By Kathy Tuan-MacLean

My Uneasy Relationship with Leadership

This month, I want to welcome Kathy Tuan-MacLean as a regular contributor and designer for this series on leadership. I met Kathy nearly 25 years ago and have led with her or watched her lead in a variety of settings. I continue to learn from her creativity, thoughtful hospitality, boldness, curiosity, and commitment to developing people. I am grateful that she is willing to add her voice to the series. I hope you enjoy her first post! — Nancy Pedulla

My Uneasy Relationship with Leadership

For years, I rejected my call to be a leader. Or at least, I rejected embracing the identity of being a leader by calling everything I did that looked “leaderly” something else.


Many reasons:

  1. As a teen I heard loud and clear that my smartness got in the way of being dating material.
  2. As a college student in the Midwest I experienced the way being smart and gifted really got in the way of being dating material. It sometimes even got in the way of having friendships with men.
  3. My junior year, the campus fellowship I belonged to kicked me out because I was a woman who felt called to pastoral ministry.
  4. As a graduate student, although I found being smart less of a barrier to dating, being strong was more of a problem.
  5. In my environment, women who led or wanted to lead were often described with words like proud, self-promoting, self-serving, power-hungry, position-grabbing, usurping, selfish — and worse.
  6. Leading came with rejection, judgment, and — perhaps even scarier — the responsibility to take risks and do what God was calling me to do. If God didn’t sanction women leading, then I was off the hook.

So I majored in counseling psychology and worked on developing more “feminine” spiritual gifts like counseling, service, empathy, and other care-taking skills.

Imagine my surprise when senior year in college, my friend Brad (the president of the InterVarsity chapter, a chapter I had just joined) kept referring to me as a leader. 

“What are you talking about?  I’m not a leader,” I said.

“You? Not a leader? You ooze leadership out of every pore. You absolutely are a leader," said he.

We argued more — and although I felt queasily affirmed by his comments, I basically ignored them. 

When I helped start the Northwestern Graduate Christian Fellowship and was forced by our newly formed executive team to be “president,” I balked. Only their unanimous insistence that I needed to take the position made me do it. And when I led from the front, I felt keenly aware that my overt leadership made my new boyfriend feel bad about himself.


I couldn’t help being captured by the beauty and vision of the Kingdom of God. 

I couldn’t blind myself from seeing the tremendous needs of the world crying out for good news.

I couldn’t resist stepping up to follow Jesus in trying to meet those needs whether it was through starting a college ministry at church, starting the Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) at Northwestern, staffing the Chicago Urban Project, or eventually joining InterVarsity as a staff worker in New York City. 

I just didn’t emphasize the thought I was leading. Instead, I was just following Jesus.

Several years later, while directing the inaugural New York City Urban Program (NYCUP), but still not “leading,” I gave all participants an intensive spiritual gifts assessment tool. The tool included having two people who knew you well rate your gifts. I chose my sister, a student at NYCUP, and Orlando, my colleague with whom I had planted NYCUP.

They both came back with the exact same list of my top gifts: Leadership, Prophecy, Teaching.

In fact, my four self-assessments also came back with Leadership and Prophecy topping the list.

“Noooooo...” came my inner voice. Where were all the “softer,” more feminine gifts that I had been nurturing all these years? Where was counseling or exhortation? Where was pastoral care or mercy? They were there — but all as secondary or tertiary gifts. 

And if leadership and prophecy were my top gifts, no wonder I felt so scared of embracing them — after all, prophecy is about telling God’s hard truth to God’s people who don’t want to hear it, and leadership means acting on that truth. Definitely qualities that had made me un-datable.

That summer, I had to recognize that God had called me to lead because he had given me the spiritual gift of leadership. He invited me to no longer hide leadership under a bushel. To no longer feel ashamed. To play to the audience of One — caring more for what he says than the fears and chorus of potential naysayers. (And in his grace, I also happened to be engaged to a man who wasn’t threatened by any of those gifts and wanted to see me use them for God’s kingdom.)

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what leadership is about and I’ve come to the conclusion that all Jesus-followers are called to lead, even if they don’t have the spiritual gift of leadership. 

Everyone: men, women, teens, kids. Folks of every ethnicity and social class. 

Here’s my latest pet definition of leadership for those who follow Jesus:

Leaders courageously initiate love, truth, blessing, and community for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

The key word being “Initiate.” In my humble opinion, leading is about taking even tiny steps of initiative towards bringing good news. We all lead when we initiate:

  • friendship
  • speaking the truth in love
  • hospitality
  • crossing any lines that divide
  • advocacy
  • listening well

We’re all called to initiate in these ways and more. Indeed, we have the responsibility to do so.

So will you take a deep breath, ask the Holy Spirit for courage and step up and lead with me? 

Please say yes. Our world needs your leadership.

About the Author

Kathy Tuan-MacLean (PhD, Northwestern) is the national faculty ministry director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where she invites and resources faculty to follow Jesus together. Since joining InterVarsity in 1990, she has led numerous students and faculty in Bible study, spiritual formation, and leadership development. She is also a spiritual director who has led marriage ministry and women's retreats. Kathy is married to Scott, and they have three young adult children and an overanxious mini labradoodle.

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