Do you lead a cause or an organization? “Wait,” you answer, “I lead both!” In that case, let me ask it a different way:
Do you lead an organization with a cause or a cause with organization?
There’s a big difference.
In an “organization with a cause,” leadership prioritizes the organization itself ahead of the cause for which the organization exists. From vision and strategy to systems and budgets, everything leans toward building and preservation of the institution. The value of “order” is placed ahead of need for “progress.” Despite the presence of a God-honoring cause, the sharp edge of a dynamic mission and risk-taking spirit grows dull. Eventually, a blunt point on the arrow of purpose stops penetrating the world and taking new distance.
Leaders don’t feel this “frog-in-the-kettle” dynamic. The cause cools over time. It dilutes without notice because the organization has a large life of its own. Keeping the organization going feels good. It validates our success in the eyes of others. We can be impressive leaders when leading an organization with a cause.
In a “cause with organization,” however, the leadership’s emotional commitment to the organization itself is always subordinate to the emotional commitment to the cause. Decisions are made rigorously around expanding the cause-outcomes. Vision is visceral. Self-preservation is not even on the radar, because death-in-dramatic-attempt is more attractive than life-in-playing-it-safe.
In such a state, organization is not neglected. It’s important because it’s a platform for and instrument of the cause. But it refuses to take a life of its own. The organization is always changeable, rearrange-able, and negotiable.
We usually only see this beautiful dynamic early in the life of a new cause, like a church plant or social sector initiative. With success, it doesn’t take long before the organization-cause equation reverses. Early on, leaders go for broke. Once established, we do anything to keep the organization from going broke. Risk is “immature” and “irresponsible.” The gravity of our nicety wins the day. Losing the benefits of the organization hurts more than not taking new ground for the cause.
So what does a leader do to keep the cause first?
The answer always lies in the heart of the top 3-5 leaders in the organization.
- How does the leadership team embody the cause?
- What keeps them awake at night?
- What is winning the tug-of-war between safety and risk in their collective soul?
- How many times do personal benefits invisibly weigh-in with decision-making?
Ask these questions for yourself. Then ask these questions as a team. Identify the first places that each team member is susceptible to “organization-before-cause.”
Commit to a new action together that firmly models and reinforces a “cause-before-organization” commitment. Improve your cause with one question this week: What are you leading?