This morning I spent some time talking to a staff member from Higher Ministries, a non-profit organization that reaches out to pastors and churches in crisis. During our conversation, Tony made an interesting observation: “Guys leave Bible college or seminary full of knowledge in theology but without adequate training in leadership and conflict management skills.”
I am continually astounded at the number of leaders I know who are unable to have the difficult conversation or who, like Michael Scott in The Office, equate leadership with being everyone’s friend. It causes so many problems and solves so few.
Henry Cloud talks about this in his book Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. (The title alone is telling.) He points out that truly successful leaders are oriented towards reality—they seek the truth about situations even if that truth is negative. “Reality,” he says, “is always your friend.”
Unfortunately, we can all point to people who operate as if reality is a problem to be avoided at all costs. As a result, the 40-year veteran of ministry is cruelly let go without dignity or even explanation by a senior leader unable to speak the truth in love. An entire organization fights paralysis while its leader stubbornly pursues business strategies that stopped working years earlier. A board keeps a faltering leader in place because it’s too much work to find a replacement—and then wonders why the staff has such low morale. A group of elders talks to everyone on the church staff about a problem—except the staff member who created it.
I could go on, but I’m getting depressed. What baffles me is that despite my youth and inexperience, the solutions to these problems seem clear to me. If I, who have never led anything more rigorous than a small group, understand these issues, why on earth don’t others? If I’m able to confront a toxic person or difficult situation, it seems my elders (church or chronological) should be able to as well.
Leaders clutch dog-eared copies of Good to Great but are unable to practice one of its major points: all the great companies (and their level 5 leaders) could “confront the most brutal facts of current reality.” They wait for situations or people to suddenly improve on their own, although every law in the universe says that won’t happen. They shy away from conflict but follow Jesus who confronted Pharisees, disciples, entire towns, and the reality of our sin. They avoid unpleasant news but follow God, who moved quickly to deal with Adam and Eve’s sin and proactively create a redemptive solution.
It’s all rather ironic, and very frustrating, because it’s ultimately the staff and the ministry that suffer from a leader’s lack of courage (or, I’ll be charitable, lack of insight). When he refuses to make a choice, he’s making a choice—to postpone the inevitable, to cause even more conflict, and to make the process twice as painful for everyone involved. And it’s young ‘uns like me and my friends (who have personally experienced every one of the situations I list above) who have to deal with it.
I may never be a good leader, either, but I do know one thing: ignorance does not equal bliss—for anyone.