Two stories shape how I think about leadership capacity.
The first grows out of the 10 years that I served as the Executive Director of a regional denominational network of congregations in Houston. Week after week, pastors and other leaders came to my office asking for help relocating to a new ministry position. Curious about their desire to move, the answer was always some version of “I’ve done all I can do here.” But often, as I explored their history, I found that they had a track record. It wasn’t always true but often you could see that they didn’t have 10 or 15 or 20 years of leadership experience. They had 3 years of experience three or five or seven times. Every three or four years they moved. In their current ministry assignment, they had done all they could do without the experience of personal transformation, and rather than doing that hard work, it seemed easier to move.
The second story grows out of a ten-year relationship with twelve pastors that Trisha and I have apprenticed for almost a decade. Over time they have become colleagues and friends, but in the early stages of our work together when they were truly still apprentices. One day they called a meeting with us. They said, “We feel like we are doing all we can do. We are stretched to the limits of family and ministry and self-care, but the two of you seem to have so much more capacity than we do. How have you grown your capacity?
Formulating a response required us to think deeply and clearly. Our upcoming podcast addresses that question more thoroughly, but one clear answer is this. Grow your capacity by staying where you are and learning to face yourself. Most leaders think about challenges from a kind of thinking that we call “cause and effect.” In this kind of thinking, when there is a breakdown or when you can’t reach your personal or professional goals, you look outside of yourself to find the cause of the breakdown. And then, often with great intentionality and intensity, you move to fix that problem. In cause and effect thinking the problem is always out there! This kind of thinking may be helpful when attempting to solve really simple problems.
However, most of us have solved all the simple problems. All that remaining problems are complex.
Complex problems require systems thinking. A primary premise of systems thinking is this. As the leader, I am contributing to any problem that exists in the system. By what I do or don’t do, by what I say or don’t say, my way of being in the systems contributes to the problem staying in place. That doesn’t mean that others are not also contributing. It means there is not much leverage in trying to change others. The real leverage for change is found in me learning to see how I am contributing and then working to change me.
Often, we would say to this group of apprentices . . . . “You are the biggest obstacle to solving the big challenges in your ministry.” At first, that seemed offensive, but as these young leaders learned to think systems, they learned that there was real power in learning to see themselves in the system and then focusing on changing themselves. That is really challenging work and generally, it requires a truth-teller in your life who can help you see what you can’t or don’t want to see. And, that is where the leverage is found.
Grow your capacity as a leader. Stay where you are. Learn to see how you are keeping the big problems in place. Then work on changing you. That will grow your capacity as a leader.