Four Proven Strategies to Prevent Leadership Failure
March 25, 2019—Leadership is, arguably, an organization’s greatest asset; even in congregations. As much as we desire to believe otherwise, congregations tend to make little progress in terms of mission, new initiatives, new programs, outreach, or organizational health in the absence of an effective leader and leadership staff. In particular ways, congregations tend to be more dependent on pastoral leaders than other organizations where responsibilities for organizational and institutional tasks are clearly assigned and not deeply dependent on volunteers. Leadership failures impacts greatly on the followers, leaders and the all facets of organizational life and activities.
One evidence of how important leadership is to congregations and organizations is what happens when there is a failure in leadership. We tend to underestimate, and under-appreciate, the impact to the system when a leader leaves, and how long it can take to recover a sense of direction and to gain new momentum after a failed leadership exit. I can identify two congregations who took a decade to find a new center and stabilize after a leadership transition—one after the retirement of a long-tenured pastor followed by a strong of weak leaders. The other from a failed pastoral leadership crisis. Neither was able to fully recover.
Given how critical the function of leadership is to any organization, it is worth considering how to cultivate leaders. Any organization will do well to create a culture dedicated to the wellness, development, and growth of its leaders. It is puzzling, then, how challenging it seems to be for many congregations to understand the benefit of pastoral sabbaticals for their leaders. Too many organizations take for granted that leadership development is the sole responsibility of the leader.
Researcher Benjamin James Inyang identified four strategic options that can help prevent the consequences of failed leadership. These are not rocket science, and not costly:
1. Executive coaching: This practice focuses on equipping leaders with the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective in their function. Executive coaching can help leaders cope with challenges that are likely to confront them in the particular demands of their positions. It can help persons in the organization with high potential to gain skills and insight to will help them in the long-run as they grow in the organization. Executive coaching focuses on leadership performance and overall organizational effectiveness. Effective executive coaching that critically considers a leader’s strengths and weaknesses can help in developing specific development plans for the leader and this can help prevent derailment, wrote Inyang.(1)
2. Leadership training: This practice fosters the development of particular skills and behaviors that help the leader to perform effectively and prevent derailment. In this, the organization must be intentional in providing varied leadership challenges and developmental assignments for its leaders. It seems that few congregations see the importance of financially supporting leadership training through continuing education funds. And for those that do, there often is a lack of accountability about how those funds are used—or not. I recall one instance in which a youth minister used his continuing education funds to buy a guitar! But leadership training does not have to be financially burdensome. Establishing disciplined opportunities for reflection-on-practice and reflection-in-practice, a form of experiential learning, is one of the most powerful ways leaders learn to lead, and to learn to accept, better understand, and manage the underlying factors of potential failures.
3. Self-awareness: The capacity to be self-aware, a facet of emotional intelligence, is the very first step in making the necessary changes that can help prevent the leader from failing. According to Bourne and MacKinnon, self-awareness helps a leader develop an understanding of aspects of his or her personality which could lead to failures. It can help leaders proactively manage deficits, biases, and blind spots as a way of ensuring stable high performance and career progression. (2)
4. Creating effective management processes and feedback: It can be astounding to consider how systemically ineffective most congregational personnel committees are. To help prevent leadership failures organizations must develop effective supervision processes to identify early signals of leadership failure and address deficits during formative and formal personnel evaluations. Providing honest feedback on performance is critical to both leaders and the organization. Effective leaders seek feedback from trusted, honest observers throughout their career to monitor how they are performing. Ironically, those prone to leadership failures do not. Having intensive, honest and systematic feedback on performance can prevent leadership failures, and a vital key to any leadership development effort.
Do you want help with leadership development? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. Learn more about Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
(1) Benjamin James Inyang, Exploring the Concept of Leadership Derailment: Defining New Research Agenda.
(2) Bourne, A., & MacKinnon, R. A. (n.d.). Personality and leadership derailment.