Apr  2018 17
Six Pieces of Leadership Advice

As I’m completing my 25th year in theological education and my 37th year in ministry, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned about leadership. Six pieces of advice stand out. Five were spoken by bosses, mentors, or colleagues. One came from a book.

I’ve carried each of the sayings as a truth to live into, wisdom to heed. In each case, the wisdom provided a behavioral goal or aspiration. In each case, my practice has fallen short of the aspiration, more or less.

1. “You have to love people.”Since the time I was a high school junior, I sensed a call to ministry. On the way to a church youth retreat, I rode in my pastor’s car so that I could talk with him about ministry. Up until that conversation, in my imagination, ministry was about bringing Christian teachings and wisdom to life.

I was most interested in studying the Bible and theology and bringing that study to others (indeed, such work still energizes me more than anything else). But my pastor’s opening line hit my pause button, “The first thing to know about ministry is: you have to love people.”

Sure, I know that sounds soobvious in a religion where God’s love is the primary teaching. Right, and there has been no learning in all my years of ministry which has been, and continues to be, more challenging than loving people, ALL people, including those who don’t love me (or their image of me; see #5 below).

2. “Don’t surprise your boss.”I was a young, immature associate pastor, puffed up by my own sense of authority. I did not tell my senior pastor about a meeting I agreed to attend off-site. My boss called a meeting that conflicted with my off-site meeting. I objected. He insisted.

I cancelled my attendance at the off-site meeting and harrumphed. I complained to my mentor about the senior pastor’s imperious behavior. My mentor’s reply was swift and blunt. “You’re in the wrong. Do not surprise your boss. Make sure he knows what you’re doing. Be proactive in informing him; if he needs to ask what you’re doing, you’re not doing enough to inform him.”

I tell this story to everyone who reports to me, and some of them appreciate it.

3. “Sometimes being right is not helpful.”Another senior pastor was dealing with a church member who would not or could not compromise. Ever. One might say that member tried always to be right, on the side of the angels—and sometimes they came off to others as self-righteous.

I’ve seen the dynamic over and over of someone insisting on being right but who, in terms of group decision-making, was not being helpful.

We religious people frequently mistake matters that could be other than what they are as an ultimate matter of “God’s will.” We are particularly prone to claiming to be right but not being helpful. Sometimes God’s angels don’t sit on a single side…

4. “Keep one eye on the church that is and the other eye on the church that is yet to be.”If leaderships’ eyes focus only on the present, the organization has no future. The present organization, the people therein and surrounding stakeholders, will absorb ALL the leaders’ time, energy, and resources.

If eyes focus only on the future, the present organization will wither and there will be no one to carry the organization’s values into that future. The people in the present organization need a fitting amount of leadership attention in order to receive both the support and the challenge necessary to thrive. And, an organization’s leaders must research demographics, analyze trends, scan the ever-moving horizon, and then plan and act for the sake of the organization that is yet-to-be.

5. “The more people see you as a leader, the less they see YOU.”A colleague said this to me at a difficult moment when I became the seminary’s dean 21 years ago and there were some persons who disagreed with the president’s choice.

The colleague continued: “When you are seen in a leader’s role, you become the screen for people’s projected hope, fears, and desires. It is your job to recognize this dynamic and help people own their stuff. You don’t want to become what people project. If you own their many and conflicting projections, it will take its toll on you and the organization.”

Ouch. This advice is both true and has been very hard for middle-child, people-pleasing me to practice.

6. “Most of life is not about me.”This might be the ultimate leadership, or even life, lesson. In a book written by a pastoral counselor, the author asserted that the hardest truth he tries to impart to his counselees is, “Most of life is not about me.” This saying is an adjunct to the saying immediately above about not being seen personally when one is seen as a leader.

From the time we are born, each of us understands ourselves to be the center of the universe. There is a legion of opportunities in life to learn the lesson that I am not the center of, well, hardly anything! Some people learn the lesson well, some not at all, and some of us (myself including) have to be taught the lesson repeatedly.

When I saw a counselor more than 20 years ago about a relationship that was ending, the counselor heard me recount my story about recent events. He put down his pen, looked up from his notes, and said to me, “You know, you are not the center of her drama.” De-centering ourselves is a good, tough, oft-repeated lesson.

“Most of life is not about me” and “you have to love people.” In these two wise sayings alone, there is more than a lifetime of leadership learning, if we can suffer the lessons.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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