Recently while on a flight from Richmond to Houston, I had the opportunity to read a short but very interesting article on training leaders. It was about business leadership classes which are held on some of the World War II battlefields of Europe. They study topics such as cohesion, communication, technology, strategy, and decisions made in crisis situations. The retired army officer, and scholar, who leads this effort believes that in business and in war success is often born of the ability to make good decisions in a crisis situation. A situation where resources may be limited, teams are disrupted, communications are inadequate, and many unknown factors are at play. This caused me to begin to think back over leadership problems I have observed in my ministry both here in the US and overseas.
False assumptions and lack of training
I believe that many Christian ministries and churches fall seriously short at training their newly promoted leaders to work effectively. Frequently, an individual is promoted within a church or missionary organization simply based on their years of service or their success in their previously assigned task. For example, a man who has proven he is a very effective associate pastor with responsibilities in running a church’s children’s education program is asked to take on the role of a Christian School principal. It is assumed that success in the one area will automatically lead to success in the other. However, on a church staff an education minister rarely has to deal with a serious classroom discipline issue, or suspension of a student, or even expulsion of a student. He rarely has to interview trained educators for salaried positions then carry out professional classroom observations of their teaching and the subsequent debriefing of the observation with the teacher. What if he had to discipline a teacher or needed to provide classroom management training for a teacher? Would his previous church staff position have adequately prepared him for such leadership responsibilities?
Now, look at the area of mission work. Often a person who is viewed to be a successful mission business manager in a local country or a successful church planter in a local city will be promoted to a leadership position which may carry responsibilities over work in various countries. That work may be ongoing in types of environments that our newly promoted leader doesn’t have experiences in and doesn’t really understand. An example could be a mission business manager who has worked in a highly effective manner in a country such as Malawi in Africa. Suddenly, he is asked to move and oversee work in Niger Republic and Nigeria. What, in the normally peaceful environment of Malawi could possibly have prepared him to supervise work in these vastly different countries? Both suffer from bouts of violence at the hands of Islamic extremists. This is especially the case in northern Nigeria. Yet, our newly promoted business mission manager is handed such a responsibility and, usually, provided little to no timely leadership training.
What are the dangers?
What are the dangers in these two widely different yet, at the same time, similar scenarios?
On the surface, the dangers could include loss of personnel who feel unappreciated and inadequately supported. The longer it takes the newly promoted leader to recognize the factors “on the ground” and effectively deal with them, the worse the situation will get. A second danger is an increasingly frustrated leader who sees things going badly but is unprepared to understand and deal with them. And a frustrated and “lost” leader is not a leader. He becomes part of the bigger problem.
However, the consequences go further afield. In the school scenario, the word gets around town that the school is poorly led and the teachers are not happy. This results in lower enrollments and teachers resigning to go work in “greener pastures”.
In the missionary scenario, it is a similar outcome. Missionaries can become frustrated and instead of being out in ministry with a positive attitude, they “fort up”. They stay home more and become overly cautious in decision making. They feel frustrated and unsupported by their organization. Then the resignations begin. The work is threatened with an early end. Valuable resources are wasted and giving in the supporting churches may be adversely affected.
Dealing with the threat
How do we deal with this threat? I believe there are 3-4 factors which are crucial. First, recognize the importance of spiritual gifting. A man with the spiritual gifting of evangelism will likely excel at it. That does not mean he would excel at supervising all evangelists in a mission field. On-the-field success in one area of work does not guarantee success in a higher leadership role. Granted the experience is crucial to a leader’s success, but being great at one is no sure sign he won’t be lousy at the other.
Second, we who are privileged to lead must recognize the need to train potential future leaders, before they take on the mantel of leadership. Since we may not always know who will be that next gifted leader, it makes sense to train all staff (or team) members in introductory leadership skills.
Third, those who are higher level leaders must be people of responsibility and integrity. When they recognize that a recently promoted leader is failing or seriously struggling, admit it, and intervene. Begin just-in-time training or allow him to step aside for a bit. Allow him time to “get his bearings”. Do this even if it means we must temporarily step down the leadership ladder and walk beside him for a short time or assign someone to do it. Encourage him and help him to re-evaluate his decisions. Where does he need specific help? Help him to get back on track.
Last, if needed, we should be willing to make the hard choices and replace him with a more qualified person. Allow the struggling leader to move a step back down the leadership ladder to a place where he is confident and qualified to lead. Don’t waste these experiences in his life… help him to learn from them and train him for future success.
Being proactive is usually not a trait of many church or missionary organizations when it comes to leadership training. I think it’s time for a new approach!