Leadership Modeling: Christian Leadership Development Through Mentoring as Informed by Social Learning Theory

Abstract: Leadership development is essential to training up healthy, effective leaders. Christian leaders should be intentionally influencing others to acquire, reinforce, and translate proper leadership character and behaviors into effective Christian leadership. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory serves as a guide for leaders to effectively develop others; this learning occurs by observation through modeling. Modeling leadership in relationship with others is a key approach towards developing leaders. This article presents a leadership development strategy that is both biblically situated and scientifically informed.

Keywords: leadership development, social learning theory, mentoring


Leadership is a social science. It is fundamentally “an observable pattern of actions and behaviors” (Kouzes & Posner, 2016, p. 49). Therefore, one can learn to lead and develop as a leader. For leaders, the development of others is “the highest calling of leadership” (Maxwell, 1995, p. 107). Leaders should be growing and developing themselves, as well as growing and developing others (Fletcher, 2018).

Leadership is distinctly Christian when directed and informed through a biblical worldview, as Christian leaders lead from biblical, Christian convictions (Mohler, 2012). Leadership development was a high priority for Jesus; He was intentional in developing disciples and sending them out. Leadership development was a cornerstone of Paul’s ministry, as well (Plueddemann, 2009). Like Jesus and Paul, the best leaders develop others, serving as “role models for followers to emulate” (Avolio, 1999, p. 43). Role-model leaders provide more than an example to imitate as they develop others by modeling in relationship, or mentoring. Mentoring is a non-negotiable responsibility of successful leadership (Finzel, 2007).

Leadership development is an intentional process of influencing established and potential leaders to acquire, reinforce, and translate proper leadership character and behaviors into effective leadership (adapted from Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). To best develop leaders, leaders should focus on influencing one’s character and behaviors. Mentoring is a key means to developing other’s character and competency (Fletcher, 2018). A strategy towards this end is needed to properly guide leadership development. Utilizing social learning theory to inform a leadership development strategy helps identify principles for leaders to follow, allowing them to effectively develop others. It suggests a strategy focused on developing leaders through modeling through relationships.

This article will examine how leadership development can occur through proper modeling, as informed by social learning theory. First, an understanding of social learning theory explains how most learning occurs by observing a proper model. Then, biblical examples show modeling in relationship as an effective and instrumental way to develop others. Next, the mentor must recognize the need to personally develop into the model. This will ideally influence others to become the type of leader that the mentor desires to develop. Finally, aspects of a leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory provide suggestions for developing leaders through modeling in relationship.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory explains that learning can occur through observation. Bandura states that “most human behavior is learned by observation through modeling” (Bandura, 1977, p. 22; 1986, p. 47). Following this understanding of learning, the role model in leadership development is “incredibly important to achieving one’s full developmental potential” (Avolio, 2005, p. 37). Learning through imitating is one of the most innate learning styles (McConnell, 2018). Greg Ogden (2019) argues that modeling is “the most significant learning dynamic” and is “where the real instruction occurs” (p. xiii). People seek a demonstration, not just an explanation because one learns first by association before understanding through explanation (Coleman, 2006). As a leader models leadership, leadership development takes place in the observer’s life.

Social learning theory involves four subprocesses. These four interrelated steps are attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Bandura, 1971; Manz & Sims, 1981; Wood & Bandura, 1989). Attention involves attention to and recognition of the model’s behavior. Retention comprises remembering the observation and retaining it meaningfully. Reproduction means that one can put together an actionable response and has the capabilities and skill to produce the action. Motivation comprises reinforcement that either keeps one from certain actions or incentivizes one toward specific behaviors.

For leadership development, attention occurs when one acquires the behavior through observing the model. Retention and motivation occur by reinforcing the behavior for it to be memorable and desirable for imitation. Reproduction occurs when one translates the desired behavior into effective leadership. Neuroscience helps explain this learning process, which recognizes the validity of other learning theories, such as experiential learning, yet remains distinct.

Benefits in Relation to Neuroscience

The “chameleon effect” is an example that helps explain how one learns from observation. This effect describes how we imitate others’ postures, body movements, and facial expressions through our observation and interactions with them (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Researchers found that “the act of perceiving another person’s behavior creates a tendency to behave similarly” (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999, p. 893). Imitation from observation occurs unconsciously and unintentionally (Brown & Strawn, 2012). This imitation learning occurs because we understand the implications of others’ behavior as our brains create “an action simulation of the behaviors we are observing (as if we were doing the same thing ourselves)” (Brown & Strawn, 2012, p. 115). Research shows that mirror neurons in the brain code together the acts one observes in a similar manner as the acts one performs (Brown & Strawn, 2012; McConnell, 2018). Therefore, observational learning takes place in the same way as performing the desired behavior. One learns from observing the behaviors that one will imitate.

One benefit of a social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy is that learning is streamlined. One does not need to spend extra time learning and relearning by executing a behavior or task in direct experience. Bandura’s theory explains that

virtually all learning phenomena resulting from direct experiences can occur on a vicarious basis through observation of other people’s behavior and its consequences for them. Man’s capacity to learn by observation enables him to acquire large, integrated units of behavior by example without having to build up the patterns gradually by tedious trial and error. (Bandura, 1971, p. 2; also see Wood & Bandura, 1989; Davis & Luthans, 1980)

Behavioral learning and change can occur “without the learner actually performing the behavior or directly experiencing the consequences” (Manz & Sims, 1981). While both a place for formal educational learning and a need to imitate and implement effective leadership behavior exist, one can build developmental learning base through observation.

Distinctions in Relation to Experiential Learning

Some, however, argue that a primary way to learn is through experiential learning. Experiential learning expert David Kolb (2015) argues that “direct sense experience and in-context action” is the primary source of learning (p. xviii). Thus, in this view, successful leaders develop primarily through lessons learned through experience, such as learning from on-the-job experience (McCall, Lomardo, & Morris, 1988). John Kotter (1986) suggests that successful managers develop over a long period and through varied experiences. In this way, one learns from personal successful or failed actions (i.e., trial-anderror). Learning thus occurs when change in the individual reflects on a direct experience, developing new abstractions and applications (Atin, 1999).

A social learning theory-informed development strategy does not disregard learning through direct experience. Instead, it recognizes experiential learning as one way to learn, while explaining that it is not the only or most effective learning method (Davis & Luthans, 1980). It also does not deny that God uses successes and failures to shape and grow leaders (Fletcher, 2018), nor deny that one can learn from making mistakes while leading (Maxwell, 2007). While the social learning theory-informed strategy relies on learning from failure and mistakes, this learning is gained by observing the model and the subsequent consequences of the model’s trial and error. Unlike experiential learning, which implies that one has no need for a teacher since learning rests within the student, social learning relies on a model as teacher (Atin, 1999). One learns “a wide variety of behaviors and skills much more efficiently and safely than would be possible through painful trial and error, or even through direct instruction and reinforcement” (Oman & Thoresen, 2003, p. 153). Thus, the observer benefits from the model’s previous and ongoing learning, allowing the observer to learn effective leadership in an expedited fashion.

Another way social learning theory uses experience is through its reinforcement of behavior. It explains that learning can occur through direct experiences, where consequences to one’s actions reinforce and inform correct behaviors (Bandura, 1971). In this way, one learns what one must do to gain beneficial outcomes or avoid punishing ones (Bandura, 1971). Social learning theory differs from experiential learning, though, as behaviors can be regulated not only by “directly experienced consequences from external sources,” but also by “vicarious reinforcement and self-reinforcement” (Bandura, 1971, p. 10; see also Manz & Sims, 1981). Learning can happen without external consequences as “most behavior is not controlled by immediate external reinforcement” (Bandura, 1971, p. 3; see also Davis and Lutans, 1980). Unlike experiential learning, social learning theory differentiates between learning a behavior and performing/imitating the behavior (Bandura, 1971). Behavior can be learned vicariously through observation without enacting the behavior.

One learns a behavior before performing it (Bandura, 1971; Kouzes & Posner, 2016). Additionally, one learns most behaviors through the influence of an example or model; this learning can occur deliberately or inadvertently (Bandura, 1971; Shehata, Hopmann, Nord, & Höijer, 2015). Reinforcement is considered facilitative rather than necessary, as other factors can influence learning besides response consequences (Bandura, 1971; Manz & Sims, 1981). While reinforcement may increase the probability of reproducing the observed behavior, “a good deal of imitative learning can occur without any reinforcers either to the model or to the observer” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963, pp. 10– 11; see also Bandura, 1971). Extrinsic reinforcement is unnecessary, as observational learning can occur through the modeled behavior and accompanying cognitive activities (Bandura, 1971; Aronfreed, 1968). Therefore, while one can learn from the consequences of unguided actions, a good model is a much better teacher, providing a shorter learning process (Bandura, 1971).

Social learning theory acknowledges the important role of extrinsic feedback but provides other forms of reinforcement influences that have an effect (Bandura, 1971; Manz & Sims, 1981). Additional conditions of influence that affect people include the experiences or consequences of personal actions, the observed consequences of others, and the reinforcement one self-creates (Bandura, 1971; Davis & Luthans, 1980). Influence from observing others’ consequences is called “vicarious reinforcement.” Vicarious reinforcement comes as “vicarious punishment” when negative consequences are observed and “vicarious positive reinforcement” when desirable outcomes are observed (Bandura, 1971, pp. 24–25; see also Malouff & Rooke, 2008). Self-created reinforcement is called “self-reinforcement.”  Self-reinforcement  may  come through self-esteem, self-evaluation, a positive self-concept, self-reward, selfdirection, self-motivation, or self-encouragement (Bandura, 1971; Wood & Bandura, 1989). Social learning research has shown that one can successfully model self-reinforcement for a learner (Bandura, 1971).

In social learning theory, reinforcement serves “informative and incentive functions” (Bandura, 1971, p. 3). Therefore, within the theory, reinforcement functions in attention and retention subprocesses as informative and motivation as incentive. Observational learning translates into action when positive incentives are present (Bandura, 1971; Taylor, Russ-Eft, & Chan, 2005). The anticipation of reinforcement can also help retain and provide motivation regarding the observed behavior (Bandura, 1971). Without direct personal experience of an action or direct personal reinforcement, one can learn and later imitate behaviors through observing models in action.

Biblical Modeling

While Bandura did not develop social learning theory from a biblical perspective, the Bible has examples of leadership development that illustrate the later-developed social science theory. Jesus is a prime example of someone teaching by modeling through relationship (Mark 3:13–15). Even when teaching large crowds, Jesus mentored His twelve disciples and intentionally showed them how to live (Blanchard & Hodges, 2008; Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). Chuck Lawless (2011) points out, “Jesus told His disciples to make disciples, and He modeled for them how to do that” (p. 33). He called them to follow Him in relationship and then spent quality time with them, sharing life (Lawless, 2011). He modeled the behaviors He wanted His disciples to learn (Putman, 2010). Longenecker (1995) argues that the disciples were to be with Jesus to become like Him; through this relational time with Him, they grew conceptually, experientially, emotionally, spiritually, and practically.

The book of Hebrews gives another example of observational learning through modeling. The writer says we imitate those who are strong leaders of the faith. Hebrews 13:7 states, “Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith” (CSB). First, the writer exhorted one to μνημονεύετε, which translates to “remember.” The verb means to recall from memory, “but without necessarily the implication that persons have actually forgotten” (Louw & Nida, 1996, p. 436). This remembering shows a time of attention and retention to recall the information learned. Social learning theory explains that one can learn and store behaviors for future action. Bandura writes that “from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura, 1977, p. 22). The Hebrews write instructed his audience to bring back to memory what they previously learned.

The writer of Hebrews calls the audience to recall more than just verbal instruction. He says to ἀναθεωροῦντες, translated to mean “carefully observe.” One is to consider and think back on what has been observed (Louw & Nida, 1996). The observation was of the leader’s ἔκβασιν τῆς ἀνα- στροφῆς, the “outcome” or “result” of the leader’s life (Louw & Nida, 1996, p. 637, 781). The word ἀναστροφῆς, translated as “of their lives,” means of the leader’s “behavior,” namely the way they conduct themselves,  with  a focus on overt daily behavior (Louw & Nida, 1996, p. 503). The writer then calls the audience to μιμεῖσθε, which translates to “imitate,” that  is,  to behave in the same manner (Louw & Nida, 1996, p. 508). Thomas Schreiner explains that remembering leaders “doesn’t just mean recalling their words, for their instruction was matched by their lives” (Schreiner, Köstenberger, & Alexander, 2015, p. 416). The writer of Hebrews urges his audience to put into action the same type of behavior they have learned by observing their leaders.

Paul recognized and encouraged imitation of what his audience observed in a desirable model. He also called others to imitate his example (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). Paul exhorted the church at Philippi to “join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17, NIV). He behaved in specific ways to be a model for followers to imitate (2 Thess. 3:7–9). Titus’ teaching and behavior reflected on Paul, as his actions imitated Paul (2 Tim. 2:7–8; Marshall & Payne, 2009).

Paul’s mentorship of Timothy is another a strong example of his modeling in relationship (1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1; 3:10–11). In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul exhorted Timothy to be a model to others. He said that through Timothy’s life, specifically “his speech, conduct, love, faith and purity,” Timothy showed himself as “an example” (NASB). The word τύπος translated to “example,” means “a model of behavior as an example to be imitated” (Louw & Nida, 1996, p. 591). This life imitation occurred in Timothy because he learned from and followed Paul’s example as a desirable model. He observed and imitated Paul’s teaching, conduct, aim in life, faith, patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions, and sufferings (2 Tim. 3:10–11). Leaders develop others by demonstrating character and competency, allowing others to follow what they see and hear (Phil. 4:9).

Personal Development

A social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy evokes leaders’ need to model appropriate and desired behaviors and traits. One implication of the theory for leadership development emphasizes leaders’ prerequisite to exemplify the desired behavior (Allen, 2007). As role models, leaders need to behave in how they want followers to learn to behave (House, 1976). The leader must develop him/herself into the type of leader that s/he desires to be modeled. Blanchard and Hodges explain, “Effective leadership starts on the inside. Before you can hope to lead anyone else, you have to know yourself” (Blanchard & Hodges, 2008, p. 20). Thus, for leaders to develop others through modeling in mentorship, the leader must first spend time on personal development.

A leadership development strategy must first start with the development of a model. While Jesus developed the disciples to carry on His ministry, He prioritized time to go out alone to be with the Father (Matt. 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). While Paul intentionally developed leaders to carry on the mission of spreading the Gospel, his leadership development approach first included his personal development to “serve as a role model to all” and be “worthy of imitation” (Ledbetter, Banks, & Greenhalgh, 2016, p. 124; see also 1 Cor. 4:16 and 2 Thess. 3:7–9). Leaders need to develop themselves so that they are worthy of observation and imitation.

Personal development is an important first step because observations of and experiences with the leader will be highly influential in the observer’s development. This influence occurs because “people become the leaders they observe” (Kouzes & Posner, 2016, p. 156). In his Gospel, Luke says that one who is fully trained will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40). Kouzes and Posner (2016) argue that exemplary leadership models are necessary because one must be able to see exemplary leadership in action to learn to produce it. Leaders will produce what they model, and they will model who they are.

Personal development must focus on value development. The social learning-informed leadership development strategy focuses on modeling proper observable behaviors. One’s core values guide decisions and actions (Kouzes & Posner, 2016; Putman, 2010). Values are the beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals that drive a leader (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). They define one’s character and determine one’s behavior (Blanchard & Hodges, 2008; Covey, 2013; Toomer, Caldwell, Weitzenkorn, & Clark, 2018). Leaders grow outwardly as they grow inwardly, as developing one’s personal convictions and values produce leadership from inside out (Kouzes & Posner, 2006; Maxwell, 2019). Warren Bennis (2009) says that “until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word” (p. 34). Leaders cannot effectively lead and develop others until they first identify and develop their own values.

Leadership is about influencing people by translating vision and values into “understandable and attainable acts and behaviors” (Ledbetter et al., 2016, pp. 8–9). Leaders are most influential when their beliefs and behaviors align (Stanley, 1999, 2003). They build credibility by being congruent and consistent when their values guide character and actions that match (Bennis & Goldsmith, 2010; Malphurs & Mancini, 2004; Haley, 2013; Maxwell, 2019). Credibility matters and is a crucial characteristic of a leader’s ability to influence others (Kouzes & Posner, 2017; Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). To credibly model the right behavior with the right character, the leader must first develop the right values.

Leaders should work on their people skills as they build relationships. Leadership is fundamentally a relationship between the leader and the follower (Kouzes & Posner, 2016, 2017; Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). Thus, leadership requires the development of relationships (Maxwell, 1998; Wilkes, 1998). If leaders do not genuinely care about others, they will neither lead well nor develop others into effective leaders. The adage is true: they do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. Good leaders connect with others (Maxwell, 1998, 2004). Leadership should be based on personal relationships characterized by trust and strengthened into intimate relationships (Schein & Schein, 2018). Lingenfelter (2008) states, “The relational leader builds trust and influences followers through integrity of character and depth of relationship” (p. 111). To best model within relationships, leaders must develop their relationship abilities.

Proponents of social learning assert that leaders who do not model the desired behavior undermine efforts to effect lasting change (Allen, 2007). The leader’s modeling and behavior must be attractive and credible to the observer (Brown, Traviño, & Harrison, 2005; Bass & Bass, 2008). Mentors need to be self-aware as they serve as role models for their protégés (Bass & Bass, 2008). Leaders must know where they need to develop personally before they develop others. The central premise of Avolio and Gardner’s work on authentic leadership development is that leadership is developed in followers through the leader’s self-awareness, self-regulation, and positive modeling (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). Once a leader has developed character, credibility, and competencies worthy of teaching, s/he can take the next step towards effectively modeling for others’ development.

Leadership Development

Social learning theory prompts a leader’s development strategy to focus on modeling within relationship. This development strategy is intentional and shapes the character and behavior of the observer. Through this mentoring strategy, leaders influence behavior acquisition through attention. They reinforce behavior to affect retention and impact motivation. Finally, the model translates behavior for reproduction. In this way, mentoring in relationship fulfills the four main subprocesses associated with social learning theory.

Modeling in Relationship

A leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory focuses on modeling behavior for potential leaders. Often, the lack of leadership development is due to a missing strategy rather than a lack of potential leaders. Leaders often do not immediately recognize the leadership potential around them (Fletcher, 2018). Many times, leaders are already present and willing to learn but need someone with a strategy to develop them. Leaders should mentor and develop from this “emerging  leadership  pool”  (Finzel, 2007, p. 181). One should hope to develop these potential leaders because leadership is learnable (Bass & Bass, 2008; Bennis & Goldsmith, 2010; Hughes, Beatty, & Dinwoodie, 2014; Kouzes & Posner, 2016). All people have untapped leadership potential (Tichy & Cohen, 1997). Because leadership can be learned, as it is “an observable set of skills and abilities” rooted in one’s behavior (Kouzes & Posner, 2006, p. 118; Kouzes & Posner, 2016), one can observe and learn effective leadership behaviors from a strong leadership model.

This modeling happens within relationship. Social learning informs this area of strategy, demonstrating that learning takes place among and through other people (Gherardi, Nicolini, & Odella, 1998). Leadership is relational (Burns, 2010); it is about people and thus exists in relationship (Kouzes & Posner, 2006, 2016). From a biblical worldview, God created people for relationship (Gen. 2:18; Jer. 24:7; James 2:23; also see Ogden, 2019). Don Howell (2003) says, “Biblical leadership is people-oriented” (p. 3; see also 1 Peter 5:2; Maxwell, 2019; Dockery, 2011). It is about building people (Fletcher, 2018). Without people, there can be no influence and thus no leadership (Malphurs & Mancini, 2004; Maxwell, 1998). Leadership is a relationship, and through the relationship, a leader develops others into leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2017; Wright, 2009; Putman, 2010).

Modeling in relationship requires the initiation of connection before leading (Maxwell, 2019). Bruce Avolio (2005) says, “A basic lesson in leadership development is that one should try to know one’s followers before attempting to develop them into leaders” (p. 9). Leadership development begins with starting a relationship and getting to know each other (Maxwell, 2008). A biblical example is Paul’s close relationship with Timothy as a means for imitation, a key element of his leadership development method (Marshall & Payne, 2009). Modeling in leadership development influences others in relationship with them.

Investing with Intention

Leadership development is an intentional process. Developing other leaders does not happen by chance. Tichy and Cohen (1997) recognize this need for intentionality and explain that great companies are deliberate, taking every opportunity to promote and encourage leadership at all levels, with top leaders personally committed to developing other leaders. Even when informed by a learning theory that asserts learning from observation, leaders should be deliberate and purposeful in their modeling. Modeling in relationship takes conscious, willful effort.

A leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory implies an investment on behalf of the leader. Leadership development takes time and resources (Maxwell, 2008; Tichy & Cohen, 1997). Lawless (2011) explains that “mentoring is costly” in the same way that one prioritizes spending time and money (pp. 24–25). Mentoring takes a willing investment of time to build relationships and see the results of the efforts put into leadership development (Longenecker, 1995). Because developing leaders requires a commitment to investing time and resources, a leader can develop only a few people at a time (Maxwell, 1995; Elmore, 2009).

Character Toward Behavior

Leadership development influences learning character and behavior. A social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy involves continual learning and growth. Both the leader as model and the observer in relationship need to intentionally continue to learn. Leadership is a lifelong, continuous learning process (Ledbetter et al., 2016; McConnell, 2018). This lifetime learning includes personal growth, not only leadership skill development (Maxwell, 1995). As part of leadership development, the leader should model his s own personal plans for growth while teaching and developing the potential leader’s personal plans for growth (Maxwell, 1995). Leaders should model regular learning, as the best leaders are constantly learning (Kouzes & Posner, 2016). When a leader fails to continue learning and growing, the leader jeopardizes influence on others.

Andy Stanley warns that without continual character development, one’s natural talent will eventually outpace one’s character (Stanley, 2003). When one’s character does not keep up with one’s talent, the pressures of success and exertion of power based on personal abilities begin to guide decisions and behaviors rather than foundational values. A leader’s character is not just a one-time pre-requisite, but an “ongoing context of the leader’s life” (Clarke, 2013, p. 183). It is character that “possesses the staying power and impact potential necessary for a lasting legacy” (Howell, 2003). Leaders cannot develop character in others if they do not already possess the character they wish to teach (Lawless, 2011; Maxwell, 2008).

Continued learning and growth compel leaders toward a place there they can lead from eminence, with a distinguished reputation as a great leader. Social learning theory asserts, “Whether or not a model is attractive, competent, and successful contributes to the overall probability of that model’s behavior being imitated” (Manz & Sims, 1981, p. 105; see also Bandura, 1977). It allows developing leaders a more significant margin for development. John Maxwell’s first law of leadership is the Law of the Lid, which states that “leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness” (Maxwell, 1998, pp. 1, 5–7). Followers of a leader can only grow to the same level or those below the leader. As a leader’s ability and effectiveness grow, the potential of those she leads also expands. Development and growth raise the level of a mentor’s ability and effectiveness, and thus a mentee’s potential.

A leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory involves learning reciprocation. Leaders learn from those with whom they are in a modeling relationship. Good mentors instruct and model competent leadership for their mentees to observe; they also observe the developing leader as he attempts to replicate what has been modeled (Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). Leaders learn where to adapt the strategy to meet the developing leader’s needs through observing the developing leader. Effective leaders “adapt their behavior to meet the needs of their followers and the particular environment” (Hersey, Blanchard, & Johnson, 2015, p. 98). As mentor and mentee observe each other, they learn from each other. Brown and Strawn (2012) explain that reciprocal imitation is a critical factor in development, as “we are formed and reformed by observing and imitating one another” (p. 117). As the mentor and mentee engage each other in an ongoing personal relationship, they help each other grow (Ehrich, Hansford, & Tennent, 2004; Lingenfelter, 2008).

Acquire Through Attention

Leaders influence the acquisition of proper behavior through modeling in a way that allows high observational attention. Social learning theory informs the leadership development strategy to involve teaching desirable, effective behaviors. A necessary starting point for a mentoring relationship is attraction (Elmore, 2009); leaders are attractive as they provide desirable behaviors to the learner. Attractiveness of the model influences the learner’s attentional processes observing the model and the extent to which the learner gains the modeled behavior (Taylor, Russ-Eft, & Chan, 2005). Leaders must show leadership attractiveness to the potential leader. Modeling involves a motivated attempt to resemble another person who possesses characteristics that one seeks to acquire (Bronfenbrenner, 1958). The model’s “attractiveness is an important means of channeling observer attention to the model” (Brown et al., 2005, p. 120). In social learning, the observed behavior is learned when attention is focused on the model and the modeled behavior (Brown et al., 2005; Wood & Bandura, 1989). Bandura explains, “The functional value of the behaviors displayed by different models is highly influential in determining which models will be closely observed and which will be ignored” (Bandura, 1971, p. 7; see also Bandura, 1977; Manz & Sims, 1981).

Not only do leaders need to display desirable behaviors, but they also need to display the necessary leadership qualities. People will want to model after those with attractive, winsome qualities over those who lack appealing, pleasing characteristics (Bandura, 1971; Kram, 1988). Therefore, the leader attracts and can effectively develop potential leaders by modeling and teaching appropriate, effective behaviors.

A leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory includes providing a positive environment for leadership development. Leaders should create a leadership culture in order to create a leadership pipeline (Fletcher, 2018). Modeling leadership is part of the process for creating an appealing leadership development climate (Kouzes & Posner, 2016). Potential leaders are attracted to leaders who use modeling to influence (Clinton, 2012). Kouzes and Posner (2016) explain, “When there is a rich culture of leadership in an organization, leaders emerge, grow, and succeed. They prosper and contribute because they get the care and attention they need to become exemplary” (pp. 181–182). Leaders should provide a safe and effective environment in which to learn.

Therefore, leadership development is a product of a leadership-development culture and a mechanism for creating the culture (Fletcher, 2018). A positive environment (i.e., conducive to leadership growth) will attract leaders and provide a culture in which potential leaders thrive (Kouzes & Posner, 2016). Furthermore, a leadership culture reproduces the patterns of thinking and behaviors among leaders and followers within the leadership culture (Malphurs & Mancini, 2004). Strong leadership-developing leaders are role models who help create a mindset that developing others is what leaders do (Tichy & Cohen, 1997).

Reinforce for Retention

The leadership development strategy reinforces observed behavior to effect retention. A leadership development strategy informed by social learning theory calls for further instruction. Describing the learner’s desired behaviors facilitates retention (Bryant & Fox, 1995; Decker, 1984; Taylor, Russ-Eft, & Chan, 2005). Leaders should be aware of the need to verbalize and explain behaviors to best reinforce them properly. When one learns from observing a behavior, he may or may not consciously learn the value guiding the behavior. Also, there may be times when a proper behavior results in a negative consequence. Here, one may be discouraged from pursuing a behavior that has resulted in an adverse consequence, as people are most likely to adopt modeled behaviors that produce rewarding and successful effects (Wood & Bandura, 1989).

For example, a leader with values forming good character resulting in right actions may model doing the right thing, even when the resulting consequences are not desirable. Good leaders “can be counted on to do the right thing” as they demonstrate “high standards of ethical and moral conduct” (Avolio, 1999, p. 43). Yet, doing the right thing does not always result in positive external consequences. Leaders developing leaders through observational learning will facilitate thinking and decision-making skills if they “verbalize their thought processes in conjunction with their action strategies” (Bandura, 1986, pp. 74; see also p. 216, 465). Leaders can give further instruction or explanation for one’s modeled behavior.

Biblical examples show this aspect of modeling in relationship. Jesus followed up actions with verbal explanations as exemplified by His instruction after washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:5–17). He explained His actions and the values behind them. One may need to give instruction when the learner observes the developing leader’s wrong behavior. Jesus explained servant leadership when He observed the disciples arguing over who is the greatest (Luke 22:24–27). At other times, an explanation may be needed, as a modeled behavior should be avoided. This behavior avoidance was demonstrated when Paul gave a warning to the church at Corinth about Israel’s negative history (1 Cor. 10:1–11). We find another example of instruction on avoiding certain behaviors when Jesus pointed out the behavior the disciples observed from other leaders of the time. He said not to lord authority over others like the Greeks, who were the majority leaders in the Diaspora, but to lead by serving (Matt. 20:25–28; Mark 10:42–45). Reinforcing a proper response to observed behavior through further instruction helps teach the proper behavior.

A leadership development strategy of modeling in relationship suggests the need for leader vulnerability, as vulnerability aids in retention. A commitment to modeling demands a level of honesty and vulnerability, as modeling may prove embarrassing (Longenecker, 1995). One must have humility to share both strengths and weaknesses (Maxwell, 2019). The biblical worldview of man’s depravity (Rom. 3:9–18) points Christian leaders toward being selfaware and vulnerable when developing others. A leader can be authentic amid weakness because all are fallible (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:23). Part of being an authentic leader is being vulnerable and transparent (Avolio, 2005).

The mentee may observe an undesirable behavior and its consequences. Leaders must be honest about areas of challenge. Research confirms “the best leaders are active learners, never believing that they know it all” (Kouzes & Posner, 2016; Putman, 2010). Leaders must be mindful and self-aware in order to develop properly amid mistakes and shortcomings. While the observer may properly assess a shortcoming through “vicarious punishment,” a leader should still be honest and vulnerable to explain undesirable behavior.

Developing leaders takes courage to be vulnerable and requires a leader who is well-balanced without “a lot of ego problems, unresolved power needs and conflicted feelings about his or her own competence” (Tichy & Cohen, 1997, p. 193). Leaders must have the courage to admit mistakes and reinforce proper behavior. A fear of vulnerability often hinders potential mentors (Lawless, 2011). Kouzes and Posner (2006) explain trust as “the willingness to be vulnerable and open up to others even when doing so may risk real harm” (p. 75; see also Kirkman & Harris, 2017; Lencioni, 2002). Leaders who share mistakes facilitate development and foster relationships. When leaders use a mistake as a teachable moment, they “showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also connect with people who share their imperfections and foibles” (Prime & Salib, 2014, n.p). A courageous leader who desires to develop strong, effective leaders will acknowledge the improper behaviors a mentee observes, regardless of the personal consequences. This vulnerable transparency and honesty ground the foundation for building relationships of trust (Avolio, 2005).

Reinforce for Motivation

A leadership development strategy also reinforces observed behavior to impact motivation. A social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy points a leader to build trust. Trust in the modeling relationship allows learning to increase within the attractiveness of the model, the safety of a strong culture and effective environment to learn, and the reinforcement towards a desirability to reproduce the behavior. Trust is a key leadership competency (Covey & Merrill, 2008; Kouzes & Posner, 2017) and the foundation of relationships (Covey, 1991; Wilkes, 1998). It is an important factor in building mentoring relationships, as it acts as the “social glue that binds human relationships” (Chand, 2018, p. 57; see also Kouzes & Posner, 2006; Maxwell 1995).

Trust comes from consistency as a leader’s consistency builds credibility, allowing people to trust him/her (Haley, 2013; Maxwell, 1995). Maxwell (2008) states, “Consistency is a crucial part of developing potential leaders. When we are consistent, our people learn to trust us” (p. 84). When a leader’s actions and words consistently match, credibility grows, thereby increasing the attractiveness of the model and reinforcing the model’s behaviors. People want to follow and learn from leaders they trust (Kouzes & Posner, 2017; Wilkes, 1998). Once a person trusts the leader, one then can trust the person’s leadership (Maxwell, 2008, 2019). Trust facilitates one’s willingness to connect with and learn from the leader.

Translate for Reproduction

The leadership development strategy translates observed behavior for reproduction of effective leadership. A social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy implies a process that develops leaders who then develop other leaders. As leaders model leadership development to develop others, the developed leader learns to develop leaders. Maxwell (1995) explains, “True success comes only when every generation continues to develop the next generation, teaching them the value and the method of developing the next group of leaders” (p. 188). Christian leadership involves training leaders who will develop other leaders to continue the ministry for generations to come (Malphurs & Mancini, 2004).

Therefore, a leadership strategy that models proper behavior requires leaders to focus on multiplication. Steve Saccone (2009) states, “It’s better to invest in a few who will reinvest in others than to invest in many who may never reinvest in anyone” (p. 186). Investing in developing leaders who develop leaders multiplies a leader’s influence and effectiveness (Maxwell, 1995, 1998). Mentoring correctly is about multiplying through reproduction, as the crux of a leadership development strategy through mentoring is to move the mentee to the role of mentor (Elmore, 1998; Lawless, 2011).

A leadership development strategy that includes multiplication of leaders shows the leader to be a visionary; this is a characteristic that sets leaders apart. Leaders are forward looking and drive others towards the future (Kouzes & Posner, 2016). They have foresight and create vision and direction for the future as a primary responsibility of their leadership (Finzel, 2007; Sanders, 2007). They think ahead and plan for the future. An essential aspect of visionary leadership is developing the next generation of leaders (Moon & Dathe-Douglass, 2015). Good leaders envision their leadership’s future and strive to develop other leaders to take over as successor (Finzel, 2007).

A social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy suggests that leaders share opportunities to lead. While social learning does not require imitation or a produced behavior for learning to occur, imitation exponentially increases retention and behavior reinforcement. Brown and Strawn explain, “What we imitate in others readily becomes part of our own behavior repertoire, shaping what we do and ultimately what kind of person we become” (Brown & Strawn, 2012, p. 79). Lingenfelter (2008) argues, “One cannot raise and empower leaders without creating opportunities for them to lead” (p. 122). Once a developing leader has learned from the leader’s modeling, the developing leader should be allowed to put behaviors into practice in order to strengthen future action.

Thus, a mentoring leadership development strategy results in the deployment of developed leaders. A major purpose for leaders’ growth and development is to send them out (Fletcher, 2018). Developing reproducing leaders will naturally lead to releasing them. Yet, the mentor must take the initiative to let go and deploy the mentee, empowering followers and sending them out to do the same behaviors that the leader has done (Lingenfelter, 2008). Jesus set this example as He appointed a few to learn from Him by being with Him to deploy them (Mark 3:14–15; Ferguson & Bird, 2018). As the developing leaders grow and flourish, there comes an inevitable time to release them. A leadership development strategy must include a plan for deployment (Malphurs & Mancini, 2004).


Leaders should pour into others, thereby developing leaders. Implementing a leadership development strategy extends a great leader’s influence. As they intentionally model in relationship, others learn and grow. The development strategy shapes one’s personal values, building character, and grows one’s leadership behaviors, building competencies. Maxwell (2008) states, “Great leaders share themselves and what they have learned with the learners who will become tomorrow’s leaders” (p. 35). Through modeling in relationship, the leader builds trust and demonstrates proper character and behavior of an effective leader.

Through the social learning theory-informed leadership development strategy, the potential leader attains all four categories governing social learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Through the developmental work of the leader, the leader demonstrates a developed leader to the mentee. The mentee observes developing leaders’ desirable behavior and experiences the consequence, or product, first-hand as a developed leader. Therefore, as a leader sends out the developed leader, the new leader can be held accountable to imitate the relationship’s leadership development strategy.


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Kevin S. Hall, a graduate of Cedarville University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Adv. MDiv), is a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Bethany, and they have three children.

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