Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (4)

keys-leadershipThe previous post started looking at leadership competence, the third factor that we can draw from the little vignette on David’s leadership in Psalm 78.

I suggested these eight leader competencies and the post reflected a little on the first four.

  • Determining the mission
  • Establishing vision
  • Maintaining values and culture
  • Strategic and operational planning
  • Managing change
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Team building

What about the others?

Managing change

They say that some of the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies (diapers, if you are reading on the far side of the Atlantic). While that’s an exaggeration, but it’s worth looking at this:


I’d seen the first two parts of this, but just found the third element: leaders beware!

Even if it is not always welcome, change is inevitable. Some organisations are agents of change (fifteen years ago, who thought we’d be using the same device to make phone calls, read emails, listen to music and shoot time-lapse video?). Others need to learn to adapt to change.

To put it somewhat technically, change is needed when there is a discrepancy between the current state of things and how we want them to be. What makes it difficult is that it means something has to be left behind. Business writers Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky suggest that ‘people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.

Which, of course, threatens to put he brakes on any proposed change. That’s until the potential gain of the change outweighs the perceived loss; or until anxiety about what will happen if we change is outweighed by anxiety about what will happen if we fail to change. For example, it may only be when the fear of having to close their doors weighs more heavily on the members of a congregation than the fear of what it might mean to make changes to the format of their services, that that congregation will be willing to change – though I suspect it would be possible to find examples of churches whose commitment to perceived ‘faithfulness’ meant closing the doors rather than changing anything.

James Lawrence uses railway analogy in describing four groups of people who respond differently to change. Radicals are the track layers, out in front, impatient for change. Progressives are the engine drivers who take a positive view of change, but realise that it needs to be worked through carefully. Conservatives are the fare-paying passengers who are wary of change but may be persuaded. Traditionalists are the brake van: they fear change.

Leaders will have to work with each of these four groups, not least in churches. For some of the radicals, change may never come quickly enough, or in big enough doses. At the other end of the spectrum, for some traditionalists, any change is a bridge too far. It’s the groups in the middle that can be reasoned with. Sometimes some of the radicals may need to be allowed to leave. The traditionalists, at least the older ones, are unlikely to leave and the leader will have to assure them that they will be cared for and valued even if they don’t like the direction the church is going.



Good communication is the competency that undergirds all of the other elements of effective leadership. Poor communication makes assumptions, lacks clarity, or fails to make the case for the vision, the mission or the change that the leader wants to implement.

I think one of the most basic failures of leadership (of which I have been guilty, and I have seen it happen) is the failure to communicate with the people who are most likely to be affected by any proposed change. It simply alienates people and diminishes the leader’s credibility with the followers.

Communication can be quite a complex science given the number of ‘moving parts’. It involves a communicator, a message, and an audience. The process of communication can go awry at any of these points. There can be an unclear message – say a muddied sense of mission, a clumsy communicator – say who understands neither the message nor the audience, or a distracted audience whose attention is being pulled in a hundred directions and who are only too ready to put their own interpretations on what is being said and fill in the gaps where things are unsaid.

The leader needs to be aware of these challenges and ensure that the message if both accurately sent and accurately received.

Problem solving

Leadership is unlikely to take place in the absence of problems. Businesses feel the impact of the global economic climate. Sports teams feel the impact of loss of form or of injuries to key players. Churches are not exempt from the winds of cultural change or from the internal factionalism that would be better not there, but too often is. Organisations feel the pressure of a downturn in income or the turnover of key staff.

Problems need to be clearly identified and properly understood. The more complex the problem, the more important that the leader understands its multiple dimensions. Perhaps when Mr Jones walked out in protest to the ditching of the church organ in favour of a guitar, there was more to it than met the eye; a quiet word might have revealed that he doesn’t mind guitars, but it was his great uncle who paid for the pipe organ to be renovated fifty years ago!

A range of solutions need to be drawn up and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to be smart enough to anticipate possible pitfalls with their preferred solutions.

The best solution should be identified, agreed on, especially by those who are most likely to feel the impact, clearly communicated, and implemented.

Team building

Not every leader may possess all of these skills in equal measure. A visionary leader may lack the patience to work out the careful steps needed to implement the vision. He or she may be impatient with the speed of change and the resistance of the traditionalists. There is a fairly obvious case to be made for leadership teams where team members complement each other as they bring their participant strengths and leadership styles to the table.

And of course team means another dynamic in the leadership process. A team needs to be led. Its members need to be managed. It needs to have healthy systems of communication.

And what is a team, anyway? Is it different from a task group or from a committee?

(To be continued).



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