We had a brand new conference president, addressing the workers for the first time. “One of the most important things about any organization,” he began, “is unity.” I knew right then we were in trouble. It was more than thirty years ago, and I was not yet quite thirty years old, but already I had experienced real leadership—and this wasn’t it.
As we discussed the situation later, my wife said, “I don’t get it. Wasn’t he right? Isn’t unity important in an organization?” She had me there. Still, I knew something was wrong, and time would sadly confirm my initial judgment. The new conference president brought in new department heads, one of whom, my boss, declared, “P.R. is everything.” Things went quickly downhill from there.
When I decided to leave the conference two years later, the “P.R. is everything” man asked, “Am I going to get blamed for you leaving?” I shook my head in disbelief. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone should be blamed. But I suppose when P.R. is everything. . . .
Years later, when the Governor of my state asked, “Where’s Ed? He gets the first pen. This bill would not have passed without his leadership,” I was gratified, but surprised. I hadn’t given leadership a thought. My only concern had been how to get enough support, both within the legislature and in the larger community, to bring relief to the state’s families.
My experiences, in business, politics, and the church, have given me the opportunity to study and experience leaders and leadership in a number of settings. Over the years, I have formulated a few observations. I realize that these observations have implications for the current situation in the world church, and in the world at large. But that’s not the primary motivation for mentioning them now. I’m focused on the great need for leadership in our homes, churches, businesses, and communities.
Those who seek or claim leadership fall into three broad categories: Leaders, drivers, losers.
Leaders lead. They don’t talk about leadership, or unity, or obstacles. They talk about goals, objectives, aspirations, and courses of action. They understand that unity comes from shared purpose, goals, and aspirations. They focus attention not on themselves or their efforts, but on the shared purpose, the goal to be reached, and the aspirations which we all share. They mentor, model, coach, and explain. Jesus was an exception in one way: to be like Him is our goal. But He recognized that leaders don’t rely on force. They lead and draw followers. So He said that if He was lifted up, He would draw followers. His sacrifice and example elevate and fuel our aspirations. Of course, not everyone will follow. That’s their choice. It may be because they are called to a different cause. Whatever their reasons, leaders do not demonize those who choose not to follow.
Leaders lead. They don’t talk about leadership, or unity, or obstacles. They talk about goals, objectives, aspirations, and courses of action.
Leaders know that leaders do not drive. As Jacob said to Esau, “And he said unto him, my lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die.” Gen 33:13. People and animals that are driven suffer unnecessary casualties.
Drivers talk about unity, about loyalty, mainly because they cannot inspire it. Where Leaders appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” drivers use fear and shame. If you’re not loyal, shame on you. If you don’t sign on to our program, you will be left behind. Drivers drive. Drivers declare the inevitable casualties that occur “disloyal,” or “unworthy.” Drivers think it’s all about accomplishing tasks, whatever the cost. Leaders know that in striving together, we accomplish tasks we could not have originally envisioned. Drivers sometimes accomplish tasks, but usually end up defeating the purpose those accomplishments were designed to aid.
Drivers talk about unity, about loyalty, mainly because they cannot inspire it.
And finally, Losers. Lots of wannabe drivers end up as Losers. Losers complain about obstacles, about opposition, about lack of loyalty and failure to acknowledge authority. But of course, if there were no obstacles, no opposition, leadership would not be necessary. Losers demonstrate they know nothing about leadership at all. Leaders cast obstacles and opposition as challenges, as opportunities to achieve despite difficulty. Losers view obstacles and opposition as excuses for failure.
Losers have a thousand explanations for their plight, when the truth is a vacuum of leadership. Ahab is a clear example of a loser. Dominated by his wife, pouting when he’s disappointed, he’s quick to assign blame to Elijah, “You’re the one troubling Israel!”
Losers complain about obstacles, about opposition, about lack of loyalty and failure to acknowledge authority. But of course, if there were no obstacles, no opposition, leadership would not be necessary.
I could not fully articulate this thirty years ago, but I sensed its truth. The conference president who wanted to talk about unity was not a leader, he was a driver. He said “we need unity,” but he meant “you need to be loyal.” Many a driver/pastor has told a congregation, “We need revival,” when what he means is “you need revival.” Many a loser/pastor has complained, “The previous pastor left this church in a mess,” or “The elders didn’t support me.”
I don’t mean to leave the impression that leaders always succeed. In the broken world we live in, that will not happen. In my experience, intervention of a non-leader at a higher level in the organization constitutes a major reason leaders are not allowed to succeed.
For example, I have seen church members with deep pockets persuade a conference president (who happened to have a ‘driver’ leadership style) to attempt to intervene in local church elections when results challenged entrenched power at the local level. When one pastor refused to cooperate with this clearly inappropriate action, he was replaced with a driver who would obey.
And that points to part of the problem. Drivers and Losers at higher levels of authority tend to be suspicious of Leaders below them. It’s not so much that they recognize these subordinates as possessing qualities or character that the superiors lack; it’s more that leadership always threatens the status quo. Drivers and Losers are always acutely aware of anything that might cause blame to fall on them, and disturbing the status quo certainly falls into that category. So the current system is self-perpetuating.
The funny thing is, both sides agree about one thing: the status quo in the church is not acceptable. It will take leadership to improve things. But I must say again, my focus is not at the top levels. My concern is for the lack of leadership primarily at lower levels. Leaders don’t suddenly learn how to lead when promoted to high office. They learn it at home, at the local church, or not at all.
(Much of this originally appeared in Adventist Today online in September, 2012).