Keep Learning to Lead

Five Practical Lessons

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Guest Contributor

Leadership is hard. I rank it up there with pain, parenting, and preaching as one of those things in life that we never fully master, but only hope to keep learning over a lifetime.

Dan Allender puts it well: “If you’re a leader, you’re in the battle of your life.”

Anyone who has navigated the turbulent waters of leadership probably knows what he means. The challenges and complexities are enormous. Making tough decisions, weathering criticism, helping others re-envision the future, taking risks, speaking consistently with tact and wisdom, gathering broad-based support, working shrewdly with different personalities — it can often feel like steering the boat while whitewater rafting.

As I’ve led others over the last several years, I’ve gleaned several lessons that might help others (especially in a ministry context). Here are a few I’ve learned, am learning, and probably will have to learn again.

1. Give correctives personally, graciously, and sparingly.

My grandfather used to say about being a pastor, “You can’t always be nice.” That’s true of all leadership. You have to correct people. When you don’t, sin and dysfunction fester.

Nonetheless, correcting others is one of the most difficult responsibilities in leadership. It takes wisdom to find the right balance of truth and grace. I often err in one direction or the other, but I’ve discovered some guiding principles that help me.

  • Give correctives in person. Correcting someone over email may be easier, but it’s far less helpful. Nuances and subtleties typically come out in person that are lost in writing; your tone will likely be more gentle and fair in person, and it’s easier for the other person to receive the correction well.

  • Frame correctives in the context of encouragements — even as encouragements — whenever you can. For example: “You have great potential at teaching; you could even increase your effectiveness by inviting more questions.” It may sound corny, but it is helpful.

  • Take care that the overall tone of your leadership is positive rather than corrective. To create an overall environment and tone of warmth, you likely will need to overlook many errors and correct more sparingly than you may think. People can only take so much. Even Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

2. Celebrate success stories.

I have found that one of the most effective habits of good leadership is to celebrate success stories. For instance, when a layperson faithfully evangelizes or sacrificially gives, ask him to share his experience with the rest of the church. Or when an elder is enduring cancer in a God-honoring way, interview him in front of others so they can learn from his example. Or when a volunteer is faithfully serving in the nursery, highlight her service publicly in order to help the church value this calling as important and Christ-exalting.

The benefits of celebrating success stories are many. It affirms and honors that person in their service. It encourages and motivates others who are serving in similar ways. It reinforces the message that “it’s a team effort” — that the leaders are not more important than the members. It spreads out pastoral authority. And it enhances the beauty and trust of the whole group.

3. Don’t surprise more than necessary.

People don’t like unpleasant surprises. We know this in principle — but how easy it is to forget in practice! We rarely over-communicate, but frequently under-communicate. It is almost instinctive, when we are up in the cockpit flying the plane, to forget to give regular updates to the passengers. But a well-timed “heads up” can do wonders for maintaining harmony and trust throughout the group.

A good leader learns the value of sentences that begin like this:

  • “So you are not surprised when it happens, I want to let you know in advance . . .”

  • “Just as a reminder, to make sure we are all on the same page . . .”

  • “I want to give you an update on the progress since our last meeting so you’re not in the dark . . .”

Here are some practical ways to make sure communication doesn’t slip through the cracks:

  • At the end of every meeting, or every major policy decision, ask the question: “Who would benefit from being informed of our conversation?” And then appoint someone to do the communication.

  • Before announcing a big change or decision publicly, do the hard work of communicating privately as much as is appropriate. Meet with people one-on-one to win them over and build consensus.

4. Work through teams often.

Mobilizing a team of people to brainstorm together is less efficient than relying on yourself or a couple others, but it is often worth it for significant decisions and processes. When you need to wade through potentially stormy waters, a team of people can offer what an individual cannot: accountability, diversity of perspective, and greater trust among those not involved in the decision.

In addition, working through a team creates more natural and broad-based loyalty to the decision among those involved in the team. Finally, it provides an opportunity for leadership development and recruitment among the members of the team.

5. Make meetings intentional.

Few things zap morale so rapidly when done poorly, or build morale so powerfully when done well, as meetings. Over time meetings naturally drift from their official purpose into the whims of the most vocal attendees, so an effective leader must ruthlessly keep them on target.

I have found two other practices helpful.

  • At the beginning of each meeting, summarize the meeting’s purpose. Then, at the end, analyze: “Have we accomplished our purpose?” This creates an internal feedback loop, allowing you to address failures and frustrations.

  • Make meetings at least 60 percent “input” (things like learning, sharing, encouraging, praying) and at most 40 percent “output” (getting stuff done). In other words, seek to invest more than you withdraw during the minutes of your meetings. For me, this means opening with a brief devotional and prayer, and then taking time to encourage each other or learn together by discussing a book. This reduces efficiency in the tangible short-term, but I believe it increases fruitfulness over the invisible long-term.

Lead Like Jesus

Finally, in these areas and others, our ultimate criterion for effective leadership should be Jesus himself. When we talk about “leadership,” it is easy to envision worldly metrics of accomplishment and impressiveness. But if Jesus is our model, we will pursue a leadership that is fundamentally defined by the cross — a leadership of service, of humility, of sacrificial love. “I have given you an example. . . . A servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:15–16).

As we walk with Jesus and follow his leadership in our own life, he will give us the strength and grace to lay down our lives for the good of others.

(@gavinortlund) is a pastor, author, speaker, and apologist for the Christian faith. He is a husband to Esther, and a father to Isaiah, Naomi, Elijah, Miriam, and Abigail. He serves as President of Truth Unites and Theologian-in-Residence at Immanuel Church.