A few ways to think about the leader-staff relationship

Planes in formation

Used with permission

When you think about the relationship between you and your team, you have a model in mind whether you’ve explicitly thought about it or not. Here are four ways I think about my fellow staff members at CCCC that I find helpful. Each comes from a different perspective and together they provide the basis for a well-rounded understanding of team leadership. There are lots of other perspectives you could use as well, so feel free to add your own in the comments. As you read each perspective, pause and reflect on how it relates to you as a team leader.

A Christian Understanding of the Human Person as an Employee

Every staff member is valued as a person – a whole person who has physical and intellectual capacity to contribute to the work of the ministry. Being human, every staff member is also an emotional and a spiritual being and each has a unique mix of personality, experience, talent, skills, education and interests. All employees are appreciated for the potential they bring to their work and each is presumed to be a blessing sent by God to this ministry. It is our shared responsibility as employer and employee to discern with each staff member how to use their gifts and fulfill God’s vocational plan for them during the time that God has called them to this ministry.

What this means to me is that I feel a tremendous responsibility for the stewardship of the people God has placed on the team I lead. I and the other leaders on the team have been entrusted by God with the people as he equipped them. Have we cared for them and allowed them to contribute as God intended them to? Leaders are like gardeners. In fact, when Frank Luellau welcomed me as his successor at the 2003 conference, he presented me with a pair of pruning shears (he had just read Les Stahlke’s book Governance Matters: Relationship Model of Governance, Leadership and Management, so that gift made sense). I did wonder what the staff would think of the shears, but he meant that I should tend and care for the ministry as a gardener does for a garden. So the shears still sit today (amidst some greenery) on top of a bookshelf in my office as a reminder of the gardening image. A gardener  determines which flowers, shrubs and trees fit the garden’s design and where they should be placed. But once placed, the gardener’s job is to feed and water them, prune them and do everything necessary for them to bloom and grow. And what a joy it is when a garden blooms! So at CCCC I and the other team leaders:

  • Notice what gives people joy. Sometimes we have shifted or delegated duties to let staff members do more of what they enjoy. Sometimes it is simply providing someone with opportunity to bring more of what they find joyful into the workplace. That might be encouraging a gardener with compliments when she brings in nice floral arrangements she has made, or sharing worship music at devotionals that they find particularly inspiring.
  • Watch carefully to see and appreciate an employee’s giftedness. One staff member has a golden voice that is a joy for me to listen to, so I was quite happy he was assigned to do many of our webcasts.

My post Loving Leadership includes a section on loving your team members and all of that section could be repeated here. In essence, providing for your staff in terms of compensation, resourcing tools so they can do their work, and giving opportunities for professional development are ways that we tend our gardens.

Governance Perspective

At CCCC we use policy governance, so the senior staff person serves as the link between staff and board. From the board’s point-of-view, they have assigned responsibilities and goals to the CEO and provided the CEO with a budget to accomplish the task. The CEO has the board’s permission to do anything to accomplish the Ends statements except what has been prohibited in the Executive Limitations. The CEO can delegate to the staff any level of authority which fits within the authority delegated by the board to the CEO, but the CEO alone retains accountability to the board for the results and actions of the staff.

The main way this perspective influences my leadership is in how I delegate. The board has given me a free hand to lead, so I have lots of room to give everything I’ve got to the ministry, to be creative and to explore possibilities. This makes my work a lot of fun, it gives me great joy and I believe I end up contributing the most I can to helping CCCC fulfill its mission. As I reflect on how the board delegates to me, can I do any less for my two direct reports? I really feel very blessed by the way the board treats me, so why would I not want my direct reports to feel the same way about how I delegate to them? My struggle with delegation is that, like everyone, I have my way of doing things. The governance perspective reminds me that unless they are doing something in a way I just can’t live with, I should bite my tongue. They know they have to abide by the same executive limitations that I do, and they also know the parameters that I have placed on the way the ministry works. Within those constraints, they should enjoy the same freedom that I have. Delegation like this is real leverage that expands the possibilities of what CCCC will do beyond what I can think of or do myself. It also ensures that I do not become a bottleneck. In essence, my role for delegated responsibility is a governance role. The trick for a leader is to wrestle the natural inclination to control to the ground!

Theological Perspective

As soon as the CEO hires a person, a team has been created, which from the board’s perspective reports to the CEO. However, when the focus shifts from the board-staff relationship to the CEO-staff relationship, the CEO is no longer over the team but part of the team, on the same basis that every staff person is part of the team. Just as each member of the Trinity has distinct roles and functions but together are one God, so each member of the CCCC team has distinct roles and functions but together are one team.

While there is a hierarchy within the Trinity, Trinitarian theology gives us a beautiful picture of mutual love and respect between team members. I accept the responsibility and accountability that the governance perspective puts on my shoulders alone, but the theological perspective is the one that I think about on a daily basis. It is a healthy perspective in which I see my teammates as partners with me in accomplishing the mission. We are working together. They are not working for me; rather we all are working for the Lord. They have just as close a relationship with Jesus as I do. This perspective modifies what otherwise might be an impersonal employer-employee relationship based on employment law and management practices (as important as they are). Finally, this perspective reminds us that we leaders, managers and supervisors are all followers before we are anything else, and we can only lead people if we are successfully following God. Leaders should find a lot of humility as they contemplate the biblical theology of leadership.

Systems Perspective

Distinct roles and functions are necessary in order to get work done effectively and efficiently. In other words, specialization is a critical part of how we work together. Specialized roles are assigned to people in a way that takes advantage of how God has equipped individual team members. Specialization, though, necessitates direction of work so that order is maintained. The specialty work must be integrated into the work of the whole team and coordinated with the work of other specialists. Someone must take responsibility for directing the team’s work and thus there must be, even among peers, some form of leadership. This does not lessen the fact that team members are peers and, as Paul wrote, fellow-workers. The Greek word for ‘fellow-worker’ is synergon (syn means ‘with’, erg means ‘work’, on signifies ‘person’) from which we get our English word ‘synergy,’ which means we accomplish more working together than we do working separately.

The governance perspective unavoidably introduces a hierarchical aspect to the employee structure, as does the systems perspective, so it is understandable that some people think the person ‘at the top’ should make all the final decisions, but from a systems perspective I don’t think that is so. On what basis would I as CEO be better able to make a decision than the person I have put in charge of an area? They are far more familiar and knowledgeable with the specific issues than I am (that’s why I chose them for the role), so I defer to their judgment, unless there is a strategic or policy matter that they are not aware of.  If board policy or the law says I must make the decision, then I will, but it is on the advice of the experts and after asking the due diligence questions. I had a meeting yesterday where there were some things on a project list that I know little about and I simply have to trust that the person knows what she’s talking about. That’s how systems work. They are created as specialized functions to make something happen. Especially in a knowledge-based organization such as CCCC, the expertise is in the systems. My role as the senior leader is to hold all the systems together to ensure we have a functional organization. So just like the board, unless an issue is in my area of expertise, what I do is set the parameters and ask the questions.

When it comes to how we think about the leader-staff relationship, Paul expressed a great sentiment when introducing someone to the Colossians (4:7).  May every leader care for their garden, pruning, arranging, and nurturing every part of it, so that, like Paul, we can honestly say about each of our team members (adjusting for gender of course!):

He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant  in the Lord.

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