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.

Imagine There's No Leader

On the anniversary of John Lennon's death, on the day that Celine Dion appeared on CNN to sing Imagine (yikes!), Bill Kinnon came out with a provocative post More Disciples, Fewer Leaders Please. The whole post is worth reading.

Bill quotes Chris Wright. This is a brilliant quote and it deserves a lot of attention and thought:

I wouldn't start out with training leaders, I'd start out with making disciples.

I don't know what I can say to this except "Amen." It's brilliant and I think it's exactly right.

Bill also quotes Scot McKnight, who says:

...leadership too often places the pastor or some person in the front and having others be guided (and following) that person, and that, I dare say, distorts the entire gospel. Jesus was willing to say that his followers didn’t have a rabbi of their own, didn’t have a human father in a position of ultimate authority, and they didn’t have an instructor who was their teacher. They had one rabbi and one instructor, and his name was Jesus, and he was Messiah. They had one father, and he was Creator of all. They were to see themselves as brothers, not leaders. That’s straight from the lips of Jesus.

Again, a lot of truth here. And yet...

There's no doubt we're a little too fascinated with leadership. Leadership is important, as I'm about to argue, but it's not everything. I think Bill and the others are right to argue that we need a greater focus on discipleship than we do on leadership in our churches.

But one of the commenters gets it right:

I think sound leadership is crucial and always present in healthy churches. It’s sometimes hard to notice leadership until you find yourself somewhere where it’s very bad, or where there is none. I’ve seen churches that are dominated by a charismatic leader who holds the key to everything in the church. But I’ve also seen churches so eager to “democratize” all their practices, that no one is willing to make a decision or take responsibility for it.

I think much of our modern-day distaste for the word “authority” colors our perception of the role of leadership in the church. But I think the Bible explicitly and implicitly acknowledges how crucial leadership is.

All through Scripture we see leaders. One of the primary themes is that of shepherd, which is a rich leadership metaphor we need to take seriously. The question is not whether or not we need leaders. The question is what type of leader we need.

I'm all for reacting against leadership fads. But let's not imagine that there are no leaders. Let's instead begin to explore what a biblical leader is to do - and most of all to be.

Friedman Made Simple

I mentioned a book by Edwin Friedman on leadership a couple of months ago. It's been a big help to me.

I wouldn't say that Friedman is the best way or the only way to understand leadership. I also wouldn't argue that it's the most biblical. I would say that it covers an important area of leadership that's missed in most of the technique-driven material out there. It's worth thinking through the issues he raises and thinking about them from a biblical framework.

You could say that he helps us understand sinful and dysfunctional systems, and pushes us to understand our God-given role in these systems with nothing to prove, because we already have God's approval. That's my gospel riff on his theory.

This video gives you an quick introduction to some of Friedman's teaching in just under seven minutes.

If you want to learn more, check out A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix


Putting Leadership in its Place

I often struggle as I think about leadership. On one hand, I know it's important. On the other hand, I sometimes choke on all the conflicting leadership theories, and I wonder if we have made leadership a panacea.

I find this quote from The One Thing You Need to Know to be helpful. It recognizes the importance of leadership, but acknowledges that leadership isn't the only thing that matters.

In general, my experience conforms with that of Warren Bennis, perhaps the preeminent leadership expert, when he says, "Leadership accounts for, at the very best, 15 percent of the importance of any organization."

This helps me as I think about the importance of leadership: 15 percent is a lot. But it also helps me realize that we need to resist the temptation to think that leadership is everything. It's important, but it's not everything.

The Best Leadership Book You Haven't Read

If you're like me, you have a love-hate relationship with leadership books. I believe leadership is important, but I'm frustrated by the hype and technique-driven leadership material out there. So I'm somewhat skeptical when it comes to leadership books.

A few weeks ago my friend Barry Parker (rector of St. Paul's Bloor Street in Toronto) told me that he has around 150 books on leadership, and the best one he's read is A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman. I ordered the book and found it to be very helpful.

The book is based on the Bowen systems theory of the family. As Wikipedia puts it:

To have a well-differentiated "self" is an ideal that no one realizes perfectly. They recognize that they need others, but they depend less on other's acceptance and approval. They do not merely adopt the attitude of those around them but acquire their principles thoughtfully. These help them decide important family and social issues, and resist the feelings of the moment. Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion. What they decide and say matches what they do. When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully, not because they are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in their own thinking, they can either support another's view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another's view without becoming hostile.

If you're leading in a church or organization that's experiencing some tension - and who isn't? - then this book has some helpful concepts. I especially appreciated that it debunked our tendency towards quick fixes and technique-driven solutions. Sometimes we need additional data, but sometimes the real problem is not a lack of data, but a lack of courage.

A couple of warnings: you're going to be thrown by some of the content in this book, which isn't written from a Christian worldview. And it has some rough edges, since it wasn't completed before Friedman's untimely death. But this shouldn't stop you from learning from this book.

You can read more about Friedman's thinking in this helpful article. If you want a book that applies this system of thinking to pastoral leadership, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times may be the book for you.

There's some good stuff here. Friedman's book may be the best leadership book that you haven't yet read.