(this is the book I’ve been writing…)
The essential quality that can produce healthy leadership or restore healthy leadership when it’s been broken is character. The absence of character in leadership will make a mess of anything and everything else we might attempt. When character is present in leadership, things can still go sideways but leaders with character will re-orient in the best possible ways. Still, for a church to thrive, leadership not only has to have character, leaders must also have a sense of vocation or calling – a ‘knowing’ that they are doing what God means for them to do and a sense of where they are leading – their TELOS – their raison d’être.
The third ingredient after character and calling that will also make or break a community is, cooperation. Or to say it in simpler terms from our grade school report card, “plays well with others.”
Coming back from a break down or nurturing the kind of leadership that doesn’t create a break down, takes leadership that plays well with others by fostering a sense of belonging, of being seen and heard, and making explicit that each individual’s contributions are valuable and have meaning. Eddie Gibbs writes, “Leadership is about connecting, not controlling.” There’s a vast difference between a partnership and being a part. You can be a partner in producing something or you can be part of a machine being used by a driven leader to accomplish their purposes.
Gibbs describes the benefit of this cooperative, team building approach in leadership, “This process establishes, deepens and reinforces mutual appreciation and lifelong friendships. As the team continue to build trust and understanding, more sensitive issues are discussed openly. At times, even most unexpectedly, conflict between team members actually helps relationships to become symbiotic over time. Where there is trust and mutual appreciation, sharp disagreement germinates new insights.”
There is bound to come some trouble but tension can actually assist a team and provide opportunities that can otherwise be missed.
A team building approach is not the same thing as an approach that involves a staff or roster of volunteers. I’ve seen pastors pit staff and volunteers against each other and solidify their own sense of authority and security by managing disunity among their staff and/or volunteers. They had a team but their team didn’t feel like they were on a team. The cartoon office world of Dilbert illustrates the way in which a leader may have a large staff but no cooperation, no sense of “playing well with others” is developed because the leadership does not model it or seek to grow that kind of culture.
When I was in Bible College I was told by some of my professors that I could not and should not develop friendships with people in my congregation or the people on my staff because it could create jealousies and it would make it difficult for me to be objective as a pastor. I’ve been told countless times since then by other pastors that my friendships should be with other pastors outside of my own church so I could talk openly and honestly because, the implication was clear, I have to stay guarded with those who I pastor. There have been endless invitations to meetings for senior pastors that other pastors on my staff were excluded from because “senior pastors need to talk about things confidentially.” Church culture tends to be segregationist and it extends beyond race to status/caste and a perceived “otherness” that does not serve the work of cooperation and playing well with others.
A team building approach, or leadership that practices playing well with others, is also not about squashing dissent or creating a climate in which we define as “our problem” those who disagree with what or how things are being done. Often times insecure leaders will define the real problems of their organization or team as those take a contrary position to the ideas and decisions of a senior leader or senior leadership. Emotionally insecure people will perceive this as a threat to their leadership and will knowingly or unknowingly further marginalize those who pushback. They will, to use the schoolyard again, not include those people the next time they decide to pick teams.
Brene Brown writing about leadership, says, ““We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”
Here are three quick aspects of playing well with others that deserve special attention.
First, playing well with others requires a leader to have a certain level of Emotional Quotient (EQ). I will even go further than that and say that it takes an awareness of their own mental and emotional health and a willingness to engage in practices that support emotional wellness. The danger with emotional self-care is the like the danger of spiritual self-care, we can adopt the language without engaging in the practices. Everyone involved in pastoral ministry should have a therapist and should learn and put into practice the steps to recovery. The truth is that the physician who treats themselves has a fool for a patient. So too, the pastor.
EQ first is attuned to our own well-being and inner life and then becomes a way to “read the room” and develop and accurate sense of how everyone else is doing. It’s not the responsibility of the team to let the leader know what they think and feel. It is the responsibility of a healthy leader to suss out how their team is feeling and what their team is genuinely feeling about their mission and goals, their relationships and their practices. Playing well with others involves creating a culture where a contrary view is not only tolerated but welcomed and appreciated. This doesn’t mean that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” – that’s equally unhealthy – but rather those who have a different perspective will not feel penalized or ostracized for sharing their perspective.
And we all know that you don’t have to tell someone that dissent is unwelcome. We pick up on it very quickly.
Emotional wellness is critical for playing well with others as it helps us develop a second essential characteristic of healthy leadership that can repair or preserve that which leadership has broken – empathy.
Healthy leadership maintains the ability and practice of empathetic listening, of imagining the lives of those being lead, of being aware that communication is about much more than what is being said and following the immersive approach of Jesus to identify wholistically with those you are leading. Empathy is very challenging when what we’re really all about is accomplishing our own plans and our own purposes. Empathy requires us to be in a cooperative mode – not to get compliance for the sake of our own ends but to develop the kind of relationships that are worthy living for and having when we finally reach the end. Empathy means listening to words and to hearts, of using our intuition and our reason, of following the words of Jesus to “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”
Brene Brown, our contemporary Teresa of Avila, writes, “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” When people feel misunderstood or unheard, community will break down. A lack of empathy from leadership will create unhealthy systems and unhealthy relationships and it will be transmitted like a virus throughout the structure that this is how we lead, this is how we relate to others. The presence of empathy will slow things down and will take us longer to reach perceived goals but it will bring the greatest number of people along with us who want to be part of a healthy community.
Most people aren’t looking for perfection but they are hungry for empathy.
Finally, cooperation, or playing well with others, means letting others play their part and not over playing your own.
My family had, for a very long time, a tradition of playing volleyball at our family reunion annual gathering.
At some unscheduled point, some time after we had all had plates full of incredible food and first and seconds on dessert, a bunch of us would waddle onto the makeshift volleyball court for the annual match. The winning team would get bragging rights that would carry them through our annual Christmas gathering and into the following year’s reunion.
Each team, without planning or prompting, always had that one member of the team who played everyone else’s position, including their own. As the score went up and the end of the game got closer, particularly if it was close, there was always that one player who run over other people on the court in order to get their own hand on the ball and, from their perspective, secure victory for the team. And while they may indeed have spiked the ball for the winning point, nobody felt much like celebrating…except the over-player who credited themselves with the victory.
These matches did more ego building than team building, good for a person, not so great for the family.
Years went by and I wondered why we made this part of our annual family tradition? If people disliked the over-players so much, why keep up the game? Here’s what I’ve come to believe: no one disliked the over-player, they disliked that they over-played. So we played on in hope that our beloved over-players would finally stop being jerks and be the person we knew them to be off the court. We also, the rest of us, enjoyed playing together and we were willing to suffer the over-bearing and self-appointed over-playing player/coaches because these were our people, our kin, and we were willing to put up with the over-players for the sake of being able to enjoy the time with the rest of our family.
Sometimes, family goes along to get along, but if these kind of overplaying behaviors continue or multiply, they will dissolve family bonds and family connections and will lead some family to stop coming to the reunions if they can’t get the family to stop including the games.
Some people just aren’t people people. Some of us perceive people as a means to an end or as roadblocks to our ends. But healthy leadership recognizes people as the image bearing creation of God and fosters a culture and community of cooperation that plays well with others and resists the temptation to use people, abuse people and treat people as obstacles to get around or commodities to be used. Again, Brene Brown writes that, “Daring leaders work to make sure people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging.” Unhealthy leaders put the responsibility for that sense of belonging on the members of the team themselves and will simply tell them to feel this way. Healthy leaders will create an atmosphere and a culture in which that sense of belonging is nurtured through simple practices of listening, responding, being together, making sure everyone gets to play and everyone feels heard, seeing that authentic and meaningful change is affected by the input of those who are on the team and directly affected by the actions of the organization or system.
This means a leader and leadership has to be willing to set aside their own way of doing things and their own path to outcomes in order to include those most invested in the outcomes. Very few leaders choose this path. Very few leaders are invested in their own emotional, mental and spiritual healthy to pursue this end.