I've been fortunate to lead such an amazing organization helping children and families in crisis. As a leader, I haven’t always made the right choices, or gotten it right. My mistakes are plenty. Thankfully we have limited space, so we won’t talk about all of them :)
What I do want to share is some key ingredients that have helped me find success as a leader despite the challenges that come to all who are called to lead.
The Bible is a great resource for leaders. It is full of wisdom and insight into human nature, the way the world works (or doesn't work), and it can provide very practical assistance for the critically important but often very difficult task of leading people and running organizations.
The Book of Proverbs, chapter four, verse seven, says that “wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.”
The following is a look at ten principles of wisdom, ten skills, that I have learned from both scripture and life experience. The list is not exhaustive by any means. It is purposely limited to just ten for the sake of space and to force some of the more vitals axioms to rise to the top. These are parables of wisdom for all leader as they relate to the people they are leading.
The only way for a leader or an organization to get to do what it wants to do or to be where it wants to be is by discipline and hard work. There simply is no substitute for discipline and hard work. None! So we might as well put it out of our mind that there is any other way.
a. Everything in this life that has any real and lasting value takes time, focus, and hard work. Gold takes expensive mining. Babies come after nine months of discomfort and hours of painful labor and then that’s just the start. Liberty, a most precious gift, often comes at a very high cost of human life. The graves of America’s finest are found all over the world as proof.
b. The laws of the harvest which can be discovered on any farm or in the Bible, inform us that we will always reap what we sow. In fact, we will always reap more than we sow. It’s good for leaders to keep that in mind. If they sow cheaply, they will get cut-rate results. If they plant in haste, they will harvest waste. If they scatter fairness, they will gain loyalty. If leaders sow with less than their full devotion, they will get less than full potential in return. Get the point?
2. Small things do matter - as long as they serve big things.
Leaders have long been encouraged to “shoot elephants instead of squirrels.” In other words, go after the big game. And that makes sense as long as the squirrels aren't driving you nuts. We have all heard the saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” That is also true but only if the small stuff stands alone.
However, if the small stuff serves a larger purpose, a greater means, or when the small stuff serves to accomplish the mission, then it does matter – a lot. In those instances the minor matters requires our best attention. Here’s why.
a. The main thing for any leader is the mission and the vision. Everything in an organization must serve those two grand purposes. They are the big things. When a group chases after the mission and vision one thing is certain to happen - change. Change will naturally happen if the mission is being fervently pursued. An organization cannot expect to grow without also expecting change. It is imperative then that the leader keeps at least one eye on the little things because when the winds of change start blowing, small things can become deadly projectiles.
b. Remember those we serve may have a different perspective of what is small and what is big, what matters and what doesn’t. For a ministry that serves children, like Patrick Henry Boys and Girls Homes, small things to an adult are often big issues to a child. We can easily get caught up in adult concerns that we forget to do simple, small, gestures that may make a huge difference to a child; like reading a story, playing catch, or just listening to their childish imaginations.
c. The difference between a mediocre ministry and a ministry marked by excellence is the attention given to the details, to the small things. The goal of every Christian ministry should be to do all things with excellence because excellence honors God and inspires people.
3. Choose your battles wisely.
When it comes to conflict, this is where leaders should not sweat the small things. The modern proverb of “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill” applies here. If an argument, debate, or conflict has the potential of damaging a relationship, especially an important relationship, then the leader better make pretty darn sure it is worth the cost. With this in mind a leader should consider two things.
a. Having fewer rules not more. More rules and regulations lead to more rule breaking and troublesome rule breakers. More rule breakers leads to more disciplinary actions, conflict and turmoil. So, be sure the rule is worth the cost if the rule is violated, because it will be.
b. Know the difference between preferences and convictions, between opinions and the non-negotiable, between the flexible and the immutable. These will be different depending on the group or organization but the distinctions must be made. If not, there will be unnecessary conflict and conflict always exacts a price. So choose your battles wisely.
4. Nip problems in the bud - before you get nipped by them.
Deal with problems and conflicts early. Don’t let them grow or fester. In other words, take care of the problem while it is small. It is so much easier and requires far less time and resources if the leader takes care of problems early on. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
a. Everyone has the right to fail - once. Everyone has the right to make a mistake - once.
b. It is always better to be a peacemaker than a peacekeeper. Peacekeepers want to maintain the peace. Sometimes they do that by ignoring or suppressing the problem. A peacemaker, on the other hand, acknowledges the problem, confronts it, lets it come to the surface and deals with it as soon as possible. When confronted by a conflict or problem, the leader can either pay it now or pay it later. I suggest that it be paid when it comes due or the late fees may be more than can be afforded
c. Problems don’t go away without help. Problems, like money, have their own rates of inflation and therefore it’s always wiser to pay the cost of up front and deal with the issue when it first arises. Leaders can’t wait for the problems to go away. Leaders must be brave. They must confront the issue head on. That is why they are the leader. If they don’t lead someone else will.
5. Connection before correction.
When leaders do need to confront a problem or correct another person, it is always better when it is done in the context of a caring relationship because it is relationships, more than anything else, which determines morale. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King are helpful here, “truth without love is reckless and abusive.” What is called for in these moments is empathy and compassion.
a. Empathy: every person should attempt to understand before demanding to be understood. Each of us must try to “walk in the other person’s shoes,” as another proverb teaches, before criticizing the decisions and actions of others.
b. Compassion: John Maxwell said it best, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That simply does not happen without relationship. People are not cogs in a wheel in a heartless organization. They have minds and souls and spirits and leaders must take the time and invest the energy to know where others are coming from before they try correcting them. One very practical way of doing this is by saying to the other person, “help me understand why you did that.”
6. Character counts.
The best way for a leader to avoid many conflicts in the first place is to hire character over skill, trustworthiness over knowledge. There are simply no short cuts around character. No one can climb beyond the limits of their own character. Leaders simply cannot allow themselves to be tempted with a person’s knowledge and skill base to the point they ignore possible character and moral issues. When it comes to character, there again is no such thing as a small matter. Leaders must pay attention to those “red flags.” Keep these things in mind.
a. The goal of the organization is not to hire people who simply have the right skill set. The goal is to hire people who believe what the organization believes. And cultural fit is just as important as skill set and should not be overlooked either.
b. Since no one is perfect, it's a matter of what type and degree of flaws that the organization is willing to tolerate. Organizations and leaders must decide what character traits matter the most to their mission and then do not allow any exceptions.
c. Organizations and leaders can mitigate potential damage of imperfect people by practicing two things: transparency (full disclosure) and accountability. Transparency is the beginning of ethical behavior but it is accountability that ensures it. Also, full commitment to the first four proverbs outlined here will help.
7. Teams win games, not individuals.
There is an African proverb that has a great deal of truth to speak on this issue, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” A leader may be blind to a character flaw in another person. It’s unlikely that the leader can connect with everyone in the organization. And, it is certain that the leader cannot pay attention to every small matter. These are some reasons why teamwork is so important.
a. There are no superheroes, only super teams. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart said, “We can do more together than any one of us can do alone.” Some really talented leaders can do just about anything. But no one can do everything even the most talented among us. There is no ministry without a team. Jesus gave us the perfect model of that in the gospels and we would be playing God if we thought we could do it any differently.
b. Super teams consistently practice three fundamentals: collaboration, cooperation, communication. These three basics of teamwork will lead to better decisions, greater outcomes, and stronger morale. There is a direct correlation between those three essentials and success of a program. Any group that ignores them does so at their own peril.
8. Diversity is strength.
Organizations, particularly Christian ministries, get in serious trouble when they demand conformity. Unity, of course, is very important for any group but many times unity is confused with sameness. Unity of vision is crucial. Where there is more than one vision there is division. But uniformity is dangerous. Rigidity is the enemy of innovation and homogeneity will ultimately destroy the effectiveness of an organization.
Both creation and the Scriptures teach us that strength is found in diversity not in conformity. They also instruct us that unity can flourish in diversity and when it does it is really a beautiful thing. For a service organization this principle has at least three applications.
a. There can be more than one right answer. There can be more than one good idea. There is more than one way. It is the responsibility of the leader to decide which right answer, which good idea, which way the team will go.
b. One size does not fit all for service or for leadership. People may share common needs but no two people are totally alike. To really help those we serve we must strive to meet each one at the point of their own need and consider the best possible course of action for each one.
Likewise, leaders need to adapt their leadership style to match the various kinds of people they lead. Depending on the level of an employee's competence and commitment a leader will need to choose the style that works best for each person. In general there are four types of approaches: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating. Each style has its own strengths and weakness.
c. A robust continuum of services does more to meet the mission than one single approach. We must always remember that each way we provide a service is just that – a way, a method. A method is not the mission and the two should never be confused. In the language of a gruesome proverb, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” A healthy organization, one that attempts to reach its mission, will offer more than just one way to meet a need.
9. Never fully trust yourself. Always trust God.
How things look and how things feel is often not the way things really are. For this reason, leaders must be careful not to fully trust their own perceptions. They certainly cannot trust everything they think. This is one way in which collaboration and teamwork can pay big dividends for a leader and an organization.
But, because teams are made of fallen people, even teams can sometimes get into hot water. Group-think is a real phenomenon that must be recognized and guarded against. Since our own thoughts and feelings can mislead us there must be something that we can trust. When perception cannot be trusted, God’s promises can. When our own ideas are suspect, The Proverbs do not lie. Any ministry committed to knowing and practicing the principles of scripture will enjoy success. Here are some a helpful tips for the leader to consider.
a. Who you are dictates what you see. Everyone judges the facts through their own biased filters. Leaders need to be self-aware and introspective enough to know their own cultural and experiential biases.
b. What you are will determine what you attract. If a leader is negative he or she will attract those with a critical spirit. If a leader is optimistic he or she will attract a “can do” kind of team.
c. Leaders need to have healing and wholeness in their own lives before attempting to lead others. Without wellness leaders are putting themselves and the organization they lead at risk. Trauma, abuse, and past conflict can skew how a leader interprets the world and deals with others. No one is exempt just because they are the boss.
10. Be the platform not the show.
When someone becomes a leader they give up the right to think about themselves. There is no room for egos. Leaders must learn before teaching, follow before leading, and serve before directing. Leaders must pay their dues to be truly great leaders. Remember? There are no short cuts. This counts double for Christian ministry and so keep these things in mind.
a. It’s not about us. It’s about the King and it’s about the mission and vision He has given us. It’s about the people He has put into our lives to minister to. If we care for kids, then it’s about the kids. If we help the poor, then it’s about poor. If we serve anyone, then it’s about them. If it’s ministry, it’s not about us. It’s never about us . But organizations and those who work in them are notorious for making it about them. It’s just human nature. And you know how rotten human nature can be.
b. When leaders model a servant attitude within an organization it creates a high level of trust. And without trust a leader doesn't have anything.
c. Only servant leadership is true leadership. In God’s economy no one can lead that does not first learn to serve.
John Maxwell has said that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is true. And, since everything is riding on the quality of their leadership it behooves every leader to seek out all wisdom and understanding with all diligence.
There are a lot of good books and valuable seminars out there on every conceivable type and topic of leadership imaginable. But remember, there is nothing more reliable, more sound, or more affordable than the Bible, and the book of Proverbs is an excellent place to start. All of the basic elements of strong leadership can be found in its chapters.
Happy is the leader who finds wisdom, and the boss who gains understanding. For her proceeds are better than the profits of silver, and her gain than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her. Length of days is in her right hand, In her left hand riches and honor. Her ways are pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who retain her. Proverbs 3:13-18.