The Challenges of Leadership
The unique role of a leader in the midst of an organization presents inherent dangers and risks. The responsibility that a leader has to guide and influence not only systems, but people, places one in a very vulnerable position. While most followers look at leaders as strong and invincible, an honest leader knows one’s own weaknesses and counts the cost of this calling. This essay will identify four critical issues that all leaders face, will develop these issues in light of a Christian ministry situation, and will integrate relevant leadership principles into the given setting.
A foundational problem that all leaders face is that of character. The recent political scandals and integrity issues covered by the media have heightened the public’s awareness of the importance of character in leadership. If character is a key issue in a secular arena, how much more important is it in a Christian arena?
The need for strong character is played out in many ways in a Christian ministerial setting. On the macro level, character is the guarantee for the trust given to the leader by the followers. Bennis (1997) calls this one of the four competencies of a leader: the management of trust. Kouzes and Posner (2002) name the modeling of values as one of the top challenges of leaders. In order to set the example, a leader must clarify values, unify constituents, and pay attention to how people are perceiving the leader. Those who are enlisted by the leader must sense his/her trustworthiness in order to maintain their own passion for their role in the vision. If a leader does not value this trust, people lose heart and become disillusioned with the vision. When the vision has eternal implications for people’s spiritual well-being, the leader must guard this trust even more highly so that people are not led astray. So even before a leader attempts to make a difference in the world, he or she must face the issue of one’s own character and seek to develop a godly, integrated sense of self.
On the micro level, the issue of character most often appears in leadership as the use of power. In a Christian ministry setting, leaders are very often set apart from the followers and struggle from the pedestal effect. This means that they are so highly esteemed that few people in their life approach them on an accountability level. If a church setting does not provide accountability with the power entrusted to leaders, then a leader must take the initiative and seek this out on one’s own. Proverbs, a great book on leadership principles, talks about the wisdom of godly counsel. The theme of wisdom versus foolishness is predominant throughout Proverbs and gives us guiding principles about the need for accountable leadership. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15). One senses that this is not a negotiable point in God’s economy of values, for “a man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy” (Proverbs 29:1). As a result, one way to counteract the ease of misusing power is to put oneself under the influence of godly people who have the power to speak into the life of the leader.
A second critical issue faced by most leaders is the responsibility to develop a godly vision for the direction of the individuals and organization entrusted to their care. What this means for a ministry setting is the freedom and time to seek God’s heart and dream the dreams He has for this particular time and place. A leader cannot be expected to develop a vision and manage all the details of the organization. He or she must differentiate the role of a leader from a manager and stay focused on the task of leadership. Bob Brehl provides insight for this issue by delineating at least three leadership roles in an organizational setting. The visionary is the leader who has insight into the future, sets the pace, challenges the status quo, and inspires people to catch the vision. The senior pastor, the elder board, or the head of departments should have this visionary role. The developer is the person who catches the vision and draws up logistical plans for how to accomplish the vision. This role might be termed an executive pastor or director of an organization. And then every good plan must have a detail person who actually manages the microlevels of the vision. This manager may be the business manager, the bookkeeper, or a ministering elder board that takes a vested interest in each department. While church polity varies across denominations, leaders need to be freed up to lead and must not be tied down with unwieldy managerial details.
The third challenge faced by leaders is the implementation of change. Because they are entrusted with the power to lead and develop a vision, they must also know how to enlist support for the vision they are casting and the changes the vision will entail. This affects Christian organization in an even deeper sense because change is usually connected to one’s spirituality and relationship with God. Human nature gravitates toward homeostasis—a sense of balance and equilibrium. But growth occurs when we are taking risks, experiencing new things, and exposing ourselves to new ideas.
The challenge of a leader to implement change in a productive and unifying way comes on two levels. He or she must first identify what needs to be changed and then take into consideration who will be affected by the proposed changes. Here’s where the foundation of character and trust serves the leader well; because one who already has this relationship will be more able to enlist the support of others. The support of followers comes primarily through a history of empowerment.
Kouzes and Posner (2002) provide some direction for the sharing of power in an organizational setting. First of all, we must ensure self-leadership and prove that we become the most powerful when we give power away. Secondly, we must provide choice. People are empowered when they can choose and their choices make a difference. Thirdly, a leader must develop competence so that choices are based on discernment and wisdom. Then, fourthly, in order to prove the trust the leader has in the people, he or she must delegate important tasks to others. Finally, the leader must offer visible support.
An application of this can be seen in the Apostle Paul as he planted churches. In particular, the church at Ephesus is pictured as an empowered church that shared his vision and had a common mission. They had a deeply bonded relationship that led them to weep and cling to each other upon parting (Acts). Paul trained others to be leaders and entrusted the elders of the church with the crucial task of leading the church. And even though Paul was separated from them, he wrote to them and offered prayer support in his absence. We would do well to follow this example in our leadership roles today.
The fourth critical issue that leaders face is that of persistence. It seems that all visionaries must develop the determination to pursue the vision no matter what the cost. This need for persistence is a clarifying and purifying process for the Christian leader. It is in these crucibles that values and motives get examined in order to burn away the impurities. Failure, rejection of the vision, and questioning of the call are all part of the leadership challenge.
In a Christian ministry setting difficulties serve to strengthen the character of the leader, refine the vision, and give impetus for the changes already discussed as part of the inherent issues connected with leadership. Persistence, as Kouzes and Posner state, is part of a disciplined passion that a leader must develop (2002). A Christian leader must not only have the passion to pursue the things of God, he or she must also have the determination to keep going when the rush of adrenaline subsides and the going gets tough. Every leader in the Bible faced opposition on one level or another. Moses faced his own feelings of inadequacy, Nehemiah, the mocking of Sanballat, and Peter, the sifting of Satan. But all of these leaders endured hardship so that God could use the circumstances to develop persistence. Through the “trial and error” of on the job training, we learn to persevere under trial.
These are merely four of the many issues that are particular to leaders. The importance of awareness should help to give leaders a “heads up” and plan accordingly. Taking precautionary measures will help to counterbalance these challenges and will encourage positive growth towards effectiveness in God’s kingdom.
Bennis, Warren. (1997). Why leaders can’t lead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.