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28 Jun '14

Organizations that outgrow their leaders

Posted by T.J. Addington
It is not something that we often think about but there is a challenge to organizational success: It often outgrows the ability of it's senior leader to lead it. Someone who shined at one stage of an organization's life cycle actually can become an impediment to that very organization in its next period. 

It is a variation on the Peter Principle which states that every individual gets promoted to their level of incompetence and stays there. In this case, however, the leader is not the the one getting promoted. Rather, the organization's success has caused growth which adds complexity and therefore a different set of leadership skills than the senior leader has. The result, however, is that the organization now has a leader who is no longer effective in the same organization that they were effective in previously.

I often see this in churches where the growth of the ministry takes the senior leader out of their lane as it requires a different set of skills than it did when the church was smaller. Some senior pastors can grow with the growth of the ministry and some cannot: they are simply not wired to lead a larger organization. Thus their initial success now becomes their greatest liability and if not cognizant of the dynamics at play can actually hurt the very ministry they worked so hard to build.

At this juncture staff often become restless because they sense a leadership void in the church. Boards can become frustrated because they sense the same but cannot put their finger on what is wrong since things worked in the past. Congregants who sense that the ministry is drifting without a purpose often quietly move on. And, senior leaders can become defensive when the issues are brought up because they don't want to leave and like the frog in the kettle don't realize that the temperature has gone up because of their own limitations. 

Often a leader in this situation will sense there is something askew and depending on their personal emotional security will seek counsel and feedback from others. Where they come from a place of insecurity they will often ignore the symptoms and resist candid conversation on the issues.

All of us have limitations on our ability to lead. Understanding those limitations allows us to maximize our leadership potential and part of that equation is knowing when we have reached that place. Because once we do, we either reconfigure our job, move on or start to erode the successes of the past. Part of good EQ is understanding ourselves, our lane and the role in which we will be most impactful. This often takes the perspective of others around us who see things we may not see and can give us honest feedback.

Our limitations are not a failure on our part. They often simply reflect how God designed and wired us (Ephesians 2:10) and part of our responsibility is to stay in the lane for which we were designed and where we will be most successful. There are many things I am not qualified to do but when I stay in the lane God designed for me I am fulfilled and productive. And, I never want to hurt the very ministry I have worked so hard to build. Besides, it is not my ministry but God's! 

If the ministry we lead outgrows us, we have much to celebrate: We took it as far as we could and now we hand it off to someone who can take it further. Not for our glory but for His! And if it is His glory we seek we will always do what is right for the ministry even if it feels inconvenient to us.