4 min read

The sparkle in the eyes, the energy, the willingness to go the extra mile, the exposing of one’s soul to the critique of the world, all of these are characteristics of a leader with passion. We’ve all been moved by such leaders to accomplish higher goals. But many of us have also been deeply disappointed by such leaders. What makes the difference?

Passion is one of those words that has such a wide range of meanings as to seem almost devoid of connection. It is used to describe the death of Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and a fit of uncontrolled lust, on the other. It describes the driving force behind the actions of the five Tibetan monks, thus far this year, who set themselves on fire in demonstration against the Chinese government. Passion characterizes leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. who brought about much needed change for equality in America. But it can also describe the rants of a genocidal racist like Adolf Hitler.

I once visited the Itaipu Dam that is located at the intersection of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe this technological and architectural wonder. The water of the great Paraná River funnels into the hydroelectric generators to produce 90% of the electricity used in Paraguay and 19% of what is used in Brazil. I have also witnessed the destructive force of that same water during times of flooding in northern Argentina where cattle stand in water as far as the eye can see, crops are destroyed, homes washed away, and people left desolate. Passion is much like the Parana River—it can destroy or it can bring life.

What is this power, this energy, this raging flood we call passion? How can it be harnessed for good? What is it that turns this force sometimes into a power for destruction and other times for healing and life? I propose that the following constraining forces must be in place for passion to be funneled into sustainable leadership for the benefit of others.

  1. Passion must be guided by reason. My favorite philosopher, Karl Popper, once wrote: “Authoritarianism and rationalism cannot be reconciled, since argument, which includes criticism, and the art of listening to criticism, is the basis of reasonableness.”[1] Passion that shields itself from uncomfortable facts can easily become abusive and self-deceiving. The danger of unbridled passion is that it is blind to whatever does not fit its vision.
  2. Passion must have a feasible plan of execution. Passion can easily fizzle out in a puff of forgotten glory when there is no plan of action, or when the plan has no basis in feasibility research. Like the Parana River, passion needs a plan to funnel its course into a workable process that actually produces results. Pardon my switching of metaphors, but passion without a plan is like a swirling dust devil—there is a lot of movement but no real work gets done.
  3. Passion must be shared. Leaders who have been able to funnel their passion into benefits for the organization understand that they must tie that passion into the individual passions of the people they lead. This has to do with finding the connections between your passion and theirs. Such leaders create a culture of passion by talking about what their team members are passionate about. They find within these various voices the song to which everyone can dance.
  4. Passion needs to be worked out. Some potentially great leaders fail because they confuse passion with the actual work. Work is like… well… it’s like work. Sometimes it’s exciting and often it’s just tedious, but nothing gets done without it.
  5. Passion must be combined with compassion. The word “compassion” is comprised of two root words that mean “Passion WITH.” It is passion shared in community not imposed by an individual. Ethical leaders don’t allow their passion to override their compassion.

There is no question in my mind that passion is an essential component of leadership. To lose your passion is to cease being a leader. It is the breath that animates the organizational vision. It flows from an excruciating vision of how things could be better. When funneled through the constraints of reason, feasibility, community, hard work, and compassion, it can change the world for the better.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this? What has been your experience with passionate leadership?


[1] Karl R Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1, The Spell of Plato (1971).

Lead photo taken by author.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.