Four Leadership Roles Every Leader Must Learn

4 stages of leadership

We commonly think that the leader is the guy up front giving direction. Our teens surely think that way, given the portrayal they’ve seen in movies, and possibly the example set for them in Battalion, whether by older boys or dads. This conception is simplistic and robs them of understanding both their personal leadership journey, and the diverse future roles they’ll hold in Battalion, and later in the church and their vocational lives. Walter Wright defines leadership as “a relationship of influence.”* The four roles below illustrate the different directions our influence can take.

Our Battalion recognizes and leverages the four leadership roles found In the National Outdoor Leadership School’s leadership model (See below for more info). While the model is best found described in NOLS’ materials, there’s ample scriptural support for each of these roles.

1) Leading self

A young brigadier’s first leadership role is “Leading Self.” It entails the self-mastery necessary to contribute to your team. If you’re not leading self then you’re a drain on your team, rather than an asset. A new boy in the field will need help with these things, which is fine. They’re here to learn. By the end of a boy’s second year, if not earlier, they should be habit.

  • Showing up with the gear you need to stay warm and dry.
  • Keeping track of your own stuff.
  • Good hygiene, food preparation, and waste disposal habits to keep you and your teammates healthy.
  • Disciplined water habits (treatment, and hydration)
  • Caring for your feet.
  • Bear/critter precautions (where warranted).
  • Controlling your temper when events or people let you down.
  • Sunscreen on water or snow.
  • Avoiding reckless play
  • Packed and ready to move on time.
  • Treating others and their gear with respect.

These aren’t simple, or easy. They must be taught. A breakdown in leading self can create huge problems for the team. Mastery may require two years of Battalion trips for some young guys. We expect demonstrated leadership-of-self on a hard winter backpacking trip before nominating a teen for leadership development training. I need a young man to prove he can lead himself before he pretend to think he can care for others.

2) Active Follower

The next role he assumes is “Active Follower.” This is not the follower that plods along, lemming-like, and simply does what he’s told. He’s active in his contribution to the team. The active follower:

  • Knows where the group is on the map.
  • Wants to carry his share of group gear.
  • Asks to be taught a skill he doesn’t know.
  • Shares treats
  • Asks questions when confused
  • Points out things his leader might not notice.
  • Expresses his concern if things don’t seem right.
  • Contributes ideas to team challenges.
  • Suggests a rest stop when he sees a teammate struggling.

Note the verbs above. The active follower acts! Competent Active Followers is the goal of our first week afield with our regional leadership development program.

Note that the Active Follower doesn’t stop Leading Self. Each of these roles is added to our plate as we develop, rather than replacing the earlier roles.

3) Peer Leader

The third role is “Peer Leader.” This is the role a lance corporal might find themselves in as an assistant squad leader, or the sergeants who comprise the senior leadership team, or the dads organizing a trip together, or the elders in your church. While there may be a titular leader in these cases, such as the squad leader, the master Sergeant, the Battalion Captain, or the Senior Pastor, the team is really working as peers towards a collective goal.

Peer leader is the role that demands the most interpersonal skill. You’re not in charge; you don’t have license to give orders. If you do, others will walk away. Nor is passive compliance an option. You’re on the team to contribute, not comply. The key attributes of a peer leader are hungry for team success, humble about one’s contribution (it’s about the team, not me), and smart about building up teammates.*

When working a team problem, the excellent peer leader leads with questions, rather than statements. They’re as attentive to team spirits as they are to the immediate job. They’ve got their brothers’ backs, and their brothers know it. We intend a 14-15 year old will return from the Summer Leadership program with capacity to serve as peer leaders, and maturing skills leading self and active followership. They’ll continue to develop in all three of these roles serving as assistant squad leaders, assistants for action special, and then as first-year camp staff.

4) Designated Leader

The fourth role is Designated Leader. Here’s where a Brigadier has advanced to leading a squad, leading the ministry, or a camp staff team leader. Here, the Scriptural standard is quite clear. A Leader Loves. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:25-28]

The Designated Leader dominates our mental model of leadership, and Battalion has lots of material that speaks to this role. The weakness is communicating to our boys that they don’t have responsibility for leadership until we give them a title. They need to grow into such roles, and even once they’re there, they don’t abandon the other roles. In sharing this model, we prepare them not simply for leadership in Battalion, but in the church, and their workplaces. True, this Navy Captain has junior officers that work for me. But, I must still lead myself. I must work productively with my civilian and military peers. And, the Admiral for whom I work expects me to be a very active follower.

Your non-comms can easily learn this model. It makes sense to them pretty quickly, particularly if they’ve experience working camp staff. I typically discuss the model once a year in a leadership team meeting to catch new non-comms. Have them give examples where they’ve seen these four roles played out in others. Or, better still, have them make up a quick 1-minute skit for each of the four roles. Have them introduce the model to the entire Battalion. You can then reassert that every Brigadier is enrolled in a leadership development program. The youngest guys are working on the skills first role; the seniors are continuing to develop the skills necessary to be effective in all four.

*Walter Wright, Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Leadership Service.

** NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook

***See Pat Lencioni’s Ideal Team Player for elaboration.


Captain Rob Niewoehner, USN (ret), PhD, serves as a professor of Aeronautics and Leadership at the United States Naval Academy, and Brigade Chairman at Annapolis Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

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