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5 Common Mistakes Leaders Make
Some observations from two decades in ministry
I’ve had the opportunity to serve in a ministry capacity for more than two decades. In the last fifteen years or so I’ve been in leadership, either as a senior leader or in an executive role. This has given me the opportunity to both experience and observe the best and worst of leadership. Many of these mistakes I’ve made myself and many I’ve observed in others. I hope they are helpful.
A Refusal to Deal with Personal Insecurities
I was at an event recently featuring longtime Southern Baptist statesman, Jimmy Draper. Draper was a beloved pastor in the DFW area, the president of the SBC, and the longtime president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Among the other tidbits of wisdom, he said that a leader has to be “comfortable in their own skin.” “I knew I’d fail at trying to be anyone else but Jimmy Draper, so I set out to be the best version of me I could be.” This is so true and yet is often a character trait that search committees and head-hunting firms rarely investigate in potential candidates. We typically gravitate toward dynamism and giftedness. Those two things are important, but the personal emotional quotient of a leader will make or break leadership.
A leader who is deeply insecure—and there are sadly way more of these than you’d think—will lead out of those insecurities. He will overcompensate to prove his worth. He will fight unnecessary and costly battles. He will insulate himself in a tight circle of sycophants. He will agonize over the tiniest bit of criticism from online trolls. But a leader who knows who he is and whose he is will walk with confidence and be less likely to make costly mistakes. Emotional health and self-awareness are things that are found in working out those insecurities (sometimes with help through therapy, sometimes through reconciliation with those who have hurt you, almost always through confession and repentance) and by living into your identity as a son or daughter of the King. It involves resolving those deep father wounds and embracing the Heavenly Father who is the dad who never disappoints. If you fully understand that you are known by God and that you know God, you can have the confidence to live out your unique place in the story God is writing in the world.
No Gray Hair In The Inner Circle
When I began the pastorate at my first church, I was not yet thirty and had no idea what I was doing. The elder board was entirely folks who were north of fifty years old and somewhere in their sixties and seventies. I didn’t see this as a gift at the time and worked to help bring some younger voices into leadership. I’m glad I did recruit the next generation, but the presence of wise old men helped me avoid the typical mistakes of youthful leadership. I also had a wonderful mentor named Bill who was the interim pastor before me. He not only gave me confidence and approval in my leadership but also gave me advice that saved me from myself. I wrote about Bill here.
One of the costliest mistakes leaders make is to have no gray hair in the inner circle. This is especially true for young leaders taking over a legacy ministry or for young leaders trying to execute a turnaround. I do think it’s good and right for leaders to have on their team folks who understand their vision, folks whom they trust. But your leadership team can’t all be young guns. They can’t all be “your guys.” There has to be someone close by who has some miles on them who can lean in with the experience you just don’t have. This is especially true when making hard choices. You’ll need someone close by, with gray hair, who is both supportive of your mission and willing to say, “Have you thought about this from this other angle?” I’m pleading to leaders reading this right now: don’t make this common mistake.
Unwillingness to Build Relationships Across Key Constituencies
I don’t listen to as many sermon podcasts as I used to, but I still try and hear preaching from across the country. One thing I have come to particularly enjoy in preachers is what I call “localism.” This is what I mean: I like to hear and sense in a sermon that the pastor has been among his people. I’m coming for the exegesis of the text, but I want to hear applications, illustrations, idioms, and references that I know nothing about because they apply only to that local body. It tells me that a pastor is not preaching to Twitter to go viral, but is actually pastoring a local body.
Leaders at any level need to be willing to build relationships across a broad constituency. This is especially important today in an increasingly polarized age. The temptation for young leaders to spend time with and speak to and serve only their tribe. If you do this, you will not survive and will not flourish. For young leaders, the temptation is to only hang with the cool set, the Twitter popular, the folks who “get it.” There is a danger here.
When I pastored my church, I quickly realized that if I wanted to paint the auditorium or remodel the nursery, I had to do breakfast with the old guys. Now I happened to enjoy having breakfast with the old guys. I saw this as part of my job to pastor the entire congregation, not just the young families who looked like mine. But doing this enabled me to make the necessary changes. It helped me build leadership capital.
The larger the organization, the more important this kind of outreach is. You can’t just win with your narrow tribe. You need to demonstrate a willingness to honor and respect and listen to folks across the spectrum within your constituency. This doesn’t mean you compromise your mission, surrender your convictions, or lead in a hesitating way, but it does mean that you are showing the people you will lead in a humble and understanding way. If you have done your relational work, it will keep you from being condescending and cold, especially when communicating big changes.
Unwise Stewardship of Leadership Capital
In his book, The Dichotomy of Leadership, Jocko Willink defines leadership capital this way:
“Leadership capital is the recognition that there is a finite amount of power that any leader possesses. It can be expended foolishly, by leaders who harp on matters that are trivial and strategically unimportant. Such capital is acquired slowly over time through building trust and confidence with the team by demonstrating that the leader has the long-term good of the team and the mission in mind. Prioritizing those areas where standards cannot be compromised and holding the line there while allowing for some slack in other, less critical areas is a wise use of leadership capital.”
Essentially leadership capital is trust. Now when a new leader assumes office, he or she begins with a small reservoir of goodwill, a sort of “honeymoon period.” This reservoir is considerably shorter today than in past eras, given the widespread institutional distrust we are experiencing. However, in this time frame, a leader can make strategic changes but has to manage the pace of change. It’s best in this early window to make moves that are the obvious “low-hanging fruit.” A few key appointments, a few improvements on the margins, a rebuilt relationship with a disaffected constituency. Over time, however, a new leader will need to build relationships, demonstrate competence in the basic functions of running the organization, and communicate well. These plus a few early wins can generate momentum.
Leadership capital takes time to build but can be lost quickly. I’ve seen this erosion happen in organizations through misguided decisions and poor communication. There are a lot of things a leader might want to say or do, decisions that might feel good, but don’t contribute to the long-term health of the organization. I’ve seen leaders waste their hard-earned trust through petty online squabbles and ill-advised battles. Every leader has to ask himself or herself, “Am I willing to spend a lot of leadership capital on this? Is this tweet worth it? Would I rather spend energy on something I can look back at later and be proud of?”
A lack of personal humility
The last, but perhaps, most important mistake leaders make is a lack of personal humility. Leadership is, at its heart, about setting up others for flourishing. Humility isn’t a weakness. It’s not a lack of bold vision. It’s not an inability to make a decision. But humility is the ability to not see yourself as the center of everything. It’s the willingness to rely on the Spirit of God for strength. In organizational leadership, it is the resistance to the temptation to make everything within and without the organization about you.
A lack of leadership humility shows up in a variety of ways, but here are a few common ones:
Seeing every conflict and every disagreement as a stark contrast between darkness and light. Some of your battles will be this way. Paul told the Corinthian Christians to “stand strong in the faith (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). He urged Timothy throughout the pastorals to not yield to the spirit of the age and to guard the “good deposit of faith (2 Timothy 1:14).” Sometimes leadership is lonely and you have to demonstrate unwavering courage. But treating every single conflict like this is wrong. You are not, in every disagreement, Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms or Deitrich Bonhoeffer in Germany. When you act like a self-righteous crusader on every issue, you wear people out and burn unnecessary bridges. You are not always right and it’s okay to admit that.
An air of elitism and superiority. There is a difference between stepping into your calling and carrying yourself like a king. How you treat the little people, the folks who can’t help you advance your career communicates a lot.
An unwillingness to be told you are wrong or hear criticism. This is so important for a leader. Too many leaders create a tight inner circle that requires everyone to nod their heads and tell them that they are awesome. This is both a recipe for failure, is a sign of deep insecurity and pride. Leaders don’t have to include cynics in the sphere of influence, but they should also not only stock their cabinets with yes men and yes women. And when it comes to criticism, good leaders are able to discern between trolls who operate in bad faith and people whose criticism might be worth listening to. This doesn’t mean you have to constantly dodge between opinions and never make a decision, but it does mean you are allowing yourself to hear the best available counsel at the time. Leaders should also just admit when they are wrong. This is so healthy internally. It will show your people that you are human and not a bot. It will model what healthy rhythms of confession, repentance, and humility look like.
A closing thought
I hope these observations on leadership are helpful. One other thing: today people are looking for what author and pastor Mark Sayers refers to as “non-anxious leadership.” Can you be the humble person who comes into a room and is able to navigate crises, calm people’s fears, and help guide them toward flourishing? This is shepherding leadership that is so desperately needed in our churches, communities, and in our country.
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