leadership trap herding sheep

On the day of the former Prime Minister’s actual death in April this year, this line caused a surreal moment in the West End. During the interval, a cast member of Billy Elliot asked for a show of hands from the audience about whether they should sing that song, designed to illustrate the Durham miners’ bitterness. Her body was yet to be taken from the Ritz Hotel, not a mile away from the theatre.

I leaned over the grand circle balcony, transfixed. A sea of raised hands decided that the musical should proceed with the song left in.

That moment illustrated for me the polemical national debate about Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. She was dividing people in death in much the same way as she had done in life. There was no political consensus, but one thing all sides did agree on was that the grocer’s daughter from Grantham was definitely a leader.

Was her less-than-noble fall from grace in 1990 a result of the jealousy of some old guard conservatives, or had Thatcher started out as a good leader but fallen prey to one too many leadership pitfalls to make her survival impossible?

The purpose of this article is not to analyse Margaret Thatcher’s leadership style, good or bad (I wouldn’t want to give Christianity magazine the headache of dealing with the ensuing postbag). But the purpose is to explore what makes good Christian leadership ? and by that I don’t mean Christians who lead churches but Christians who simply lead, irrespective of where or whom they lead.

We are going to explore this by reflecting on some of the more common pitfalls that it is possible to fall into that can limit, impede and (in serious cases) destroy a person’s vocation to be a leader.

1. Control freakery

‘Knock Knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘Control freak ? now you say, “Control freak who?”’

The thing is, anyone who has worked for a control freak knows it’s no joke.

Controlling leaders cannot build a healthy team as they don’t trust anyone else to do the job in a way that is quite up to scratch. They are poor at delegation, and even if they do manage to give things away they end up micromanaging. It results in suffocating initiative and creativity. In the long term there will be a high turnover of staff where the brightest and the best will leave, only to be replaced by ‘yes’ people lacking passion, drive and innovation.

The root of this issue is often brokenness that leads to insecurity and the need to feel in control. The antidote is to seek the wholeness of Christ (through prayer and counsel) since hurt people hurt people ? and we are in leadership not to hurt, but to heal.

Great organisations are not led by people who are self-conscious of their own power but by people who consciously empower others.

2. Vision failure

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ warns the Bible (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).

It’s amazing how many churches do not have a vision (or mission) statement. Not knowing where you are going is a sure way to end up with a small following. If you are leading and no one is following, you’re not really leading, just going for a walk.

Some leaders suffer from hazy vision ? if there is a mist in your thinking there will be a cloud in the minds of the people you are seeking to lead.

Then there’s fickle vision (anyone else tired of evangelical faddism?), tunnel vision (monochrome and non-holistic) and, of course, double vision (vision + vision = division).

Vision is what distinguishes leadership from management, according to Christian leadership guru John Maxwell: ‘Management is the process of assuring that the program and objectives of the organisation are implemented. Leadership on the other hand has to do with casting vision and motivating people.’

Are you suffering from poor vision? As an exercise, write out a personal vision statement. What is the thing you are called to do ? the distilled essence of your mission in life?

3. Incommunicado

I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic film Lincoln (2012) recently, which captures well his Gettysburg Address on 19th November 1863. This rallying cry against slavery has rightly gone down in history as one of the most important political speeches of all time.

Transformational leaders are often gifted communicators. But communication is not just verbal. It’s to get the right information at the right time to the right people.

Effective communication involves effective administration. This is sometimes a challenge for visionary leaders who thrive on spontaneity and assume that it is the same for those they lead.

Great leaders communicate well, utilising a variety of media to reach different demographic constituencies. Who can forget Barack Obama’s first election campaign that harnessed social media and pop musicians to inculcate his message of ‘yes we can’ to a younger generation?

Leaders need to be attentive listeners; a golden rule of communication is that context determines content. Your message needs to be bespoke ? tailored precisely to the people with whom you want to connect.

Is this something you struggle with? If it is an area where you aren’t naturally gifted, look to appoint someone (or work on a team with a person) who can compensate for this deficit.

4. Lack of forward planning and follow-through

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. No strategy equals no leadership.

Leaders who are satisfied with the status quo rarely make a significant impact.

A concern for maintenance over mission will quickly lead to stagnation. Good leaders are happy with the motto ‘constant change is here to stay’ and don’t fear (or resist) change but embrace it, recognising that it is a sign of life and vitality.

Equally, leaders who promise much but fail to follow through with delivery soon exhaust people’s goodwill. Effective leaders have a bias towards action, knowing that intentions must be aligned with results.

If this is an area of vulnerability, intentionally adopt a conservative approach to your promises ? imagine the long-term impact of underpromising and over-delivering.


5. Risk aversion

Willingness to take risks and fail is an attribute of leadership. Risk averse, play-it-safe types who aren’t prepared to fail do not make great leaders.

Ronald Cohen, co-founder of Apax Partners Worldwide LLP, suggests that this is one of the reasons why entrepreneurs are more common on the other side of the Atlantic than here in the UK. He argues that British culture is suspicious of risk-takers and inherently conservative. There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. Home-grown entrepreneur Richard Branson does not seem risk averse and has started a number of enterprises that have failed. The thing is we only seem to remember the successes such as Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Media? anyone remember Virgin Megastores or Virgin Cola?

However, leaders who take too many badly calculated risks are prone to consistently fail, so are not good leaders ? if risk aversion is a pitfall so is being a risk junkie (albeit not one many Brits struggle with!).

Are you too risk-averse? Why not plan to do something where you are likely to fail or struggle? This can often break the power of the fear of risk.

6. Not accountable

Secure leaders are accountable. They don’t fear accountability, but intentionally build it into their lives. Aristotle said: ‘He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ If a person has not learned to take authority they are dangerous exercising authority.

Accountable leaders don’t blame others or claim credit for the successes of others. They accept responsibility for failures that occur on their watch. They believe the saying, ‘It might not be my fault but it is my responsibility.’

Outstanding leaders are also accountable to the people they lead. Leaders not accountable to their people will eventually be held accountable by their people (this can be seen throughout history, from the French revolution to the Arab Spring).

7. Indiscipline

Discipline is such a negative word to many people, associated with legalism and lifeless duty. Yet the leader who has not learned the virtue of self-discipline will significantly curtail their effectiveness, will inevitably spread themselves too thin and may even burn out.

This pitfall is not laziness. Working hard is good but workaholism is a pitfall of leadership too and both laziness and workaholism are symptoms of the same thing ? indiscipline.

Most leaders face tasks greater than the time available to do them ? what is needed is focus. Effective leaders work hard but also rest well. Effective leaders know when to say yes but also how to say no. They learn to prioritise and win the war against procrastination.

If you aren’t disciplined by nature, the good news is that it’s something that can be cultivated.

8. Lack of people skills

Part of the art of leadership is attracting good people around you. Good leadership often lies in the appointment and disappointment of people. It’s difficult for anyone to excel in leadership if they don’t like people.

Good leaders truly care for their team. They regularly touch base with their immediate team and find ways of connecting with their wider team. Successful companies are ones in which a family-like loyalty is fostered. Leaders can get away with all manner of weaknesses in other areas if they have good people skills. However important or demanding the work, remember that the task never eclipses team.

John Maxwell says: ‘You can have strong people skills and not be a good leader, but you cannot be a good leader without people skills.’

People skills aren’t just about pastoral niceties, but also the ability to deal appropriately with difficult people and when people are failing. People who are abrasive and seem to relish confrontation do not make good leaders, but the inability to confront is a serious flaw in leadership.

It’s worth remembering that while good leaders value people, that doesn’t mean they should value being pastoral and sympathetic over upholding strong principles, and tolerate laziness, incompetence or unethical behaviour.

leadership trap herding sheep

9. Neglecting your chief resource

People, not product are a leader’s chief resource.

Good leaders are fully committed to investing in and developing those they lead. They support their team; they mentor and coach them. This is vital for succession management. Leaders who don’t invest in their team won’t have a team for very long.

John Wimber explained how Jesus models this supremely: ‘Jesus used a show, tell, deploy, and supervise method of training. After calling the disciples he took them along with him, teaching and healing the sick as he went. Then, after he thought the disciples had seen and learned enough to try for themselves, he then commissioned, empowered, instructed, and sent them out to do the same things.’

10. Elevating gifts over character

Being gifted on its own is not enough; just as all charisma without character brings catastrophe.

A leader who lacks character or integrity will not endure the test of time ? it doesn’t matter how omnicompetent that person is. An individual’s gifts might take them to the top of the tree but their character will determine whether they stay there.

If a leader doesn’t understand that the essence of leadership is service, they will not inspire the trust and loyalty of those they lead.

Jim Collins lists humility (along with discipline) as one of the two attributes that will take a leader from good to great ? the opposite of the hubris that prevents many of us from leading like Christ.

‘The authority by which the Christian leader leads is not power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve,’ wrote John Stott.

A good leader will learn from his mistakes; a great leader will learn from the mistakes of others.

To the keen observer of the game of life, many of these pitfalls of leadership are not hidden or covered, but on show for the world to see. May God give us grace to cultivate the corresponding gift or virtue that we might lead like Christ and for Christ in whatever sphere he has called us to.

// @christianitymag