On Becoming An Irresponsible Leader

Revd Graham Hunter writes:


I’ve been working on a revised personal mission statement to help shape my leadership over the coming few years, and I’ve found myself drawn increasingly towards the idea that I will have to become a more irresponsible leader if I’m to help our church grow and develop as it seeks to further the mission of God in our neighbourhood.

Now this is a peculiar idea – we don’t usually talk about becoming more irresponsible as we develop in our leadership – so I want to briefly unpack what I mean by that.

 

Understanding Myself

I love the whole variety of psychometric tools and personality profiling resources that are available nowadays. Clearly, there’s a risk in our world today that we allow obsessions with ‘self’ to become a vehicle for an unfettered ego, and the very opposite of humility and what Tim Keller calls ‘self-forgetfulness’. However, self-awareness is helpful for understanding how we relate to God and one another, and what may be driving our attitudes and behaviours.

I sometimes think that the personality quizzes and psychometric tools are helpful for explaining the pathologies of our personalities – in other words, they help us understand better the ways in which we are dysfunctional, marred by the fall, and give us keener insight into the ways in which the Holy Spirit is healing us and making us whole. Of course, this is a slightly negative take on it all (I am indebted to Calvin for this tendency!) but I temper this approach with a more positive one: the personality tests can help us to understand and appreciate our particular gifts and capacities – and perhaps even more importantly, they can help us appreciate the gifts and capacities of those around us. I think that personality tests and psychometric profiling can never be an excuse for poor behaviour towards one another, but in a team setting, they may help us to develop greater empathy towards one another, and very practically may help us allocate roles and responsibilities according to one another’s strengths rather than our weaknesses.

Anyway, I say all this as a precursor to explains how I learned something more about myself recently through the Clifton Strengths Finder tool. This resource is based upon the idea that we all have natural strengths that predispose us to particular ways of thinking, relating and acting in the world around us. Upon completion of an online test, we are delivered a summary of our top 5 ‘strengths’ – which themselves are drawn from a list of 34 strengths that the researchers have identified over several decades of research.

My top 5 strengths (in order) are: Achiever; Input; Responsibility; Self-Assurance; and Communicator. Reading the summaries of each of these strengths was revealing – as it showed me how accurate these are for understanding myself, what gives me energy and what makes me tick. I am simultaneously deeply driven towards ‘getting things done’, accomplishing things, while also having an inquisitive nature – squirrelling away information and learning simply because I like thinking and knowing.

However, I want to share with you a little about my third ‘strength’ – responsibility. Here’s how it’s summarised by Clifton:

’People with strong Responsibility talents take psychological ownership for anything they commit to, whether it is large or small, and they feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion. They keep their promises and honor their commitments. They don’t let people down, and they work very hard to fulfll all of their responsibilities and keep their word. Their conscientiousness, their drive for doing things right, and their impeccable ethics combine to create the reputation of being utterly dependable.’

One of the things I’ve realised over my years in leadership is that I tend to assume responsibility whoever it is available to be had. Now, this can be very helpful. Because of my keen sense of responsibility, I can be relied upon to get things done, and to deliver on my word. However, it has a flip-side: I can sometimes feel responsible for things which are not properly my responsibility, or even assumes or take responsibility for things I shouldn’t. My keen sense of responsibility actually makes it hard for me to share responsibility, because I have a sub-conscious (and yes, sometimes conscious) fear that others won’t exercise the shared responsibility properly. This may simply look like being a ‘control-freak’ – and I admit that there is an element of that in it. But in actually fact it’s more complex than simply wanting to be in control. It’s more to do with wanting to be certain that responsibility is being exercise, well, responsibly!

A few years ago, a member of the church had a little grumble to me about how one of our staff team had failed to follow up on a communication with her about a team rota. And my first response was to feel like I had failed – I had failed this particular church member by having failed to ensure my staff member was carrying out his duties! A little reflection helped me to realise that it was nuts for me to be feeling such a sense of failure so keenly – it was his responsibility not mine. But my deep sense of responsibility has the effect of making me feel responsible for everyone else’s responsibilities – even where responsibility has been shared, and tasks or duties have been delegated. 

My keen sense of responsibility has left me always struggling with the question of when my pastoral duty of care for someone ends. Over the years, there have been people who have joined our church, come to faith, left the church and drifted away from faith. When does my responsibility end? I find it striking that I often spend more time praying for those who have left our church, and who have clearly turned their back on Christian faith, than I do for those who are in our church. 

Now this reflection on responsibility is important in terms of the impact it has on how I lead. It is absolutely the case that I am committed to collaborative leadership – to building teams for mission and ministry in the church and neighbourhood. I am committed to developing leaders, sharing responsibility, empowering others and not being a centralising, tyrannical control-freak. This is based in my theological convictions about humankind, how we are each made in God’s image; how we relate in the body of Christ; how the glory of God is seen in the beautiful diversity of human persons. This is a core conviction for me, and what is sometimes called an ‘espoused value’ – this is what I would say and present to others about the kind of ministry I’m seeking to develop.

However, it’s also clear to me that there is more going on beneath the surface for me. For what comes more naturally to me as a leadership style is to be a charismatic, independent, highly-responsible leader. Now others may well follow my lead – as they can be sure that stuff will happen – but it may not necessarily result in a more truly collaborative leadership. ‘Team’ may look, in this more natural assessment, like a group of people gathered to implement my will. I recognise that there have been, and will be, times in life when this will be the case. And sometimes that’s okay. As the old adage goes, if the building’s burning down, someone needs to shout ‘fire’ and lead people to the exits – charismatic leading from the front has its place. However, I’m determined to build the patterns and structures that enable a more truly collaborative leadership to emerge.

Charismatic -> Collegial -> Collaborative

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt has always fascinated me. It begins with Moses acting as Charismatic leader – leading from the front, dragging the Israelites kicking and screaming out of Egypt. ‘This is where we’re going’ says Moses, ‘follow me!’ Egypt is a bad place for the Israelites, whether they realise it or not, and Moses knows they must go and begin the journey to the land to which God is leading them. Before long, they’re in the midst of battle with the Amalekites, and Moses has to develop Collegial leadership – he needs allies – intimate friends who will support him. Aaron and Hur hold his arms outstretched as Joshua and the Israelites do battle in the valley below. Every Charismatic leader needs to find colleagues – close and intimate allies who will support them in their role as leader. But the journey doesn’t end there. In the very next chapter, Jethro turns up and challenges Moses. In effect he says ‘Moses! What you’re doing is nuts – you’re going to kill yourself.’ He then instructs Moses to ‘select competent people’ and set them over the thousands and tens of thousands. This is the shift to truly collaborative leadership.

Now please note, Jethro does say ‘competent people’ – in other words, Moses has to find other ‘responsible’ leaders who can discharge their duties properly. I think Jethro realises that Moses feels the burden of responsibility’s deeply that he must trust those he selects to be able to undertake the task. If Moses doesn’t trust them, or if they prove themselves unfit, then Moses will simply feel himself responsible and step back into the breach.

From the Charismatic to the Collaborative

I believe myself to be at a critical hinge-point of my ministry at St John’s Hoxton. 8 years of charismatic leadership style has seen our church grow and develop in extraordinary ways, but if the culture of our church is to develop further in health and fruitfulness, we must become more genuinely collaborative. This will be challenging for all of us. There’s the challenge of ‘selecting competent people’. In some of our ministries, we’ll have to be brutally honest about the core skills and capacities needed for things to flourish. 

There’s a challenge to each of us to develop our own capacity for responsibility. Jesus says, let your yes be yes and your no be no. To highly responsible people like me, one of the most precious things you can ever do is to turn up when you said you’d turn up. Don’t sign up for a ministry or a responsible role if you can’t see it through. As Woody Allen once said, 95% of life is just showing up! One of the most basic capacities to be developed by anyone who wants to lead is the capacity to be where you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there.

There’s another fundamental challenge to me: get better at sharing responsibility – and that will certainly involve learning to trust others a little more, and being content that some things won’t happen – or won’t happen in the way I expected them to. Perhaps though the deepest challenge for me is to cultivate a little more irresponsible leadership – so that I create more spaces in which others can develop their responsible leadership.

I need to become an irresponsible leader.

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