leading without power, part 9

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host, part 6, champion of hope, part 7, uniqueness dj, part 8, contextualization czar) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is metaphor #8:

Trust Guard

trust is, perhaps, the single greatest factor in leadership. and, while trust is so rarely present in hierarchical power structures (in churches or businesses), the funny thing is that it’s one of the few facets described in this blog series that is possible within traditional hierarchical power structures (btw: if you want a good book on this — trust in the context of traditional power structures, that is — i recommend stephen m.r. covey’s the speed of trust). and the reason boils down to this: trust is 100% dependent on honesty. if a hierarchical power-based leader is fully honest and transparent (an extremely rare occurrence, to be sure), it’s possible to instill trust. but more often than not, the mindset of a leader in utilizing role power and hierarchy has a mental mindset that says, “i know things you cannot and should not know; they are not your job to know them.” if the leader were, somehow, able to be completely honest with himself or herself (another rarity), the truth would be closer to, “being less than transparent and fully honest with you protects my position of power, control and authority over you. you are more dependent on me when i know more than you do.”

ah, but this tactic just doesn’t work.

a moment of honesty myself: i have not been a superstar on this. i think my leadership team at youth specialties had a high level of trust in me and my leadership; but that was directly connected to the level of honesty we shared. but for the rest of the staff of youth specialties, their trust of me vacillated greatly. at times, it was high and strong; at others, extremely questionable. in my 20/20 hindsight, i can see the pattern clearly: when we were in seasons where i was being ruthlessly honest, trust was high. when we were in seasons where i was withholding, or spinning them, trust was low (or at least weakened).

if we want our organizational teams (and, again, this applies to volunteer teams as well as groups of employees) to experience the kind of wholeness and full embracing of the organizational mission, we have to place the value of alignment in a place of preeminence. in youth ministry 3.0, i wrote about the goal of “communion” – a combination of authentic community with christ in the mix. pulling out the essence of that into a workplace, i can envision a kind of missional alignment experienced in community by all members of the team.

and, without trust and safety, there will be no communion or missional alignment.

without communion (or missional alignment), the ministry or church staff culture or business culture will be clubbish and/or wimpy.

what if one of the primary ways we leaders exercise our power is by being honest?

i’m reminded of this as i write, as i’ve been looking at a case study over the past few days. a particular mission board (ABWE) received information, decades ago, about one of their missionary doctors perpetrating pedophilia on young teen missionary kids. they responded by covering it up. the issues were brought up at multiple points over the last 20+ years; and each time, they promised action, but took none. not only is the wrong perpetrated in this example horrific on many other levels, the result has been – as i’ve watched this unfolding in real time – a systemic and complete breakdown of trust. trust in the organization and its leaders has been shot for a long time for those closest to the crime; but now that the story is coming to light, trust has been eroded at levels that reach far and wide, including affiliated churches and donors. the likely result will be leaders losing their jobs and a big shake up. justice, in situations like this, gets more and more difficult without honesty. (btw: if you’d like to read more about this story, or help throw your voice into the mix of people calling the board of the organization to action, read this fairly comprehensive blog, hosted by some of the MKs impacted.)

i’m also reminded of one of the (rare?) times i think i got this right: when it was brought to our attention at YS that we had published some blatantly racist content in one of our books, and we were called out by the asian american church community. in this case (as would have been true with ABWE), it would have been better had we not allowed the offenes to occur in the first place. but we screwed up; and the only right response was full disclosure, complete honesty, and swift action. now, you could say that this was all external, and more about our interface with customers. but the impact on our staff was significant; and the way we handled it (both in how we talked about it internally, and the steps our staff saw us taking) had an enormous impact on the level of trust internally. it was — counter-intuitively — one of those times when our screw-up resulted in more missional alignment (and communion) for our staff team.

back to my question: what would it look like if, as a leader trying to lead without power, that your primary expression of the power provided by your title or position were the relentless pursuit of honesty?

3 thoughts on “leading without power, part 9”

  1. Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I completely agree with you on the importance of trust and the relation between honesty and trust. But my first thought was this: is the church ready for complete honesty? Isn’t it true that to a certain degree a certain ‘holiness’ and ‘perfection’ is expected of staff and people will actually lose trust of you’re too honest? Take for instance certain sins, if one were to admit having issues in these areas, you could easily lose your job…I think there’s a great contradiction there, a catch-22 even. You can’t create trust without honesty, but too much honesty can make people lose trust in you…

  2. Thanks, Marko, for these good thoughts on leadership. You are so right about trust and honesty. Honesty in leadership builds trust. And when it erodes because of dishonesty, it’s so hard to get back. ABWE is learning this the hard way. I love Dan Allender’s Leading With a Limp (in response to Rachel). Some people have a harder time dealing with their leaders’ honesty than others, but ultimately showing honesty in leadership is allowing others to see God’s grace at work in your life, actively and up close. When we are not transparent, it’s difficult for other people to see God transforming us. And constant transformation should be evident in a leader, or he or she is probably not worth following.

  3. What a great subject. This is often so overlooked that leading and without power are never put in the same sentence…sadly. Love the idea of leading in humility and servitude. As a pastor, I try to be the first to empty the diaper pail and clean up the throw up (pot lucks are sometimes not so lucky). Its amazing that I don’t have to or want to prove myself or make myself a leader. Servanthood is great inspirer of people. Tamara’s remark is most excellent. I tell my church all my flaws and weaknesses (just like the Bible truthfully tells of its characters) and this lets others more easily confess their own faults one to another.

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