunk, creating the wood of the branch.4 Like the branch, disciples of Christ abide in Christ and give their hearts to Him. They keep their covenants and open the spiritual channels through which His life-giving power and love flow into them.
Other imagery teaches a similar deep relationship: disciples of Christ dig deep5 and build their lives on a foundation of covenants;6 true disciples are yoked together7 with Jesus Christ in His work; through the Savior’s redeeming power, true disciples become His spiritual daughters and sons.8
Our relationship with the Savior can teach us how to become disciple-leaders through deep learning—learning of the whole soul, including the mind, heart, body, and eternal spirit. This deep learning has four elements:
- Knowing in our minds
- Understanding and feeling in our hearts
- Learning to take effective, righteous action
- Becoming more like Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father
Through deep learning, students can achieve these outcomes in the Becoming a Disciple-Leader course:
- Demonstrate deep knowledge and heartfelt understanding of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, the fulness of His gospel, and the Father’s plan of salvation.
- Learn to implement effective, righteous action by living the principles of the gospel more powerfully in one’s own life.
- Establish a more firmly and deeply held identity as a disciple of Christ and a Christlike leader, becoming a disciple-leader in one’s work, family, and community as well as in the kingdom of God.
The outcomes underscore a key theme in the course: discipleship is leadership. True leadership is about making things better, and the principles of the gospel have power in leadership.
“I have learned much, both in class and through application outside of class, of what it really means to be a leader,” says Kim Whatcott, a 2022 MBA graduate. “One of the primary paradigm shifts I have had is that leadership is a process—one that involves everyone. Leadership is cocreation. Leadership is a relationship.
“This concept has also strengthened my relationship with God,” she continues. “We are a team. While He has greater experience, perspective, and understanding than I do, He wants me to be actively involved with Him.”
A Process of Action, Learning, and Change
So what exactly is leadership? I have spent a significant amount of time researching this concept, alongside my daughter Erin and my son Jonathan. The definition that I use in the class comes from our research: Leadership is the work that mobilizes people in a process of action, learning, and change to improve long-term viability and vitality in three ways:
- People experience increased personal growth and meaning in their work and lives.
- Purpose is realized more effectively.
- Productivity is strengthened.9
In that context, leadership is creative work, and it is work that requires sustained physical, mental, and emotional effort. The work of leadership occurs in a process—a series of activities focused on a desired result. Leadership is not, in fact, a role nor is it a psychological state, although both may factor in the process. Leadership is a process that transforms lives.
Activities in the leadership process are designed to mobilize individuals to take appropriate action, learn from their experiences, and bring about change in their organizations that increase long-term viability and vitality. Both words are important. Viability means that the organization is capable of continued development and success. Vitality means that the organization is moving forward with vigor, with an animating spirit of purpose.
People, purpose, and productivity are the objectives of leadership that lead to long-term viability and vitality. Thus, leaders seek to help people thrive because it is the right thing to do. They pursue purpose that meets deep human needs and has value to the people in the organization. And they seek to create a flourishing organization that sustains growing productivity of all its resources: people, physical and financial resources, and intellectual property.10
This definition of leadership has profound implications for the people who seek to lead and for the organizations that desire to foster leadership. Three of those implications stand out:
- Leadership is personal.
- Leadership is a moral act.
- Leadership is pervasive.
Leadership Is Personal
Leaders always work with and through other people. The work of leadership is, therefore, personal both for the leader and for the people whom leaders seek to lead. That work has an immediate focus on action, learning, and change within a specific initiative or project, but leaders are also intent on helping people engage and thrive outside of the immediate focus.
In our class, we use a framework called LIVE to identify key drivers of thriving at work.11 Those drivers include the following:
Love: People need to experience being loved and giving love. They need a deep sense of connection to self, others, and God.
Inspiration: People need to have experiences that animate and enliven their minds, their hearts, and their souls. They need to be inspired and to feel connected to purposes that transcend the routines of daily life.
Vitality: People need to experience emotional, physical, and mental health. They need to have energy of all kinds.
Expression: People need to create, to have voice, and to be engaged in using their talents and abilities to accomplish good work.
These drivers provide a guide for the actions leaders need to take to help people thrive. For example, leaders need to care about people, to know people well, and to guide, teach, and lift people. Leaders need to help people see the connection between their daily work and the higher purpose of the organization. They need to help people establish energy-creating balance by setting a good example. And they need to give people voice, room to create, and recognition for their work.
That kind of personal work can only be done when leaders build leadership relationships with people based on mutual commitments of respect, trust, accountability, high standards, candor, and learning.
Many students in the course have seen the benefits of building genuine relationships with their teams. “A central theme that came up throughout our case discussions was a focus on people and a decision to love,” recalls Whatcott. “There are times, especially when there are pressures of deadlines and high performance, that I become very tactical. I’ve learned that taking time to build relationships and making efforts to love my team members often inspires them to contribute in ways I hadn’t expected, and the result is even better than I expected.
“That being said, loving people does not mean letting go of expectations,” she continues. “One semester I faced a situation when I had to be firm on a deadline with a team member. Because I had taken time earlier in the semester to get to know her and build a relationship with trust, I was able to hold her accountable out of love. I knew that if I kept making exceptions for her, she would fall behind. Instead of relaxing the standard, I felt prompted to ask how she could reach the deadline. This allowed for productive problem-solving and empowerment rather than me trying to rescue her.”
Once we see the importance of relationships, we also see the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ in helping us do the work of leadership wherever we live and work. It is a great blessing to recognize that the redeeming power of Jesus Christ can change our hearts, even our very natures. When we turn to Him, His love, light, and power can be in us, and we can build the kind of relationships that will help us do the personal work of leadership more effectively.
Our ability to build that kind of relationship comes in part from the profound effect the Savior has on our self-awareness. Self-awareness is crucial in leadership, especially as we work to build relationships of mutual respect, trust, and value. Leaders can gain tremendous insight when they regularly ask these key questions about themselves and the people with whom they work:12
- How do I feel about the people I lead? Are my relationships built on trust, respect, faith in their potential, and love?
- How do others experience me? Do they see me as someone who cares about them and inspires them with a vision of their potential?
- How do others feel about themselves when they are interacting with me? Do I lift and strengthen others?
All these questions address our self-awareness as a leader at deeper levels. This is deep learning about ourselves, and it is precisely what the Savior helps His disciples do. Through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, we can become His disciple-leaders by becoming more like Him, ultimately allowing people to see and feel Him through us.
Leadership Is a Moral Act
Leaders hold the lives of people in their hands. Thus, leadership is always and everywhere a moral act. In order to do the work of leadership, leaders must generate organizational light and drive out organizational darkness.
Organizational darkness comes from behaviors, attitudes, and practices that diminish light, damage people, destroy value, and bring destruction great and small to lives, reputations, brands, assets, and organizations. Organizational darkness begins with arrogance and includes corruption, waste of talent, and discrimination, just to name a few.
On the other hand, organizational light is vastly different. It comes from behaviors, attitudes, and practices that lift people, enhance value, and create conditions for growth and increased strength in lives, reputations, assets, and the organization itself. The light list begins with kindness and generosity and includes respect, learning, love, and many other factors. These are actions that strengthen brands, reputations, lives, and communities. (See sidebar for other descriptors of both organizational darkness and light.)
Disciple-leaders generate light through what I call the cycle of virtue, a cycle that must live in people and in organizations. The cycle of virtue begins with honor, which includes a keen sense of what is morally right and just as well as a discerning of what is light and what is darkness. This honor informs and drives moral discipline, which generates light by doing what is right simply because it is right—even if it is hard. That moral discipline leads to virtue and a life of moral excellence, which reinforces and strengthens honor. And the cycle begins again.
A person does not arrive at a life of moral excellence all at once. This is a virtuous cycle that builds over a lifetime, both in individuals and in organizations. One of the truly life-changing blessings of the gospel is that we are not trapped by our past. Through the redeeming power of the Savior, we can be cleansed of sin, overcome weaknesses, and pursue lives of moral excellence with His help.
The plain and simple truth is that we as disciple-leaders can only generate organizational light and drive out organizational darkness if we choose to make divine light a central part of our lives and our identities. We must seek to generate organizational light because it is the right thing to do—even when it is hard.
Leadership Is Pervasive
Our definition of leadership has a third implication: the work of leadership touches everything, occurs everywhere, and involves everyone. Everyone has the work of leadership to do in their spheres of responsibility and influence. Leadership is pervasive.
In the course, we see these ideas in action in a case on Sam Bernards, an adjunct professor in BYU Marriott’s School of Accountancy who graduated from BYU with a degree in applied physics in 2001 and an MBA in 2006. In fall 2016, Bernards became the CEO of Purple, an online direct-to-consumer mattress company, at a difficult time early in the company’s history.13 The Purple Mattress had been introduced with great success, but demand had outstripped the company’s manufacturing capacity. Bernards was hired to bring new leadership to the family-run company, get a new manufacturing facility up and running, and build the organization Purple would need to be a major player in the market.
Bernards hit the ground running. He felt strongly that he needed to break down silos and build a team-oriented culture at Purple in which everyone felt empowered to take initiative to solve problems and move Purple forward. Bernards says of his approach to leadership, “I describe my leadership style as ‘servant-leader.’ I have little interest in the traditional, hierarchical leadership model. I want to flip the pyramid on its head in order to bring ‘subordinates’ closer to the consumer and to reduce obstacles in getting things done. However, I value accountability. . . . Accountability is how you treat your team, how you respect them, and how you love them.”
A critical part of Bernards’s work focused on empowering people all throughout the company to exercise leadership. In his approach to leadership, there were no second-class citizens at Purple; he wanted everyone to look for opportunities to improve and innovate, and he wanted everyone to have a voice. He took action to open up the company and get information flowing freely.
“It was a slow process, but I did it as fast as I could,” he says.
“I even changed my office to make it more open. I took out the big desk and did not have a computer in the office either. Instead, I lined the walls with whiteboards and filled the space with chairs so visitors would know it was a place of teamwork and brainstorming. I had a large window cut into my office wall so everyone could see what was going on. I opened a Slack channel on which anyone in the company could ask any question and everyone could see my answer. This is what I said to the team: ‘Everyone on my team needs to be better than me in their area of responsibility. I won’t micromanage. You need to make decisions, and you need to do that better than I would.’”
In his quest for pervasive leadership, Bernards moved to initiate a change in Purple’s culture. He mobilized the people and empowered them to take action, learn, and change. Initiate, mobilize, empower—that is the leadership process. Bernards also led the development of values and guiding principles like “give people a voice; let customer data drive our priorities” that provided direction and fostered unity.
As a disciple-leader at Purple, Bernards was able to lead significant positive change. But it does not matter where disciple-leaders work—a family, a church, an organization, a community—or what role or position they may have. They can take initiative to do the work of leadership in their areas of responsibility and influence. In that work, the three questions of the disciple-leader are paramount every day:
- What is my purpose? Keeping my eternal purpose in mind, what is my purpose in the organization and my purpose in my responsibilities today?
- How can I lift and strengthen the people around me? Who needs support, encouragement, a listening ear, inspiration, or love today?
- How can I add value? Where are opportunities for improvement or innovation? What can I do about them today?
If disciple-leaders ask these questions—especially if the questions become part of their prayers—answers, insights, and ideas will come. As they act on that inspiration, they will do the work of leadership, and leadership will become more pervasive in their lives and in their organizations.
Becoming a Disciple-Leader
As in all things, Jesus Christ is our great example and the source of the power in us. A talk given by President Spencer W. Kimball titled “Jesus: The Perfect Leader” provides a beautiful pattern for all who seek to become disciple-leaders: (1) lead with true principles and (2) lift and strengthen people.14
The Savior used many true principles in His leadership that provide important lessons for us: lead from the strength of eternal identity and purpose; live and teach the truth; set an example; be forthright; make reasonable but real demands; set high standards; be discerning without being controlling; and value autonomy and freedom.
One of the most important things the Savior did in His leadership was to lift and strengthen the people He led. The lessons for us are powerful: be with the people, engage with them, listen to them, and focus on their needs; be meek and lowly in heart; trust and motivate people with real work and real responsibility; love people and take time to look deeply into their hearts; and see people for who they can become and lift them with a vision of their potential.
Discipleship is leadership. The principles of the gospel are true, and true disciples of Jesus Christ live those principles in their lives and in their leadership. When they do, the Lord blesses them with His love, light, and power and helps them become more like Him. True disciples of Jesus Christ have the gift of the Holy Ghost, the spirit of revelation, spiritual gifts such as the abilities to discern and teach, and the pure love of Christ. They develop Christlike attributes that allow them to establish trust and connect with and lift other people. They know, live, and teach true principles that drive out darkness and bring light and power to the work of leadership.
Working to become a disciple-leader can be life-changing, says Henderson. “I can’t express enough the critical and eternal impact and influence that this class had on me and the blessing it has been for my wife and our three children. From our discussion about the whole armor of God, to the idea of serving on the frontier where the Lord works, to the witness from the Spirit regarding my identity and purpose, and finally to the tender experiences I’ve had reading scriptures and talks in preparation for class—all of these experiences have been moments that pruned and shaped me and my understanding of what it means to be a disciple-leader.”
Written by Elder Kim B. Clark
Art by Jorge Cocco Santángelo
About the Author
Elder Kim B. Clark is the NAC Professor of Business at BYU Marriott and an emeritus general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His prior roles include commissioner of the Church Educational System, president of BYU–Idaho, and dean of Harvard Business School. He received his BA, MA, and PhD in economics, all from Harvard University. He and his wife, Sue, are the parents of seven children.
- Russell M. Nelson, “We Can Do Better and Be Better,” Ensign, May 2019.
- Russell M. Nelson, “Go Forward in Faith,” Ensign, May 2020.
- John 15:5.
- For additional information about tree growth and branches and trunks, see “Tree Structure and Growth,” Encyclopedia Britannica, britannica.com/plant/tree/Tree-structure-and-growth.
- See Luke 6:48.
- For an extended discussion of this image and the role of covenants, see David A. Bednar, “Therefore They Hushed Their Fears,” Ensign, May 2015.
- See Matthew 11:28–30.
- See Mosiah 5:7.
- This definition is taken from chapter 3 of Kim B. Clark, Erin E. Clark, and Jonathan R. Clark, Pervasive Leadership (forthcoming).
- The objectives have an interactive relationship with viability and vitality. Purpose drives the work of the organization, including everything its people and its productive resources do. In turn, it is the work of those people and the productivity of those resources that create the long-term viability and vitality that allow the organization to achieve its purpose.
- This framework was developed by Erin E. Clark; see chapter 4 of Clark et al., Pervasive Leadership.
- I am indebted to Thomas J. DeLong for these questions. Please see Thomas J. DeLong, Teaching by Heart: One Professor’s Journey to Inspire (Boston: HBR Press, 2019), 85.
- The quotes in this section are taken from Kim B. Clark and Sarah Eyring, “Sam Bernards: A Career in Building Businesses,” Harvard Business Publishing, Case # 3922301, October 2021.
- Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader,” Ensign, August 1979.