People Support What They Help to Create

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David McAllister-Wilson describes how a style of leadership that engages others not only engenders support and buy-in but also promotes better decision making and more effective outcomes. While top-down solutions are tempting in these uncertain times, investing time and effort in collaboration is ultimately more effective.


The best leadership advice I ever received is “people support what they help to create.” It was shared by Betty Beene, a member of Wesley Theological Seminary’s Board of Governors who was then President of United Way of America. As we began planning a seminary fundraising campaign, her advice was to involve the right people in planning from the start so they would eventually support the effort.

Betty’s principle applies to other leadership challenges. I think of it when I try to get my granddaughters dressed for school. It goes much better if they pick out the clothes. It is no less effective when practiced with adults because it fosters among those we are leading the virtues most important in these uncertainty and anxious times. It may seem such times require leaders to “take charge” — what the military calls “command and control” — rather than a seemingly time-consuming process of inclusion and empowerment. But unless there is a fire in the building and the leader knows where the exit is, a command and control posture is rarely the most effective.

The many are smarter than the few.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, James Surowiecki demonstrates how a diverse group of people, if they are empowered to express that diversity, come out with the best solution even more than a team of experts. Especially for those decisions involving mysteries about either what will happen or what should happen in the future. This includes diversity of age, ethnicity, and gender, but also differences in experience, personality, and even kinds of intelligence.

Challenging biases

How does this work? Partly because hearing different perspectives challenges our biases. Especially dangerous for leaders is “confirmation bias.” It takes a degree of self-confidence to assume a leadership position. So, we tend to hear views we share as wise confirmation of our current opinion. I try to build such diversity in my teams and keep track of who speaks, calling on those who haven’t. When we’re trying to predict future trends or outcomes, I ask everyone to write their answer before anyone speaks so the first or loudest voice doesn’t dominate, to avoid what is called the “anchoring bias.”

Suspending these biases by encouraging dissenting views opens us to creativity. In the United Way conference rooms, the tables were covered with butcher paper and a large basket of crayons sat in the center. The people who met there, often business executives, were encouraged to just doodle playfully as they met. This would engage their seldom-used right brains to envision alternative futures.

Moving with the Spirit

Maybe Betty was channeling the prophet Joel. On the day of Pentecost, the birth of the church, the Spirit came not to Peter, nor to a chosen few, but to all assembled, and they spoke in different languages. Peter then recalls the message from Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your young will see visions, your old will dream dreams.”

And yet, in my experience, pastors often have a difficult time practicing this leadership discipline. Partly because, while they intellectually embrace the concept of diversity, they are emotionally averse to the conflict which inevitably arises, and they smother the smoldering embers. Also, we often think our job is to talk. We explain and frame, insuring the outcome from the start. Surowiecki says this is how a diverse “crowd” becomes a group-thinking mob and loses its wisdom.

Many preachers tell me their job is to be the “vision caster.” But no effective preacher asks, “Can I get an amen?” without being pretty sure it will come. Good leaders listen and have a sense of what people are thinking before they offer a consensus, perhaps only a half-step ahead, maybe said more eloquently. Before his iconic “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” speech that took Britain into war, Winston Churchill walked the halls of Parliament, trying out lines from the speech on people he would encounter, watching their reaction, editing as we went. On the day of Pentecost, I suppose somebody “gathered them all in one place.” But Peter described what was happening only after everyone spoke.

Server leadership

This is different from a pep talk to achieve buy-in. People support what they actually help to create. We all want to give our lives to something bigger, and we are ready to sacrifice for a worthy mission. For most of us, what we have to sacrifice is how we spend our lives and our financial resources. In fact, research in altruism shows generosity and courage are on the same spectrum of human motivation.

In the visioning process of planning our capital campaign, I saw how our work together produced goals more ambitious than I would have alone. I saw how the members of the committee rose to new levels of personal generosity and encouraged others to do the same. Our community at Wesley is doing the same as we struggle to adapt to COVID and envision the new normal of the future.

Think of it as “server leadership.” The difference between top-down mainframe computers and the networked, cloud-based, configuration of today is “servers” in the middle which multiply the potential for the whole system to adapt. People support what they help to create.


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About Author

Photo of David McAllister-Wilson

David McAllister-Wilson is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is author of A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.


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