Level Up: Lessons on Leadership

04.11.23 | Leader Development, Center for vital leadership

    Leaders inspire, they influence and empower others, define new realities, and bring vision to life. Good leaders enable groups and individuals to grow more fully into what God is calling them to be. 

    In Level Up: Lessons on Leadership, the Rev. Jack Shitama, of the Center of Vital Leadership, helps leaders grow. In these short videos, church leaders will discover some of the best and most influential principles in today’s secular writing about leadership. Learn from the masters, to transform yourself and the world.

    Lesson 1: What’s the Difference between Leadership and Management?

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    In a now famous, Harvard Business Review article, John P. Kotter wrote:

    “(Leaders) don’t make plans; they don’t solve problems; they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it. Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.”  – John P. Kotter -  What Leaders Really Do

    As the saying goes, managers focus on doing things right. Leaders focus on doing the right things. We need both managers and leaders, but without leaders, we are unlikely to adapt, innovate and multiply impact.

    So what are some of the differences between managers and leaders?

    One difference is that Managers focus on process. Leaders focus on vision. A manager’s primary concern is execution. That doesn’t mean that leaders don’t care about execution but leaders spend more time focused on vision.

    Leadership by definition involves change. If you’re trying to take your church to a preferred future, it won’t happen without change. If you are just keeping things the same, maintaining the status quo, then you are managing.

    Another difference between managers and leaders is that Managers focus on organizing whereas Leaders focus on aligning the work of the church with its mission.

    Managers make sure that procedures, resources, and people are in the right place at the right time to do things right. 

    Leaders on the other hand, want to make sure that all those things that are being done are aligned with the mission of the church. Having a mission-focus is an essential element of an effective leader. Aligning all that happens with that mission is the mark of an excellent leader.

    Finally, Managers direct and Leaders influence. A manager is in the chain of command and uses their authority to tell people what to do. Even though a leader can tell people what to do, that's not their primary role.

    Effective leaders encourage and inspire people to do the right things. True leaders have followers not because they have power but because they help take people outside themselves to something greater to which they want to give their best efforts.

    And, of course, faith-based leaders don’t have followers. They inspire people to follow God.

    Like I said, we need both managers and leaders. Most of us are some combination of both. But, to the extent that you are a leader, make sure you are focused on where you are headed, that it is aligned with your mission, and that you are inspiring people to give their best effort.

    Lesson 2: The Power of Vulnerability

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    Vulnerability is an essential element of effective leadership. When you say, "This is what I believe. This is where I think we should go," you are putting yourself out there and becoming vulnerable. 

    In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Brown puts it this way:“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."  – Brene Brown - Daring Greatly

    She goes directly at the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness, contending that it's the opposite.

    In his book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman argues that leaders not only need to learn to embrace vulnerability, they need to learn to love it. They need to choose adventure over safety. This indeed takes courage.

    Author Seth Godin writes in his blog post "Out on a limb," that when you are doing important work, you will say to yourself, "This might not work."

    He writes: "At some level, 'this might not work' is at the heart of all important projects, of everything new and worth doing. And it can paralyze us into inaction..."  – Seth Godin

    In this case, he is referring to projects, but this also applies to leadership. It is the essence of choosing adventure over safety. To be a leader implies that you are going somewhere. This, by definition, involves change. And change is scary.

    I believe adventure and vulnerability are synonymous. Learn to embrace them. Grow to love the feeling of putting yourself out there. Why? Because it's the only way to lead positive change.  

    Godin puts it this way: “'This might not work' is either a curse, something that you labor under, or it's a blessing, a chance to fly and do work you never thought possible." – Seth Godin - Out On A Limb

    You have a choice. You can choose adventure or safety. There’s no in-between. I believe God calls us to adventure as an expression of faith. It doesn’t mean we’ll end up where we want to go, but trusting in God is never the wrong choice. 

    On the other hand, safety puts no trust in God. It not only limits possibility, it’s likely to keep us stuck.

    Which will you choose?

    Lesson 3: Vision is Crucial to Leadership

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    When I first became a camp director, I went to a workshop that taught that the leader of an organization should spend 85% of their time in the future. This emphasizes the importance of vision. A leader has to be thinking about the future or it will just happen to them and the church they lead.

    Your role as a leader is not to come up with your own vision, but to discern God’s vision. This doesn’t happen without prayer, meditation and an understanding of scripture.

    The reason the leader’s vision is important is that people look to the leader for direction, even if they don’t agree with it. The most important thing about a leader’s vision is not that it is correct, but that the leader expresses where they believe God is leading.

    People don’t have to agree. But if there is no vision, anxiety will increase. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the lack of vision is a leadership vacuum that gets filled with angst, distrust and dysfunction.

    Vision helps people to imagine a future or preferred reality. It is not a plan. Rather, it is a way for the leader to express their values as they apply to the future. As Simon Sinek said in his “How great leaders inspire action” TED Talk: “Martin Luther King did not give an ‘I have a plan speech.’ He gave an ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

    Dr. King’s speech was all about his own values of equality as they applied to a very big organization -- America. It was his sense of calling by God that kept him pointing toward the future God wants for us. We’re not there. But we’re closer than we would have been without Dr. King’s vision.

    I knew from the beginning that spending 85% of my time in the future was unrealistic. There are projects and people to manage, day-to-day tasks to complete and the occasional, if not frequent, crisis. Even so, I also knew it was my responsibility to ask God to show me where to go.

    I also learned that God won’t give you everything you need to know. God will give you a sense of what a preferred outcome looks like, as well as what the next step will be. But if God gave you the whole plan, it wouldn’t be faith.

    Genesis 12 tells us, “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:1-2 (NRSV)

    God didn’t say where the land was, just that God would show Abram and that he would be a great nation and a blessing. Do you think Abram would have gone if God had told him that the journey would be hundreds of miles? It took courage and faith to move toward the future God had promised.

    May you also have that same courage and faith to seek God’s future for the people you lead.

    Lesson 4: Finite and Infinite Games: Which One Are You Playing?

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    The concept of finite and infinite games was developed by James P. Carse in a book by the same name.

    In a finite game, the purpose is winning. Examples of this are board games, sports, politics, and wars. In a finite game there are winners and losers. There’s also typically a beginning and an end.

    Infinite games exist solely for the purpose of continuing the game. Examples of this are families, congregations, organizations, and nations. I like to think that while final games are about winning, infinite games are about getting better.

    One way that infinite games get better is when we have a common mission. When we all believe we are in it for the same thing, it helps us to work towards improvement.

    According to Carse, A player in a finite game seeks power. Because the goal is winning, power is the key competency to achieving the end. On the other hand, Carse contends that A player in an infinite game seeks sufficient strength. That is, they are looking for ways to not only survive but to thrive. 

    How often do you treat leadership as a finite game? When you are looking to win the next debate, get your program approved or achieve a goal for money, status or power, you are playing a finite game. 

    On the other hand, when you are cultivating relationships to build trust, are focusing everyone on a common mission, and helping to marshall resources so that everybody wins, then you are playing the infinite game

    In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek writes: “An infinite mindset embraces abundance whereas a finite mindset operates with a scarcity mentality. In the Infinite Game we accept that “being the best” is a fool’s errand and that multiple players can do well at the same time.” – Simon Sinek - The Infinite Game

    Your church can only be its best when all the people are at their best. It will multiply its impact when it stops seeing other churches, nonprofits and community groups as competitors and starts to see them as partners.

    In short, God can make the biggest difference when everyone is playing the infinite game. Your job as a leader is to help that happen.

    Lesson 5: You Can’t Lead without Trust

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    In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey writes: "Trust is the one thing that changes everything. The lack of it can bring down governments, cripple businesses (and churches) and destroy relationships. Conversely, when cultivated it has the potential to bring unparalleled effectiveness."  – Stephen M.R. Covey -The Speed of Trust

    Covey says that Trust is THE KEY leadership competency in the new global economy.

    High-trust organizations are able to move quickly and adapt rapidly. Conversely, low trust organizations get stuck. When people are more concerned about covering their rears, whether they will be punished, or that people will react badly to their ideas, they tend not to bring their whole selves to the situation.

    In a high trust organization, people are able to share openly and are able to disagree constructively. They are open to the ideas of others, because of what they have in common through their relationships and their common goals.

    In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek writes: “In weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is why we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organization. In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.” 

    The challenge is this. Trust takes time to build and is easy to destroy. That's why it's so important to keep trust-building at the front of your mind.

    There are two ways to build trust. The first is to Be trustworthy. Do what you say you are going to do. Underpromise and overdeliver. People will trust you when they know they can believe what you say.

    The second way to build trust is to Extend trust to others. This may seem counterintuitive because we are taught to believe that people must earn our trust. However, if we don’t trust others, because of the fear of being burned, they are less likely to trust us. 

    My own experience is that the number of times that somebody I’ve trusted has betrayed that trust has been so small that it pales in comparison to the amount of trust that has been developed in relationships because I’ve extended trust to others.

    In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek writes: “In weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is why we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organization. In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.”

    The saying goes, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

    If you want your church to be flexible and resilient in uncertain times, then focus on building trust. It takes time. But you can’t lead without it.

    Lesson 6: What Is a Level 5 Leader?

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    According to business author Jim Collins, there are two things that distinguish good leaders from great leaders, which he calls Level 5 leaders. Before I get into those two things, let me take you through the first four levels.

    A Level One leader is a highly capable individual who uses their talent, knowledge, skills and work habits to make a positive contribution to the organization 

    A Level Two leader is a contributing team member who helps achieve group objectives and works well with others. 

    A Level Three leader is a competent manager who is able to organize people and resources to achieve predetermined objectives.

    A Level Four leader is an effective leader who gains commitment in pursuit of a compelling vision and stimulates the group towards high-performance standards.  

    All these leadership levels are important. So what distinguishes a Level 5 Leader from the rest?

    The first is Personal Humility. Great leaders are not egocentric. They’re not necessarily even big personalities. They talk more about the mission and the people they work with than themselves. 

    Collins uses the metaphors of the window and the mirror to illustrate this type of leadership. When things go well, Level 5 leaders look out the window. They give credit to those they lead, the circumstances and even luck.

    When things go poorly, Level 5 leaders look in the mirror. They know the buck stops with them and they take responsibility.

    This type of humility elevates everyone in the church. It encourages people to give their best efforts because they know that when things go well, credit will be shared and when things go poorly, they won’t be blamed.

    The second thing that distinguishes a Level 5 leader is what Collins calls Professional Will. The professional part means they are focused on the mission, not on personal gain. They are playing an infinite game. The will part means they are persistent and resilient.

    Collins describes this as a fierce resolve to achieve the mission of the organization. They understand that sustained excellence is challenging. They are willing to point everyone toward the mission and stay focused on that, not on their own power or status. They maintain that focus and resolve during periods of uncertainty and adversity. 

    I believe faith-based leaders can be Level 5 leaders because we believe in the grace of God. We know that it’s not about what we do but how we let God work in us and through us. That means we can never take credit for the good that happens but can only give thanks to God. And, that same trust in God’s grace can sustain us through the most challenging times.