A Different Kind of Leadership

It’s not that I’m opposed to leadership. Quite the opposite. It’s just that I think we sometimes look to the wrong places for leadership wisdom, and this has disastrous consequences within the church.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that churches should run like businesses, and pastors should act as CEOs. No less a thinker than Jim Collins disagrees:

We must reject the idea— well-intentioned, but dead wrong— that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.” We need to reject the naïve imposition of the “language of business” on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness (Good To Great And The Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great)

But we have to go even further. We have to ask ourselves why Scripture speaks of leaders so differently than we do. Joe Stowell nails it in his excellent book Redefining Leadership: Character-Driven Habits of Effective Leaders:

Because of our own inherent twistedness, the kingdom way will often seem counterintuitive, pragmatically unproductive, and upside down. Yet, if the leadership recommendations of Jesus seem upside down, think again.

Stowell’s book is a must-read. It contrasts outcome-driven leadership (our default) with what Stowell calls character-driven leadership. "Leaders who lead with moral authority elevate Jesus as the true and singular leader of the organization,” he writes.

I’ve been thinking of this again recently as I’ve looked at Paul’s approach to raising up leaders in fragile new churches throughout the Roman Empire. What kind of leadership does Paul look for? He looks for character; for people who exhibit the qualities of a disciple. He looks for people with Christlike character, a well-managed home, and an ability to teach and defend biblical truth (Titus 1). Jeramie Rinne summarizes Paul’s approach: "Better a godly elder with mediocre leadership gifts than a charismatic leader with glaring moral flaws" (Church Elders: How to Shepherd God's People Like Jesus).

As I’ve said: I’m not opposed to leadership. I’m certainly not opposed to learning more about leadership skills. It’s just that we may need to tip the balance the other way and talk a lot more about leadership character, about leaders whose primary qualification is that they are enamored with Jesus. This quote from a sermon by Tim Keller has reverberated in my mind ever since I heard it, and I believe every word:

My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

That’s the kind of leadership we need.

The Number-One "Vision Problem"

I believe in the importance of vision and leadership. Still, I've grown almost allergic to the statements that seem to be so common about having and casting a vision. It's why I love this quote by John Ortberg in Ready, Steady, Grow, a book by Ray Evans. Ortberg says:

Vision is fundamental to the health of your church, but it’s probably not the kind of vision you’re thinking about.

Someone gets gripped by a vision that will not let them go. But it is not a vision of what they’re going to do. It is not a vision of a preferred future. It is not a vision of human activity. It is a vision of what already is. It is a vision of God, and how good he is, and how wonderful it is to be alive and a friend of such a Being.

Out of such a vision flow desires to do good things for such a God. Sometimes these activities may lead to results... And then other people may gather, and some decide they’d like to be involved...[But] people begin to pay more attention to what they are doing than to the reality of God.

At this point the mission replaces the vision as the dominant feature in people’s consciousness... people are living under the tyranny of Producing Impressive Results.

The number-one ‘vision problem’ with churches today is not (as is widely held) leaders who ‘lack a vision’. The real problem is when our primary focus shifts from who God is (a vision alone that can lead to ‘the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts’) to what we are doing.

Great quote. The number one problem with vision in our churches is that we lack a vision of God. Until we have that, almost nothing else matters.

The First Priority of Leadership

What’s the first priority of leadership? Character. It matters more than leadership techniques, skills, or even results. The results that matter, after all, flow from character.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of three different books: The Deep Change Field Guide by Robert Quinn, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer,  and Redefining Leadership by Joe Stowell.

To my surprise, Palmer has a lot to say about leadership in Let Your Life Speak. Because pastors are (among other things) leaders, and “a leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there,” character is crucial. Palmer writes:

A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Leaders, he writes, have a tendency to “project more shadow than light.” Positive thinking doesn't change this, and it also ignores some dangers:

By failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!…If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

Parker outlines five issues that we tend to face, including insecurity about identity and worth, a tendency to view everything as a battle, functional atheism (“It all depends on me”), fear of chaos, and denial of death. I think I've seen all five in leaders, including myself.

What is a good leader? Parker writes:

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us into a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.

It’s no accident that Scripture puts such high value on the character of a leader. It’s the difference between what Joe Stowell calls “character-driven leadership” and “outcome-driven leadership.” We need more focus on character. Character, Stowell writes, is the defining priority of leadership. His book, along with Let Your Life Speak and The Deep Change Field Guide, are striking similar notes.

We will inevitably project who we are. All the leadership techniques in the world will not change this. Apart from a character that is shaped by the gospel, we will project shadows. The first priority of a leader must be character: to be remade by the gospel, to experience the deepest change, to be the chief repenter, the most enamored with the gospel, and the most real about life.

Character is the first priority of leadership.

Pastors and Deep Change

According to Robert Quinn, self-change is crucial to leadership. The organization — for instance, the church — will not change unless the leader (the pastors) experience deep change. Leadership is not so much a set of skills as much as about choosing deep change rather than slow death.

There are so many gospel implications I could make from this one key insight. We tend to overemphasize leadership skills and underemphasize what happens when pastors experience deep change.

One way to foster deep change? Fire yourself every Friday. Quinn quotes Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon. “Reinvent yourself first before you reinvent your company,” Jung said in an interview a few years back. While I wouldn’t express it exactly this way, I think she still has a point. Pastors: why reinvent a new church when you are in need of being reinvented by the gospel? Start there. She continues:

Fire yourself on a Friday night and come in on Monday morning as if a search firm put you there as a turn-around leader. Can you be objective and make the bold change? If you can't, then you haven't reinvented yourself. If you can, then you can have a decade of tenure that is like having different jobs.

Just two thoughts:

  • Before a church can be changed, I must be changed. Too often I focus on the work that I want to see God do out there rather than realizing he wants to do a work in me first. It's about being the chief repenter, the one most enamored with the gospel that never gets old.
  • I never want to coast as a pastor. May we never lose the freshness of the gospel and the immense privilege and responsibility of serving God through his church. Deep change — possible through the gospel — is always preferable to slow death, even if it means firing ourselves every Friday.

Leadership and Management

I'm finding John Kotter's book What Leaders Really Do to be very helpful. Kotter tackles a number of important topics: the one implied by the title, as well as the differences between leadership and management, and why transformation efforts fail.

Leadership is a murky topic, especially in the church. Some overemphasize leadership. Others dismiss it completely. I always find it ironic that the anti-leadership movement often seems to be to be very well led. Irony abounds.

Here are some notes I took from a section of the book that I found particularly helpful:

  • Leadership is not about charisma or exotic personality traits, nor does it belong to a select few.
  • Most organizations are over-managed and under-led.
  • Leadership and management are complementary. Both are needed. Contrary to popular opinion, you can manage and lead at the same time.
  • Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership is about coping with change.
  • Management is more deductive, and designed to produce orderly results. Leadership is more inductive, and creates visions and strategies, not plans.
  • Visions and strategies don't need to be brilliantly innovative. The best are not.

Leadership isn't everything, nor is it nothing. I find books like this one helpful as I continue to wrestle with the nature of leadership, particularly within the church.