It’s (not) lonely at the top!

Couple on a mountain top

Used with permission.

“It’s lonely at the top” is true only if you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be that way, but when there is no one a leader feels comfortable discussing the really challenging issues with, it truly is lonely. In that case, it seems inevitable that some day either a challenge or the person’s own blindness to a situation will trip the leader up.

When ministry leaders come and go in just a few years, I wonder how connected they were with other people. Could they have had greater longevity and success by being vulnerable and discussing these issues with someone else?

If you are finding leadership a lonely experience, here are some people who can keep you company.

Staff

You should be able to discuss almost any issue with your senior staff because they are your team and they are the ones who will execute whatever plans you approve. They are every bit as familiar with the ministry as you are and they share your vital interest in its success. Why not bring them into your confidence?

Just because the senior leader has the executive authority and bears all the responsibility for results (to the board), that doesn’t mean the person must be a lonely, solo leader. Two of my senior staff report directly to me and I trust both of them completely and value their judgment. Beyond them, there is a leadership team (and also staff who join us based on the topic of discussion). Why should I rely only on my own knowledge and experience when I have so much more available to me?

There are a couple of reasons why some leaders hold back from their staff:

  • They may have a personnel issue or something that they don’t want to discuss with any staff. Okay, but as you’ll see below, there are still other people you can discuss things with.
  • You many think that not having the answers will make you appear weak. You may be afraid of losing the staff’s confidence if you ask for their help. If so, I think you’ve bought into the ‘heroic leader’ myth. Business books and biographies almost always tell a story by focusing on one individual, as if their success was 100% from their own efforts and ideas. I can recall only one book written about an heroic team, The Wisdom Of Teams. That’s the exception. All the other books focus on a single person because we want a hero, and heroes are supposed to be able to overcome obstacles by themselves. But this is to put unrealistic expectations on yourself. Roger Patterson, co-author of Leading from the Second Chair, sent me the text for his second book (not yet published) called The Theology of the Second Chair and in it he makes an interesting point. Scripture shows that God appoints people to leadership, but these are all people with limitations well known to God. Think about Moses and his poor speech. God puts people around his leader who fill in for the leader’s shortcomings. The leader is strong in what God wants them to do, and the team does the rest.
  • Finally, be wary of pride. For the sake of the ministry, accept the team’s wisdom. James presided over the Council of Jerusalem and allowed his team to thoroughly discuss the Gentile question (Acts 15) even though he alone made the final decision. Paul had his missionary team confirm the meaning of his Macedonian vision even though he knew what the dream meant. It was a way of testing his interpretation. So confide in your team.

Board

If you think you can’t talk to your staff, you can talk with your directors. I am blessed with a board that is supportive while at the same time holding me accountable. CCCC has a policy board, so my concerns are within my jurisdiction not theirs, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a ‘fireside chat’ with them. We both know that they will not tell me what to do and that I am solely responsible for any decision I make, but we have had hours of fruitful discussions that have benefitted me greatly. Just like my staff, they are dedicated to the success of the ministry, and because they hired me, they want me personally to be successful as CEO. Why should I not have the benefit of their wisdom and experience too?

However, you might not want to talk with your board because you may feel your job is in jeopardy if you ask for input or show that you struggle with some things. You certainly need to be a top performer, but it shouldn’t be a problem to seek counsel or to ask for prayer support. Unfortunately we at CCCC hear about many conflicts between board and staff. You can reduce board-staff conflict if you accept the board’s authority and if the board does good board orientation and development so directors know where the line is between board and staff. The board should also recruit people who subscribe to the values, ethos, and strategic statements already in place and who are in basic accord with the senior staff person. They don’t have to always agree with the leader, but they shouldn’t come on to a board already wanting to change basic elements of strategy or staffing.

Ministry Peers

I have developed relationships with ministry leaders across the country by simply visiting them in their offices, seeing them at events such as EFC’s Presidents Day, and otherwise being open to any opportunity to say “Hi” to them. You may not have access to leaders across the country, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t know the ministry leaders in your area. Pick up the phone, call someone and ask to have lunch with them, or ask to come and see their ministry. You may have to juggle schedules, but sooner or later you can make a new friend who could be very helpful.

When I wanted advice on change management I called four leaders of ministries that had been through successful change, and all of them were willing to talk about their experiences and the lessons they learned. While visiting some leaders out West a few weeks ago, conversation drifted around to a leadership topic that I’ve been wrestling with for a while and these leaders just opened up and shared their own experiences with that issue. Leaders are willing to talk and help each other if you are willing to be vulnerable and share the issues that you are dealing with.

Sometimes you need someone else to see something that you can’t. Moses had his Jethro who could see the quagmire that Moses had fallen into. Wouldn’t it have been better for Moses if he had found out earlier about the problem and fixed it sooner? He could have asked someone, maybe even Jethro, “Here’s my plan to lead the people of Israel.  Do you see any potential problems with it?”

The only thing that might hold you back from talking with your peers is pride. Everyone wants to look successful at what they do, but the most meaningful and helpful conversations come about when the masks come off and people are real with each other. It deepens your relationship from the relatively superficial “Hi, how are you?” stage to the much deeper level of feeling you really know the other person.

Your Spouse

I am richly blessed with a spouse who also has a business degree, is an accountant, and who has chaired some boards. She understands leadership, strategy and all the other issues I deal with. She is an invaluable support to me and offers great perspectives. But even without her background, she would still be a tremendous support because:

  • as my spouse, she is 100% committed to my success because both of us are bound together  in marriage, so my welfare is her welfare and she wants the best for me. In this spirit, your spouse is not afraid to ask the tough questions, and will provide a clear-headed perspective.
  • she doesn’t have to know business or governance to ask the right questions. “Have you prayed about this?” is one of those perennial favourites of hers!!! Your spouse doesn’t need to have the answers, just the right probing questions to stimulate your thinking.

God

I’ve left God to last not because he is the least important but to end on the note that you must be talking with God because the ministry you lead is his, not yours. This reminds me of a video that we show in the Stewardship I course – God’s Pie. A person divvies up a pie with pieces for people representing his house, his cars, etc., but gives God nothing. As he eats his own piece of pie while God watches, with an empty plate, the guy representing his German car says, “Dude!  He brrrrought ze pie!”

Well, dude, the ministry you lead is his, so consult with him about what you should do with it. The key to Christian leadership is to recognize that you are a follower before you are a leader. If you find yourself talking about leadership and then admitting as an afterthought that, “Well, of course, the Bible says that God is the ultimate leader of this ministry,” then God’s leadership looks pretty perfunctory. His leadership needs to be fresh and vital every day. If you only know the idea of God’s leadership rather than the experience of God’s leadership, I suggest you check out the spiritual disciplines and practices that are at the core of being led by God. Take a spiritual formation course at a seminary or Bible college or pick up a good book such as Space for God: The Study and Practice of Spirituality and Prayer or Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal. While you should go to God first, he is also the final resort after all human wisdom and advice has failed.

Download personal reflection guide

Download personal reflection guide

Conclusion

I hope you see by now that there are a lot of people around who could support you in ministry. There is no reason to feel lonely and unable to talk to anyone. Take the initiative and go see someone right away. And if you have anything to contribute to this discussion, I’d love to hear from you.

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