Leadership for the Timid

April 22nd, 2014

I was never a big fan of business books on “leadership.” They always seemed full of military and sports metaphors, and told stories of how, through grit and hard work, tribe A triumphed over tribe B and rose to the top of the pyramid of power and victory. Full of chest-thumping, self-congratulatory language and “leaderspeak” catchphrases, they would rattle off a list of characteristics of great leaders while inviting you to emulate them. Sure, they might include references to character traits like “integrity” or “humility,” but even when they wrote about “servant leadership,” it always seemed like an exclusive club. I had the sense that these author-leaders didn’t actually know what they were doing aside from just being themselves.

Some of this is my own baggage. Although I’ve sought out and been placed in leadership positions most of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time living in my head, where I am still the kid who is picked last for kickball and who is still anxious about sitting alone at lunchtime. For me, “leadership culture” reminds me of a particular gym coach who yelled like a drill sergeant: “Are you going to be a leader? Or,” he spit, “a follower?” When he talked about leadership, I did not feel inspired. I felt inadequate.

This should have been a clue: Good leadership doesn’t make ten-year-olds feel inadequate.

I began to think differently about leadership when I learned that there is more than one way to be a leader. The world is not neatly divided into “leaders” and “followers,” or aggressive and timid. Instead, there are many different leadership styles. It turns out that my geeky attributes are some of my best leadership qualities: I lead primarily by learning and teaching. But I also lead with empathy and relational skills: I have a tendency to seek out other kids sitting alone at lunchtime. My strength is in building communities in which I would feel welcome.

There are as many ways to lead as there are personalities. Some people lead by networking and connecting skills and needs. Some people lead by organizing and diligently completing tasks. Some people lead by charisma and persuasion. And yes, some people lead by shouting like a drill sergeant (although that’s not going to be effective by itself).

The most helpful book I’ve read on leadership is probably Gallup’s “Strengths Based Leadership,” by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. It includes an inventory that lets you discover your top 5 Strengths, but the thing I found most enlightening is that its authors look at leadership not from the perspective of the leader, but from the perspective of the group. They asked people in organizations, “What do you want most from the person you follow?” Surprisingly, they didn’t talk about competence or charisma. Their responses fell into these categories:

  • Trust: Do your followers feel they can trust you? Competence might play a role here, but it seems the more important issue is if they feel they can rely on you to do what you say. Gallup found that successful teams seldom had to talk about trust, but in struggling teams, trust dominated their conversations. 
  • Compassion: Do they believe you care? When I was a TA in graduate school, I found that the most damning student criticism on evaluations was that a professor “didn’t care.” Those students would rate their professor bad at everything. How people feel about your compassion toward them colors everything else. 
  • Stability: Can your followers count on you? Preachers in the itinerant Methodist system have to work especially hard to create stability. People need to know that we will be there when they need us. Financial transparency, a consistent schedule, and regular checking-in are ways to create a sense of stability. 
  • Hope: Do you offer hope? This should be every preacher’s wheelhouse, especially if you get to preach every Sunday! But people often leave a sermon feeling beaten up. It’s important not only for pastors to inspire individuals, but to “cast a vision” (here’s the leaderspeak) for their churches so that people have hope for the future.

My own spiritual growth has been helped by simply acknowledging my own leadership style. Oddly, knowing my leadership style allows me to think less of myself as a leader and more about what my group needs. I feel less pressure to live up to someone else’s image of the ideal leader if I can be true to my own God-given strengths. If I’m less focused on my image, I can be more focused on the image of God in Jesus Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead me as I lead others.

Dave Barnhart is a Ministry Matters contributor and the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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