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The Secret to Easing Leadership Pressure: Becoming a Chief Learning Officer


When I interviewed my friend Tensley Almand for my book, Big Shoes To Fill, he was beginning his new role as Atlanta Mission CEO. Tensley worked with me as a campus lead pastor within North Point Ministries. He led Decatur City Church while I led Woodstock City Church. 

We are similar in that we are natural entrepreneurs and enjoy building things (like churches and organizations). When Tensley announced his leadership transition, I was excited for him. And I was excited to see how he planned to lead a new organization as an outsider. 

Under Pressure

Pressure is part of leadership. There’s no way around it. 

Actually, pressure is a good thing. If there were no pressure, there’d be no need for leadership. Decisions, change, and progress all create pressure, and these are the things that make leadership necessary. 

When I talked with Tensley, he seemed oddly relaxed about the role. He’d only been there a month, and while there was pressure, he didn’t seem to feel the pressure. I wondered if his new organization was so laid back that it was pressure-free. 

Of course, that is ridiculous. No organization of substance is without pressure, and no leadership role is without pressure. When I thought about the pressures of Tensley’s new role, a few came to mind. Things like: 

  • Atlanta Mission has an annual operating budget of over $20 million and a sizable endowment to steward. 
  • Tensley inherited 180+ staff members over 3 locations plus a corporate office and seven direct reports. 
  • Tensley entered Atlanta Mission from outside the organization. 
  • Tensley replaced the 13-year veteran CEO who was beloved. 
  • There are always expectations for the new leader to lead well. After all, they were selected after an extensive interview process. 
  • The majority of the Atlanta Mission staff didn’t have a vote in hiring Tensley. He was announced and showed up. 
  • Some changes were probably necessary, but leading change as the new leader feels impossible. 

That’s just the beginning. 

Yet Tensley wasn’t feeling the full squeeze of the pressure. 

He had a trick that we can all use.

One Secret to Release the Pressure

Tensley mentioned in our interview that he accepted a new title for his first several months. Rather than be the CEO, he wanted to be the CLO, Chief Learning Officer. 

I loved that, but words alone don’t mean much. To act as the CLO, Tensley spent time learning everything he could about the organization he was now tasked to lead. Of course, Tensley asked great questions during his interview process and researched Atlanta Mission before accepting the role, but as we all know, most of what we need to learn can’t be learned from the outside. 

Tensley did so many things well as the new leader, but his desire to learn might be the pressure release we all need and can mimic. He Tensley went well beyond asking a few probing questions. He experienced the organization, including the customer journey. 

Specifically, Tensley spent time experiencing everything a care recipient (customer) experiences at Atlanta Mission. From the website to the intake interview process to receiving care. He experienced it all a few times to ensure he understood exactly how people were experiencing Atlanta Mission. This is brilliant.