When leaders talk about learning to lead, they often start with learning information—stuff we need to know about in order to demonstrate a certain level of skill or expertise. For church leaders, that might be translating from the Hebrew or managing a budget or understanding eschatology. When pastors are struggling, they often try to improve their preaching or read the latest leadership book. Then, when that doesn’t work, they feel demoralized and insecure, not to mention a little indignant.
Skills and expertise are important—no doubt. But when things go wrong in leadership, it’s often not because you don’t know enough or haven’t mastered some technical skill. When things aren’t working well, it’s more likely that you are thinking too narrowly about the art of leadership. Effective leadership has three components:
- Technical/adaptive skills
- Relationship skills – relating well to others
- Self-management in the face of anxiety and conflict
The good news is that these are all things that you can learn and even master—through practice, over time, supported by shame-free accountability.
Here’s what we mean:
The kind of relational skills that leaders need goes beyond a firm handshake and remembering names. Leading well means being able to stay appropriately connected to people who are different from you, even those who oppose you. It means listening deeply to others. It means communicating your point of view effectively without attempting to force others to share that point of view. It means setting healthy boundaries. In short, it means loving well those in your care in the ways that Jesus emphasized—friend, stranger, and enemy.
In the same way, leadership is not about controlling other people or getting people to do what we want. For sure, it is the leaders’ role to mobilize others around a shared vision. In pursuit of a shared vision leaders often make two mistakes. One mistake is that they announce the vision, like Moses coming down off the mountain. The other is that they simply ask others, “What do you want the vision to be?”
Both approaches fail to mobilize people in a way that engages their deep commitment to a vision. For deep commitment to emerge, effective leaders are clear about their own vision and they listen deeply to the vision of other key leaders. The process ends up being a collaborative one. The challenge is that when there are varying viewpoints, anxiety often emerges in the system. Effective leadership then is about managing yourself in the midst of anxiety, your own and others’. When you learn to manage yourself, you can override the autopilot reactions of dominating, placating, demonizing or any of a variety of other responses that arise when people see things differently than you do. Instead, you can choose responses that fit with your values and guiding principles. You can know and do the right thing even under stress or in opposition.
Now let’s go back to skills and expertise – which is generally where leaders start. Leaders are generally taught the technical skills needed to lead – preaching, church administration, strategic planning. They are less often taught we refer to as adaptive leadership skills.
Technical skills are needed when you face a problem that someone has a solution to. That someone may be you. It may be a church consultant or some outside expert, but there is someone who knows how to fix the problem. In this post-Christian, post-modern era, congregations are increasingly facing challenges that they have never faced before. When that is the case, leaders mobilize the congregation to find a solution. This is generally very challenging and it requires a set of skills in which the leader creates a safe and challenging context for other leaders to find solutions.
When faced with a leadership challenge, pastors generally go to their toolbox of technical skills. However, what will do you in isn’t usually the lack of technical skill and ability. What trips you up is the absence of skills in one of these other areas. In fact, if we have mastered healthy relationships, people will often forgive our lack of skill and support us in our efforts to improve. If we’ve learned to manage ourselves in the face of anxiety, others can be empowered to think more deeply about the big challenges that the congregation faces.
Broadening your view of leadership and focusing on adaptive leadership skills, relationship skills, and self-management skills will help you to be able to respond effectively to the challenges you face – especially if you will work on all of these skills in a shame-free environment over time.
When you are improving your relational abilities and growing your capacity to manage yourself and mastering adaptive leadership skills, you are more likely to live in a sweet spot of high-level leadership. And to top it all off, you will live a fully alive life, full of the abundance Jesus promised.