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Along the Journey  |  

Leadership Myths: Part 1

There are many persistent leadership myths. Pastors and lay leaders alike are subject to many mixed messages about what leadership is and what it entails. Some lay leaders tend to import their ideas about leadership from the secular workplace. Undoubtedly, many are influential leaders in their corporate settings, and their motives are sincere. Laypersons and pastors who apply these myths about leadership in the congregational setting often get some things done, but ultimately, they may accomplish the task by doing more harm than good.

Here is part one of seven persistent myths about leadership.

1. Leadership Is About Motivating People

One of the most prevalent myths about leadership is that it is about motivating people to do things. This view of leadership is based on two fundamental errors. First, it assumes people are not self-determinate and are incapable of making choices about what they value and will work toward. Second, this myth can lead to a willful and manipulative approach to dealing with persons.

While external motivations can move some people to action, its effect is short-lived. People who are easily moved by external motivators have a short attention span and will soon need another novel motivator to sustain the movement, or they will seek the next motivating force that captures their attention.

Conversely, some people will never be motivated to action. An almost guaranteed short path to burnout is to assume that if the leader can find the right words and techniques or dangle the right carrot, he or she can get unmotivated people to respond. The reality is that it is almost impossible to motivate the unmotivated.

Ironically, external motivators tend not to work on the best people in the system. Those already participating in the congregation’s life and who have found their passion for ministry do not need leaders to motivate them—which makes the leader obsolete if motivation is what leadership is all about.

Daniel Goleman said, “Wherever people gravitate within their work role indicates where their real pleasure lies—and that pleasure is itself motivating . . . no external motivation can get people to perform at their absolute best.” Leadership is more about influence than motivation. Influence happens when the leader knows his or her values, owns his or her vision and is in an authentic enough relationship with another to allow that person to choose to participate in the vision.

2. Leadership Is About Personality

This myth believes “Leaders are born, not made,” but leadership is about function, which, in great part, is a learned skill. In his book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman identified eighteen competencies of outstanding leaders from an emotional intelligence viewpoint. However, he argued that even those competencies are not innate talents.

Instead, they are abilities that can be learned to make a leader more effective. Because leadership is about function and not personality, any congregational leader who fails to consider the context and culture in which the leadership function needs to be applied will fail.

3. Leadership Is About Style and Technique

This understanding of leadership is often characterized by an emphasis on highly structured management systems. But an emphasis on style—a veneer one wears like a nice suit—or on techniques fails to address the hidden life forces in organizations like congregations.

More important is giving attention to what leaders stand for and believe in and their ability to communicate these values and ideals in a way that provides meaning and significance to others. This relational stance to leadership, which focuses on the leader’s function and influence in the relationship system, is more important than how the leader presents (his style, the “optics”) or the leader’s technique.

This does not deny that technical and managerial skills have their place but cannot substitute for leadership. In human relationship systems, technical and administrative behaviors should always be subordinate to human needs and organizational goals.

Effective leaders avoid the trap of believing that adopting a particular style or applying one management technique over another can address the leadership needs of the congregation and issues of vision and purpose.

4. Leadership Is About Authority and Power

One myth that leads to ugly consequences is that leadership is about authority and power and, therefore, being above others. While it is true that the pastor’s position in the church system is unique and, therefore different from that of the members, it is not a position that places him or her over them. This myth equates power with authority. If anything, a more biblical understanding of the pastor dictates that he or she needs to adopt the position of a servant—especially when it comes to leadership.

In one of the few references to authority and power, Jesus was quite clear, saying, “You know that foreign rulers like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over everyone they rule. But don’t act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. And if you want to be first, you must be the slave of the rest” (Matthew 20:25-27 CEV).

I remember when one hapless seminarian shared the occasion when he learned this insight. While serving a small family-size rural church, he sought to break the “power grip” of a small group of deacons who continually blocked his efforts for reform.

At one meeting, he suggested to the deacons that the church should adopt a procedure for rotating deacons on the deaconate–to which one long-standing member of the deaconate replied, “Pastor, we don’t rotate deacons here, we rotate pastors.” Needless to say, the young seminarian’s tenure at that congregation was short-lived.

Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

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