A few years ago, I was out of the office for ten consecutive work days attending a conference and then an annual meeting of an association that CCCC belongs to. While at the conference, I noticed that many of my peers were checking emails or calling their offices at every break during the day, as if they were personally indispensable to the effective operation of their ministry. I checked my email and voicemail just once a day after dinner, more out of a sense of duty than any thought that I was actually needed. I was quite confident that the CCCC staff could handle all of the operational decisions and that things needing my personal attention would either be handled with the evening check-in or be waiting for my return. Well, as it turned out, the evening check-ins found no voicemails or emails needing attention and when I got back the only thing on my desk, no kidding, was the circulation file of magazines and newsletters. There was nothing waiting for me at all. “Drats!” I exclaimed. “I came in extra early for nothing.” The staff had handled everything!

I found this somewhat troubling as I realized they really and truly don’t need me. What if my board found out??!! But I quickly found a bright side. “I can take a vacation and not worry.” The next thought that occurred to me was the brilliant “Aha!” that if they can make these decisions in my absence, then I shouldn’t be making these decisions even when I am present. So, now I had the opportunity to think about what I, as a senior leader, should spend my time doing. What does a CEO actually do?

A Day in the Life of a Leader

John Kotter wrote a great little book called John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do, but the title is actually a misnomer. This book is about line managers rather than executive leaders. The main case study is of a typical day in the life of a plant manager. It turns out that what this sort of leader really does is talk to people in short, often ad hoc, snippets all day long. Kotter says this is actually a very efficient and productive way to work.

As an aside, I highly recommend Kotter’s book for all managers – and that includes senior leaders because we all do some management. You will never look at interruptions the same way again! While we all dream of hours of uninterrupted time, this is not how the real work of a manager is done.

The Different Roles of a Leader

I’ve continued to think about this question of what senior leaders do and have drawn some conclusions. They may be blindingly obvious to everyone else, but I had the fun of figuring them out myself. Sort of like the mathematician who works out the proof for an equation that was discovered long ago. Anyway, I’m interested in what you think about my conclusions:

  • There are some things that simply go with the territory of holding the senior staff position. These include supporting the board and fulfilling what I call the ceremonial functions – representing the organization doing public relations activities.  Fortunately I enjoy these roles.
  • In a smaller organization, I think it is inevitable that the senior leader will end up doing rather than leading at times. For example, I write articles for the Bulletin and present seminars and workshops. These could be done by others, but I have knowledge and expertise that complements that of the staff, and therefore this is (in my mind anyways!) a valuable contribution to the work of CCCC because it adds new topics to our repertoire. Few ministries are large enough that the senior leader doesn’t have to do some doing. I love this part of my job!
  • I think the unique, signature contribution of a senior leader is to help the team discern the organization’s vision, values and culture and then reinforce them at every opportunity so that they are lived out every moment of every workday. For example, I want every CCCC employee to know that our culture is based on giving our members high value, hands-on, practical advice about applying correct technical information, and that we are a turn-on-a-dime, fast-on-our-feet, entrepreneurial, fabulous member-service organization. And I want them to live by our team values that were developed by asking ourselves the question, “What causes us to raise or lower our respect for our fellow team members?” I used to consult with management teams and discovered if you just asked for their values you would get motherhood platitudes such as honesty and integrity. These should be understood as everyone’s core values, but what you really want to know are the values that characterize this particular team. What are their real, lived-out values? Once you know those, then you hire people who share them. So I found this to be an excellent question to get the real team values on the table! The discernment part of my role gives me a feeling of significance at work.
  • In his classic book on teamwork, The Wisdom Of Teams: Creating The High-performance Organization, Jon Katzenbach talks about the team leader as the boundary manager. This person connects the team to the external environment by raising resources and coordinating the flow of the team’s output to other parts of the organization. Although I don’t need to fundraise because CCCC is the rare charity that lives off of earned income, many senior charity leaders spend a significant portion of their time raising resources. (In the for-profit world, the equivalent is investor relations and closing major sales.) But boundary management for the senior staff leader also means taking the lead in interpreting the external environments in terms of the organization’s mission, initiating and managing alliances and relationships, and otherwise working in the future creating potential opportunities for the organization. This is the part of my work in which I feel most alive. What an amazing privilege it is to have the thrill of dreaming about all the “What might be’s!”
  • As a Christian leader, my role requires me to seek the Father’s will for this ministry. Jesus is the example here, saying “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:19). This requires contemplative prayer and that takes time. This has been the most fruitful time for me and has led to a number of initiatives we’ve undertaken at CCCC. One example is our Web membership category for the smallest of ministries. God had impressed upon me that none of his ministries should be without our help. Prayer and spiritual discernment is beyond doubt the most important part of my responsibilities.
  • Then there are the parts of the job that are done in collaboration with the board or senior staff, such as strategic thinking and annual planning. I think this is the most fun aspect of my work because this is where the dreams are converted into concrete action plans.
  • Finally, there is the unavoidable administrivia that remains after you have empowered staff as much as you can. This you just do your best to plow through as quickly as you can. Administrivia provides a mental break and a chance to come back to your work with some fresh brain power.

Maybe you can tell by now, I love what I do!! So, what would you add to or subtract from the list?

Thoughts on What does a leader do?

  1. Eric Stolte

    Thanks for your thoughts, John. Always excellent. Sorry for the late reply, but just wanted to say that a somewhat alternative view to what you’ve presented is Steven Samples’s “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”. would also recommend this work as a helpful and thought-provoking work.

  2. John Pellowejpellowe Post author

    Hi Eric. I haven’t read the book but I looked up some reviews. I wonder what people would think of his idea that if you can reasonably delay a decision, you should. Other have said it is better to make a decision, test it and learn from it, and then revise or change the decision if necessary. One provides faster learning than the other. However, Samples may have some good reasons for delaying. Interesting stuff! Thanks for the referral.

  3. don

    John … not so much commenting on this post ( which I will digest ) but on your comment … “our culture is based on giving our members high value, hands-on, practical advice about applying correct technical information, and that we are a turn-on-a-dime, fast-on-our-feet, entrepreneurial, fabulous member-service organization” …

    I have been, through 2008-2009, doing some interim work at a small local ( and independent, non-denominational church ). There have been a number of times where I simply went straight to CCCC for answers.

    My experience has been exactly what you wrote. EXACTLY. Just wanted you to know that. BTW, Gil has been my main contact.

    thanks for all CCCC does …


    1. John Pellowejpellowe Post author

      Well, thank you Don. The popping sounds you hear are the buttons flying off my shirt! Thanks for the feedback and I’ll share it with Gil and the staff.


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