Leading with the Long Term View
When we are about to embark on a significant journey, it helps not only to know where we are going, but also to have at least a general sense of how we are going to get there. That way we can make good use of road signs to help us see how far we have got or, if we realise we have gone the wrong way, to change course.
When I began leading a church, I was hoping to find a book that would give me that sense of how the journey ahead might unfold, at least in general terms. I found several books that told the story of other peoples’ experiences of church leadership, and many books that gave helpful insights into what skills might be needed to do the job well. But a book giving a sense of the general pattern to be expected I could not find.
When I then found myself teaching in a theological college and was asked to speak to students about my experience of church leadership to help them to prepare for such responsibilities themselves, I struggled to know how to distil that six-year experience into one morning. Was there a pattern to be observed that might provide helpful insights for them? I gave that lecture three times over the following years, and by the third time I was beginning to think that there is such a pattern. I discussed it with other leaders, saw how it fitted with leadership biographies I had read, and watched them unfold again as I became leader of the theological college where I was teaching.
The pattern that emerged is to start by establishing trust, then to cultivate leaders, to discern vision, to implement plans and finally, in due time, to transition out. The order may vary, especially if there is a vision already in place and working well, but these stand out as the five phases of leadership that leaders typically experience. They need to establish trust before they can get anything done, they will want to develop leaders to share in the work, they will benefit from having a vision that inspires coordinated action, they will need to put plans into action to move the organisation towards that goal, and they will need to know when and how to step out of that leadership role. Being aware of these five phases helps provide a sense of where we are on the leadership journey and what to do next.
These are not five neatly separated stages of leadership, because leaders need to build trust constantly, and will always want to be nurturing leaders. They should also revisit their vision regularly, and put plans into action all the time. Wise leaders will be aware that one day they will be stepping down and should have an eye on how things can continue when they leave. There is, however, a natural order here: establishing trust involves getting to know people and spotting leaders to invest in. Once you have a leadership team in place you can do the work of vision discernment or reaffirmation with those who have the respect of the church or organisation. You can then work out how to set goals and develop strategies to help move towards that vision. The leadership team might also be well-placed to help in any transitional period when you come to move to a next call or retire.
I wish I had been aware of these five phases before I undertook my first leadership position. It would have reduced stress and given me a sense of possible next steps. I hope they can have that beneficial effect for others at whatever stage they may be in their leadership journey, so they can have the long term view.