Actually, We Need More Leaders

April 3, 2017



Susan Cains' recent opinion piece about the glorification of leadership skills in the NYTimes, Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers, hit close to home for me. Almost every church I have been part of has had a similar line: we have too many leaders and not enough doers. 


While Cains focuses on college students who are under stress to find leadership positions to pad their résumés, it certainly feels that our religious and nonprofit organizations have a plethora of people who want to be leaders but not enough followers. 


The congregation I serve would be quick to say we need more people willing to be followers instead of leaders.  Our church members point out that we have "too many cooks in the kitchen." While Cains point that an organization needs good team players more than it needs people who want to be in charge certainly applies to us, it seems that we don't need more followers. What my organization needs are for people to raise the bar on leadership. 


I am the pastor of an American Baptist Church, which means theologically we believe that the members of the church are also the pastors of the church. We stress the importance of our members in carrying out the ministries, mission, and operations of our congregation. I am willing to bet that what your organization needs is more leaders, as well. 


The problem in our congregations and organizations is not a lack of followers, but how we view leadership.


The Dean of The Kellogg School of Management Sally Blount responds to Cains' article by defining leadership a little differently:


When used properly, at least in educational contexts, the word leadership now refers to high character, and the people who are leaders are those who think and act intentionally on behalf of the organizations and communities in which they live and work. They commit to using their lives to engage beyond the self, to engage in the call to human progress, by building up and strengthening the quality of human work and human organizations, rather than tearing them down. 


Blount's definition reminds us that leadership is necessary throughout an organization, from the person answering the phones to the C.E.O. of a company. 


Let me lay this out in my context of congregational church life. 


-If a member of your church doesn't take a moment to greet a guest because they aren't serving as the greeter that day, then your congregation doesn't have a follower problem, you have a leadership problem. 


-If members of your congregation are continually coming up with ideas for someone else to do, then you don't have a follower problem, you have a leadership problem.  


-Even the lack of volunteers does not mean you have a follower problem. It means there is a leadership problem. 


These are dangerous statements, especially with people working in churches because we take on all the responsibility ourselves. We hear leadership problem, and we think it is our fault. Cains brushes upon the falsehood of the "romance of leadership" theory, which claims that we should attribute an organization's success or failure to a leader without taking into account the followers. I'm saying that the success of failure of our churches rests entirely upon the leadership, which goes beyond one person to and to the entire congregation. 


Growing up, one of my band conductors taught me a lesson in leadership that I never forgot. As the director, he took on different responsibilities than us as the students or musicians. One day during practice he was trying to get one of the trumpet players to play a part. 


"Stop and think, how is it supposed to sound?" he asked the trumpet player.


"I don't know. You tell me, you're the leader!" my peer cried back in frustration.


The conductor kicked him out of rehearsal and looking around the room said, "You are responsible for practicing, learning your music, showing up here to be part of the group. You are responsible for how we sound. When you pick up an instrument, you promise to be a leader, as well as, a player in this band. If you can't be a leader, then you shouldn't be here!"


Our organizations can't survive without good, strong, and healthy leadership. We don't need more followers. We need to encourage our congregants, laity, and volunteers to take on the important role of leaders.

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