The Difference Between Being a Commentator and a Leader

June 23, 2020

Commentary is popular right now. Some of the biggest names in news are opinionated commentators, not fact-driven beat reporters. With social media, anyone can comment about an issue, regardless of qualifications. Ironically, more data exists now than ever before, yet we still rely heavily on the opinions and comments of others.

Obviously, the popularity of commentary is not in itself a bad thing. You are reading this post, and I hope you keep reading. The ability for the people to produce thoughts en masse does have advantages, most notably that it is no longer possible for a few in power to control narratives. 

But commentary is not leadership. Just because a great conversation is occurring does not mean leadership is happening. I fear we might confuse the two. This confusion occurs because we’ve reduced leadership to mere influence. Leadership is not just influence. A marketing campaign is influential, and it may even lead you to purchase a product. But that’s not leadership. 

Both commentary and leadership are needed. Sometimes they overlap—a commentator may also be a leader. But here is how they are different. 

Commentators have fewer filters. Leaders must act as statesmen. Commentators benefit the public because they can offer unfiltered observations. They can think aloud and speculate. As statesmen, leaders must be careful with words because errant remarks can cause harm. For example, a financial analyst may predict a 20% drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Such commentary could profit listeners. But if the President of the United States made the same prediction, then global markets would tank. 

Commentators offer an outside perspective. Leaders maintain the inside perspective. The purpose of a commentator is to bring an outside viewpoint. Even though commentators are often anything but impartial voices, their perspectives do help bring balance to leadership. The responsibility of a leader, however, is to serve a particular organization, company, or church. In this way, their energy is dedicated to helping lead those on the inside. 

Commentators build an audience. Leaders inherit followers. Commentators may write blogs or books, produce podcasts, or utilize a variety of media to broadcast a message. This message goes to an audience. Those who listen to a commentator choose to do so because they like (or respect) the message. On the other hand, leaders often have little choice in followers. If you are a new pastor, then you get those who are already at the church. They may or may not choose to listen. 

Commentators speak truth today. Leaders guide people towards the future. Commentators may speculate about the future, but the message is for today. Commentary’s value is in its short-term nature. Hard truth today is beneficial. Leaders have a longer-term perspective, though they may deal with short-term fires. The value of leadership is in the longer timetable required to move people towards future goals.

Both commentary and leadership have value. However, the two should not be confused. Commentary can be influential, but leadership is more than influence.

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8 Comments

  • David Caron says on

    Thanks Sam. It might be my situation but I am hearing less about ‘commentators’ and more about ‘influencers.’ Do you see these as the same? Its really important for leaders to know out of which model(s) of leadership their ministries flow. As they grow that they need to share that with their congregation. While I see the value of both, I also have experienced ‘influencers’ that draw people who are ideologically like-minded and sometimes like-mindedness is more about maintenance than mission.

  • Good analysis Sam, Thank you

  • KENNITH ACLIN says on

    What are some thoughts on what group is most within the Church today (Commentators, Leaders, or combo Commentator/Leader)?
    What are some Biblical Qualifications and some Biblical Responsibilities of Leaders with Bible references please?

    • 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1
      To fully answer your questions, read “Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor is and What He Does” by Akin & Pace

  • Commentators stay on the sidelines, while leaders lead right in the midst of the activity.

  • Leaders have to do some % commentary. That does not mean that leaders can get by with doing 0% leadership. Commentators try to reach the masses. Leaders don’t often attempt to reach the masses. Commentators who tend to have loud mouth and influence sometimes take input from the masses and offer them a voice. Leaders don’t typically like taking input and don’t generally take it from the masses, but only from the special few. Thus, there is a happy medium between the extremes.

    • Commentators report and spin the narrative to their whim, mood, advantage and self service. They will push the narrative in the direction of the moment that benefits them most. They may even risk costing themselves something if their benefit is served. Commentators seize the narrative of the day. Leaders have a direction. They are headed toward a future destination or outcome and look for the best path to reach it. It is a goal that benefits the ones they lead even when if it costs them personally. They carve a narrative of the day. You have heard it said…..but I tell you….

      • That’s only in a theoretical world. Most leaders do whatever they want and never at any cost to themselves.