Leadership is Always about Others

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There are many, many things about leadership that we do not know. However, there are a few truths about which we can be sure. One of the most important of such certainties is that leadership is always about a group, not the leader. The group may be a sports team or a congregation, a youth group or a nation. The group will have a leader, but it is the group itself to which we must give attention.

While the leader’s role has meaning only in relationship with the people served, so the church’s leadership has no meaning apart from the wider community it serves.

That is one reason why Scott Cormode’s definition of pastoral leadership is so helpful: “helping God’s people take the next faithful step.”  Leadership is not simply doing your job well — though it is better to do it well than poorly. But the performance of distinct functions does not in any way mean that the group being led is taking its next faithful step.

One popular model of leadership today puts the leader at the center of everything. In this view, the vision for the group comes from God to the leader, who then “casts the vision” and solicits others in its implementation. Vision is a gift of God, but one that depends on the discovery by the leader.

A more appropriate view, in my opinion, is to see the group’s vision as a gift from God, given to the community. It may be first named by a leader or leaders. But the distinction is critical. This view assumes that God’s wisdom is found throughout the community and not lodged in any one person. It also acknowledges the reality that a leader often has access to more information, spends more time thinking about the visioning task, and has more opportunities to test out ideas than others in the group. Good leaders listen well, and they often can help discern — rather than simply receive — God’s vision.

Ronald Heifetz, who teaches public leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard, recently said in a National Public Radio interview, “The dominant view of leadership is that the leader has the vision and the rest is a sales problem.” Heifetz continued, “I think that notion of leadership is bankrupt.”

The inordinate focus on the leader, more so than on the group, has not always been the case. In the early development of the concept of a “professional,” one of the key characteristics was that the professional is accountable to the public good. To be a professional meant to serve others rather than to be a route to personal advancement or fulfillment. The professional succeeded only to the extent that the society succeeded.

But in the church there is still another step needed. While the leader’s role has meaning only in relationship with the people served, so the church’s leadership has no meaning apart from the wider community it serves.

One of the hallmarks of emerging views of leadership, which draw from a range of cultural traditions, is a renewed linking of leadership to the community. While he was president of Morehouse College, Robert M. Franklin asked what it might mean to have “Village Accreditation of Schools and Colleges.” One could just as easily ask what kind of report card our churches might receive from their surrounding communities.

Here are questions Franklin suggested might be used for such an “accreditation” (with “school” changed to “church”):

  • What does the village think of the performance and value of the church?
  • What has the church done in the past year to enhance the community?
  • What kind of neighbor is the church?
  • What could the church do to become a better citizen in its neighborhood?

These are good questions for an institution that bears the name of one who asked about water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and release for the captives. What if our communities came to understand that our churches do indeed seek the abundant life for all as God’s wish for them?


 

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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