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Here's Why Even Benevolent Dictators Need to Collaborate With Their Team

I was recently speaking with a pastor with over three decades of experience as a leader in the church. He is very talented. He has wisdom and insight in mission and ministry. He has strategic vision. And for decades, he had been a “benevolent dictator.” He would say, “We are going in this direction and we are doing this to get there.” In the last few years, the culture has changed enough such that many leaders and members in his congregation no longer accept his benevolence as a dictator. This pastor is frustrated because he is fairly confident that his strategic vision is on target (and I would say it is pretty good as well), but he is being told that he needs to have a process for collaboration in decision making.

He didn’t want to give up the perceived benefits of the benevolent-dictator model of leadership:

  1.     Utilization of the wisdom of experience.
  2.     Efficiency in decision-making processes.
  3.     Centralized control/authority.

I am sure that many church leaders resonate with this pastor. But are the benefits listed above real? Perhaps we should ask if there are systemic negatives of the benevolent dictator leadership model. A benevolent dictator is responsible for vision, strategy and decision making. This means a local church rises or falls on the success of the leader in having the right vision and strategy and making the right decisions. Not only does the local church rise and fall but so does the pastor who will be hailed as a genius or a total failure. There is an alternative.

A transformational-collaborative leader is responsible for:

  1.     Framing the issues.
  2.     Gathering the various constituents around the issues the church is facing.
  3.     Facilitating transformational decision-making processes that invite leaders to work together to formulate transformational vision, strategy and ministry plans.

Thus, a local church rises or falls on the various leadership/constituency teams gathered around the issues. Everyone is guided and empowered through this leadership, including the pastor. This follows the biblical model of the church being the body of Christ with Christ as the head. We need collaboration with one another for the body to function as created. All of this is a lot more work, but in the end it really serves the mission of the local congregation very well.

The benevolent-dictator pastor often has the best of intentions and sometimes a wonderful vision for the local congregation, yet in our present culture this style of leadership often fails to build a community of leaders in mission and ministry. People often respond to a high-control problem-solver by checking out and not participating. They do not feel valued, and they simply disengage.

Too often, we think that if we can’t control the situation (or the people!) then we fail in our responsibilities to lead. The alternative to being a benevolent dictator is not giving up leadership, but it is leading in and through collaboration.

The Apostle Paul addressed his letters to his “brothers” in Christ, placing himself as a co-laborer with Christ along with all the followers. He spoke of the necessity of seeing leadership through the systemic understanding of the “body of Christ” with everyone contributing to the success of the mission. When we move from control to collaboration, we do not abdicate leadership, we take it on with more respect and more hope as we work together in mission.

Collaborative leadership is:

  1.     Moving from authority to shared leadership.
  2.     Moving from having the right answers to asking the right questions.
  3.     Moving from having power over others to empowering others.
  4.     Moving from anxiety to get it right to freedom to explore with others.
  5.     Moving from “How can I be successful?” to “How can WE be successful?”

Through collaborative leadership, the team will be more creative and more successful. The individual members of the team will know that they are valued contributors to the mission. People will feel like partners in ministry, not workers doing someone else’s ministry for them, and that makes collaboration worth the effort!