In Leading with Story, Rick Sessoms addresses “three factors related to Christian leaders that are hindering the healthy advance of the gospel in the twenty-first century” (p. xxi). First, according to Sessoms, 80% of the world, including 70% of Americans are storycentric learners; that is, they prefer to learn through non-literate means. Second, Christian leadership development lacks a comprehensive approach and suffers from a lack of validated methods for effectiveness. Third, Christian leaders around the world tend to lead according to a power structure respective of their culture rather than functioning as servant-leaders like Jesus. In sum, Sessoms claims to provide “a foundation for Christ-centered leadership in today’s world” (p. xxi).
The book targets a wide range of readers, including mission and church leaders, leadership development trainers, and those without a designated leadership role but find themselves serving in story-centric communities. Sessoms views his work as “a comprehensive model with a proven development process to become an effective Christ-centered leader” (p. xxiii).
Leading with Story breaks down into four sections. Part one defines and describes story-centric learning, which is essentially built on principles based on what is also called the orality movement. Part two describes leadership development in general within the Christian community. It makes the case that a comprehensive scope is essential for holistic development of Christ-centered leaders. Part three focuses specifically on Christ-centered leadership. This includes leading with a long-term perspective, being virtue-centered rather than power-centered, and leading others toward their full potential as Christian leaders within their communities. Part four is a case study describing how Sessoms’s model can work in an overseas setting.
The book is helpful in many regards. The core of the “storycentric” approach draws from orality principles that have been utilized in evangelism and church planting for several decades. Sessoms attempts to transfer those principles to leadership development. He writes, “our use of the term story refers to the ‘scaffolding’ that aids in communication, retention, and application” (p. 35). Story contains characters, plots, and lessons with which emerging leaders can identify and immerse themselves. Storytelling is already a part of the teaching and learning styles of story-centric peoples around the world. It is also something to which emerging millennials are especially drawn (p. 48). The author recognizes a cultural shift in leadership style and perception among younger generations in the West who are drawn to relational components of leadership like apprenticing and relational feedback.
Parts two and three are helpful for moving leadership development away from power, pride, and position, and toward humility and service. Millennials respond to feedback, challenge, and support, Sessoms writes, when done under the umbrella of humility (pp. 89–94). Authentic relationships are more powerful than hierarchical leadership structures for the younger generation (p. 187). No one leadership style is best. More effective is a situational approach rooted in the relational dynamic between leader and apprentice (pp. 205–6). Sessoms does well to include biblical competency as an equal component alongside leadership skill, which is sometimes lacking in Christian agencies.
The book, however, seems disjointed overall, as though two books were meshed together. The introduction and part one present a case for orality methods in pre-literate and non-western contexts, including stories from India and Indonesia. The remainder of the book seems highly Western-centric, focusing on leadership models and styles foreign to the very story-centric cultures for which the book purports to be written (e.g., efficiency, strategic planning, long-term planning, and orientation to life). I see the book primarily as a leadership development book (for which it excels), which is then cast unfittingly into a “storycentric” mold.
Additionally, the book overstates the ability of orality to maintain pure doctrine while claiming support from validated research. Many of its statistics and examples are anecdotal. For example, one story describes how literacy-based discipleship led to heretical doctrine in an Asian church whereas storycentric training fostered biblical truth (p. 48). No footnote is provided to support this story. Furthermore, books on orality tend to recycle these same stories with no effort to discern the reliability and nature of the original research. Another story tells of an oral seminary in Africa that produced students with “far superior” theological understanding compared to a literacy-based school. The reference Sessoms provides on page 49 is incorrect when I attempted to look it up in Making Disciples of Oral Learners (Lima, NY: International Orality Network, 2005). Although many regard this primer on orality as the gold standard in orality research and practice, it too has problems with accuracy and reliability, as I found in my dissertation research.
Furthermore, in an effort to show how the world and Americans are “storycentric,” Sessoms quotes several figures from orality expert Grant Lovejoy (p. xxi). Lovejoy referenced a study on literacy by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Having seen these figures many times, I looked up the original study. Sessoms writes that 80% of the world’s people and 70% of Americans are storycentric learners. However, according to the original literacy assessment itself, 57% of the American population are sufficiently literate for moderately challenging activities, and a full 86% are literate enough to perform everyday literacy activities. Where the 70% comes from, based on this study, is a mystery to me. The study also makes no mention of world statistics, so where does the 80% figure originate? Sessoms does not attempt to demonstrate how these figures translate to someone being “storycentric.”
Despite my concerns, Leading with Story is an excellent book on Christ-centered leadership development and has much to offer, especially for those working in Western contexts. I recommend this book to those wanting a fresh perspective on Christian leadership. This is a leadership book, not a storycentric leadership book, and in that regard, it succeeds.