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Learn How Leaders Think Instead of Just What They Do

ost leaders with a bent toward growth spend their time asking other leaders “What do you do?” They constantly focus on the programs, activities, and strategies employed by others to make their churches and organizations grow. At a conference I recently attended, Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv said, “Find someone one or two steps ahead of you and learn how they think. Most want to learn what they do—not how they think.” After pondering this statement, I wanted to share a few ideas that might help you uncover “thinking” vs. “doing” when you’re interacting with other leaders.

1. Ask About Principles Rather than Practices – Rather than just asking another leader about their ministry or organization’s practices (program questions or how-to questions), ask them what principles drive their decision-making, program development, and organizational strategies. Our tendency is to ask leaders about their programs rather than the principles that drove them to develop those programs in the first place. The why behind the what always leads to better thinking. When you avoid the why (the principle behind the practice), the tendency is to duplicate a practice that may not be the best practice for your ministry. Understanding the why helps you create your own practice that is better suited for your setting. Question to ask: “What principles, values, or framework drives your decision-making about (fill-in-the-blank … program, strategy, etc.).”

2. Ask About Assumptions — Assumptions are very powerful and have an extraordinary way of blinding leaders. Sometimes the barriers that prevent us from discovering best practices are our assumptions about the past, our traditions, or our current church or organization’s reality. If we’re not careful, assumptions will kill our growth. Challenging assumptions is the first step to removing the guard at the gate to innovation. Question to ask: “What process do you use to regularly challenge your assumptions about programs, strategies, practices, and traditions?”

3. Ask About ON Rather Than IN – It’s so easy to get focused on the IN (doing the ministry) that we forget to spend time with the ON. ON requires you to go to the 30,000 foot level of your church and organization to focus on the big picture issues such as mission, strategic planning, direction, values, evaluations, etc. Ask leaders how they maintain this balance. While you will likely get some “how to” responses, you’ll uncover how the leader thinks about issues that affect the overall direction of the organization. Question to ask: “How do you maintain a focus ON the organization, not just IN the organization?”

4. Ask About Personal Growth – Ask the leader what they’re learning as a leader, what they’re reading, what conferences they attend, who is coaching them, and what God is teaching them. You’ll uncover some valuable nuggets through this process. Questions to ask: “What have been your greatest leadership learnings in the last 12 months? How and what do you use to feed your personal development?”

5. Ask About Past Mistakes – We often learn a great deal from the mistakes of others. Ask leaders what their greatest leadership mistakes have been, how they navigated them, and what they learned through the process. Learning from others’ mistakes will help you discover which filters you need to put in place to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes. Question to ask: “What have been your greatest leadership mistakes, how did you navigate them, and what did you learn?”

6. Ask “When You Were” – If you’re talking with a leader that is one or two steps ahead of you, they should be able to reflect back to the time when they were sitting where you are now. Describe to the leader your current situation and then ask them to share with you the changes they had to make to move forward. Question to ask: “When you were sitting where I am now, what changes did you have to make in your thinking to get where you are today?”

I once heard somebody say that understanding why is more important than understanding what. Those who understand what always work for those who understand why. That’s a thinking issue. Start asking thinking questions and soon you’re thinking will align itself with higher capacity leadership. To further maximize your thinking, avoid “i3 Thinking” and leverage the “Thinking Seesaw.”