Honoring the Agency of Those we Lead

Principles of Leadership Teachers Manual Religion 180R, (2001), 7–13

“Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Nephi 10:23).

Principle of Leadership

Leaders should serve in ways that allow others to exercise their agency.

Lesson Concepts

  1. 1.

    Church and family leaders should honor the agency of those they lead.

  2. 2.

    As appropriate, leaders should both give direction and allow others to share in decisions.

Concept 1. Church and Family Leaders Should Honor the Agency of Those They Lead.


Elder Boyd K. Packer, who was then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said, “The only agency spoken of [in the scriptures] is moral agency” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1992, 92; or Ensign, May 1992, 67; see D&C 101:78). This agency is the ability to choose between good and evil. Lehi explained that we “are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27). Jesus Christ always respected the agency of those He taught during His mortal ministry. He never compelled them to obey Him. (See Matthew 22:15–22; Luke 18:18–30; John 6:28–71.)

Heavenly Father’s eternal plan allows us to have agency. Agency is important to our becoming like Him. This is why Lucifer attempted to destroy our agency and God “caused that he should be cast down;

“And he became Satan, yea, even the devil” (Moses 4:3–4).

Lehi taught that for us to exercise our agency, there must be “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). Adam and Eve used their agency in the Garden of Eden to precipitate the Fall. When we exercise our agency to choose right, we become more righteous, and when we use it to choose wrong, we become more wicked. We are accountable for our choices to the extent that we make them freely. Without agency there could be no righteousness or wickedness.

Leaders should lead in righteousness and encourage others to use their agency in the cause of righteousness.

Teaching Idea

Discuss the meaning of the word agency as used in a gospel setting. Help students understand why it is important for leaders to understand this principle.

Discuss with students Doctrine and Covenants 121:41 and help them understand the terms persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. Invite students to find and share scriptural examples of people who demonstrated these qualities in their leadership.

Ask how leaders might be tempted not to respect the agency of others. You could use questions like the following:

  • If a leader uses guilt to motivate a person to do something, is the leader honoring that person’s agency? Explain your answer.

  • How does using competition to motivate people relate to respecting agency? For example, do you think it would be a good idea to have the elders and the high priests see who can get the highest percentage of home teaching? Why or why not?

  • How does offering rewards for doing good relate to respecting a person’s agency? (An example would be a parent offering a child money to get good grades.)

Concept 2. As Appropriate, Leaders Should Both Give Direction and Allow Others to Share in Decisions.


The scriptures teach us how to behave without infringing on others’ agency. The Prophet Joseph Smith, while imprisoned in Liberty Jail, was inspired to write these words: “When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. …

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:37, 41).

Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, a member of the Seventy, said of these verses of scripture: “When we analyze the principles in this wondrous counsel, we see that it is in great contrast to the world’s commonly held view of leadership. To lead people by persuasion is a holy order of God. Persuasion suggests a regeneration, a change of heart, conviction, or renewal. Persuasion brings those we are leading to the same level of understanding that we have. It does not force people against their will but helps willing disciples to change; thus, the will of the persuader and the will of the persuaded become one.

“Long-suffering suggests that God wants us to realize that His way in leadership is not a quick fix. We teach, train, and retrain, and then we patiently wait for the results we desired. Long-suffering is deeper than just being patient. It requires empathetic feelings and the realization that each person is different. Some may not mentally grasp a concept or principle; others may not agree and so need persuasion; still others may lack motivation. The long-suffering leader is more interested in developing and training souls than in getting the job done quicker or in some other way, or by someone else.

“President Harold B. Lee often focused our attention on one word in the Lord’s admonition to ‘let every man learn his duty.’ (D&C 107:99.) The word was let. The Christ-like life requires constant seeking and growth” (The Incomparable Christ: Our Master and Model [1995], 125–26).

Neal A. Maxwell, who was later called to the Quorum of the Twelve, wrote that leaders basically follow one of three styles of leadership: manipulative, directive, and participative. In manipulative leadership, the leader manipulates people and circumstances to achieve group goals. In directive leadership, the leader makes decisions, with or without input from the group. In participative leadership, the group shares responsibility for making decisions. Read Brother Maxwell’s discussion of these principles in the teacher resources section below. Note that Brother Maxwell recommended a mix of directive and participative leadership styles.

Teaching Idea

Discuss the three leadership styles identified by Neal A. Maxwell (manipulative, directive, and participative) and write them on the board. Under each style, list its strengths and weaknesses. Read the following excerpt from Brother Maxwell’s statement:

“Both experience and the scriptures suggest the need for a blend of leadership styles—directive and participative, in which these styles are used in those circumstances most appropriate for them. We have a unique blend in the Church of directive leadership and participative leadership in which everyone grows and everyone moves forward in terms of eternal goals” (“… A More Excellent Way: Essays on Leadership for Latter-day Saints” [1967], 26).

Invite students to think of successful Church or family leaders, and ask what makes them successful. Discuss how these leaders blend the leadership styles defined by Brother Maxwell.

Teacher Resources

Neal A. Maxwell