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The Desperate Need for Church Leaders, Not Church Managers

Leadership is distinct from management because leadership is about transformation—personal and organizational transformation. While management, like stewardship, cares for what is, leadership is about what can be or what must become for an organization to fulfill its reason for being. To that end, let me offer three leadership truths that shape my work in leadership development (mostly in church and nonprofit circles).

1. Leadership is essential.

By leadership, I don’t mean titles or authority necessarily. (Both are helpful, but not essential to leadership.) Leadership is not measured by corner offices or heavy furniture, higher salaries or august job descriptions. Leadership is a way of being in an organization, family, team, company, church, business, nation (or any other “system”) that, in the words of Ronald Heifetz, “enables a group to grow so they can face their toughest challenges.” Since leadership is about transformation, and because we are hard-wired to resist change, every living system requires someone in it to live into and lead into the new future we are resisting. If someone is not functioning as a leader, the system will always default to the status quo. 

Which hints at the second truth:

2. Leadership is expressed in functioning.

Leaders act. Leaders function. While speaking is a form of functioning, and many leaders are known for their words in times of crisis, leadership is expressed mostly primarily in the actions that “enable a group to grow and face their toughest challenges.” Leaders lead by example, words, decisions and even silence. Sometimes a transformative act is to stand in the middle of an anxious storm and say nothing. Just stand and stand there. Ed Friedman said, “The leader in the system is the one who is not blaming anyone.” Note: Every one of those words was chosen deliberately. The Leader is the one “in the system.” That is, they have stayed in the family, church, organization, company, country, etc. You can’t lead from outside the system. (You can be a prophet or critic or consultant or supporter, but not a leader). The leader is “not blaming anyone” or, for that matter, any circumstance, but solely focusing on personal responsibility, looking to what she can do—how she can function—differently. And that “doing is not just impulsive acting, but thoughtful, reflective responding. Perhaps the single most transformative moment of all is when a leader says, “I don’t know what to do,” and then gets about the hard work of leading learning

Which leads to the third truth …

3. Leadership is developed.

I believe leadership is a skill that can be taught. I am firmly in the “leaders are made, not born school. Just as some have more aptitude for a skill than others, some have more natural abilities and talents that lend themselves to particular leadership in particular circumstances. But any person who is willing to take personal responsibility, convene a group to work on a tough problem and persist in the face of resistance is a leader. At the same time, the common inference when people want to learn to be leaders is it is mostly head-knowledge. If we read books and can repeat phrases (like “adaptive challenges), we think we have “learned leadership” (which is pretty much like learning to fly a plane from watching a video). But, and this is critical, leadership is learned in the doing and on the reflecting on the doing. (John Dewey reportedly wrote: “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.”) At the same time, even reflection is not enough. Leadership requires developing what Friedman called “self-regulation.” Because our brains don’t process information and learn well when we are highly anxious, leaders must develop emotional maturity and the ability to persist in complex emotional systems without either distancing or taking resistance personally.  Or as the good folks at the Lombard Peace Center like to say, leaders must be able to “stay calm, stay connected and stay the course.”

If we read these truths backward, we get a dose of harsh reality. Since we are not developing leaders, there is lack of leadership functioning. Without essential leadership functioning, most organizations are not “growing,” not “transforming” and certainly not “facing their toughest challenges.”  

These truths about leadership being essential, functional and developmental are critical for any organization facing tough challenges. But I see it even more clearly in the churches with whom I work. The world is changing rapidly. Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared, corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experience during the 18 centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated. The church and our churches are in an “adapt or die” moment. And the leadership that has been developed with a Christendom mindset (leadership is a position, a mode of speaking, and is found only in those with natural born gifts) is inadequate to this immensely challenging—transformation-demanding—moment in history.