Nine Things I Learned About Leadership (So Far)

Nine Things I Learned About Leadership (So Far)

One axiom about vocations is that it takes about three years to learn a job and about four and a half years to get competent at it.

It’s something I tell seminarians as a caution about the complex work of ministry, accompanied with the admonition that “It’s too soon to quit” during those challenging first years of their first call in parish ministry.

I’ll confess it is advice I’ve reminded myself during the first years on new jobs (I’m a bit of a vocational mutt, having had seven different vocations, so far).

Most of those jobs were management positions and some were leadership positions at some level—first chair or second chair leadership positions working closely with first chair leaders.


Here are some reflections on leadership (so far):


1. The job of leadership is a constant push against inertia.

I’ve worked in six different professional settings in leadership capacities. Every organizational culture has been resistant to change and slow to make necessary adaptations to development, or even survival. Some were more resistant than others, and of those, three are no longer in existence. In the critical work of organizational development and institutional advancement, leadership is a key force in pushing against inertia. For those in second chair positions who lead “from the middle,” this stance becomes complex as they often have to deal with the inertia from the person(s) at the top.


2. It is helpful to remember that my functioning is not dependent on other people’s functioning.

Because the position of leader intersects with most of the other key offices in the system, a leader’s capacity for bringing about change or merely getting the job done often can be helped or hindered by others in the organization. It is worth remembering, therefore, that the leader is responsible for the stewardship of his or her office and how he or she carries out that calling. One is not responsible for how others act or function–from the president, the CEO, to staff or to trustees. For example, the mere fact that some staff members or employees may sabotage progress in necessary changes does not determine whether or not the leader needs to see the change through to its end.


3. A leader will be successful in bringing about change to the extent the organization allows.

One of the leader’s function is to bring about necessary changes appropriate to the life of the organization during the leader’s tenure in office. Yet, organizations tend to resist change, even when necessary. Regardless of the level of “push” a leader is comfortable with (seductive collaboration or Machiavellian strategics) the fact remains that any leader will only be able to bring about the changes the organization allows.


4. As leader, I am responsible for my tenure in office, not the previous and not the following.

Whether you serve a few years in the leadership position, or the job becomes a career capstone, the focus of your work and ministry needs to be your tenure in office—that is the scope of your stewardship. Whatever went on before you took office is not yours to own. When you leave, 80% of what you’ve done goes away, the next leader will do the work as she or he sees fit. When it’s time to leave, just go, don’t attempt to determine the outcome of the organization after your tenure, it’s not your responsibility.


5. It’s helpful to learn to say, “No.”

A wise and accomplished leader once told me, “Never underestimate the power of the baser motivations.” While I don’t spend much time questioning or interpreting people’s motives, it is worth accepting that what motivates most people to ask something of the leader has more to do with individual concerns and less to do with moving the organization forward. Leaders need to remember that their position calls for being responsible for the welfare of the organization as a whole, not for that of particular individuals. When a decision is needed, personal predilections, preferences, and peccadilloes need to take a back seat to the welfare of the organization as a whole.


6. Leadership is its own vocation and requires its own scholarship.

Make good friends with Schein, Bowen, and Machiavelli. If you rose to office of leadership from one of the classical or generalist disciplines it’s likely you’re not intimately familiar with this other trinity. If you want to understand organizations, relationships, leadership and culture, those three will fill the gap in your education. Leadership in this fast-paced liminal epoch calls for a re-education in matters of organizational leadership and institutional development. The most effective leaders I’ve known have been disciplined readers, and they read broadly across several fields.


7. If you are a second chair leader, to the extent you are able, choose a good boss.

He or she will help or hinder your work and effectiveness. The same can be said about your staff—if you can find good ones, they’re worth their weight in gold.


8. It’s a waste of time trying to achieve 100% consensus, or “getting everyone on board,” or getting 100% buy-in, or trying to cultivate an adaptive, resilient, and innovative workforce.

That will never happen, and the fact is, it is YOU, the leader, who needs to be 100% committed to the vision, passionately on board with the mission, adaptive and innovative. Most people in your organization want stability, routine, and a sense of security. They do not want the burdens of risk or responsibility for the organization’s future–that’s yours to carry. Here’s an insight: focus on the resilience of the system rather than of individuals. Systems are resilient and adaptive, and when systems manifest that, the members of the system accommodate themselves to the changes. Those who do not or cannot, leave–replaced, quickly, by others who can. Systems adapt; people accommodate. Work at changing your system, not the people.


9. Network.

Because leadership is its own vocation and involves a high level of specialization, networking becomes an invaluable part of doing the job well. You can try to go it alone, but you will benefit more when you seek out those relationships and resources that can help make you a better leader: connection with colleagues in your field–experienced and novices, participation in professional organizations and gatherings like Leadership in Ministry, etc. People are kind to sympathize about how busy, difficult, and challenging the work of leadership is, but only other leaders really understand. If you want to thrive, seek the support you need.


For additional insight on leadership, especially leadership in ministry, click here.

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.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

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