A few days ago I had the opportunity to participate in a leadership conference with Dr. Greg Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, and Dr. John Upton, president of the Baptist World Alliance and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Next week, I’ll share Greg Jones’ thoughts on leadership, but today I thought you might like to hear what John Upton had to say.
Dr. Upton listed 15 characteristics of innovative church leaders, which he has observed in his global contact with Baptist leaders, and leaders from other Christian traditions. Dr. Upton said that these are not ranked by priority, but are observable in those leaders he has met in countries where the Church is thriving.
1. Leaders create opportunities. Dr. Upton remarked that leaders live in a context of discovery, exploration, and learning. Out of that inquisitive context, leaders open spaces for new things to happen.
2. Leaders say “I don’t know.” Acknowledging honestly that you as a leader do not have all the answers opens the way for others to explore, experiment, and discover things that even you as a leader might not have thought of. Dr. Upton contends that saying “I don’t know” gives permission to others to “figure it out” while the leader offers wisdom and supports those who are exploring new possibilities.
3. Leaders are rarely the best performers, but rather are talent developers. Upton used the illustration of an orchestra and conductor. While the conductor may not be skilled enough to occupy the first chair of any section, she brings together all of the talent of those who do occupy the orchestral sections into a beautiful blend of harmony and energy.
4. Leaders cast the vision of hope. While “vision-casting” has come to mean the leader presents a program or concept all neatly tied up, Upton contends that great leaders like Churchill and FDR cast a vision of hope. From hope others rise to the occasion, innovate in their situations, and produce more and better results than one leader alone could hope to.
5. Leaders thrive on paradox. Great leaders are able to hold two opposing views in mind, and come up with a solution that considers all possibilities. A good resource is The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin.
6. Leaders love a mess. John Upton observed that good leaders always have a symbolic supply of duct tape handy, which I thought was a good metaphor for fixing things on the fly. Upton observed that leaders are “comfortable in the craziness,” which is not the same in my opinion as comfortable with lack of focus.
7. Leaders do and then they re-do. There is no absolute solution in any organization. Today’s solution may become tomorrow’s obstacle. Leaders recognize the need for revisiting and re-evaluating an organization’s goals and accomplishments, however those are measured.
8. Leaders know when to wait. Timing can be just as important as vision. Learning to wait patiently for the right moment, the right atmosphere, the right people to be on-board with a project can be critical to the success of that project. Patience is a virtue, not just in theory, but in leading churches as well.
9. Leaders are optimistic. Optimism means leaders “believe that this can be a better world, we can make a difference” according to Upton. Optimism is not blind disregard of reality, but a long-range attitude of hope.
10. Leaders convey a grand design, but attend to details. Grand schemes are great, and folks need an over-arching vision. But, as the architect Mies van der Rohe is alleged to have said, “God is in the details.” Apparently, this applies to churches as well as architecture.
11. Leaders make mistakes, but create blame-free cultures. “I’d rather reward a great failure, than a mediocre success,” Upton commented. Failure without blame is not a bad thing for organizations, and part of the learning curve of innovative cultures.
12. Leaders are talent fanatics. Great leaders, according to Jim Collins, surround themselves with highly-talented people, and exhibit personal humility when talking about their group’s accomplishments. Great leaders attract, nurture, mentor, and reward talent, according to Upton.
13. Leaders create networks for peer-learning. Really good leaders are not the only generators of ideas or information in their organizations. Peer-learning networks which connect across organizations, departments, or other organizational boundaries create a culture of curiosity and exploration.
14. Leaders know themselves well. This may be one of the toughest qualities of leadership to master. Self-knowledge, coupled with self-regulation, separates the good from the best in leadership. Acknowledging that “I’m not in charge” of everything, which is the cousin of “I don’t know everything” enables others to succeed and communicates that the leader understands his or her own limitations.
15. Leaders take breaks. There are no rewards for pastors who say, “I never take a vacation.” Leaders need a break from the pressures of leadership in order to rest, recharge, and re-evaluate. Think of preventive maintenance for pastors, and you’ve got the idea. Great leaders step away, have other interests, pay attention to their relationships, and recognize their need for perspective.
Those are John Upton’s 15 characteristics of great leaders, based on his experience and observation. What other traits or practices would you add to this list? Or, how would you rank these in order of priority for your ministry setting?