Copycat Leadership: When should leaders imitate other leaders?

Woman sitting on bench in same pose as the woman on the cover of the book she is reading entitled

Thanks to Robert Grounds for permission to use his picture.

Everyone loves a success story because we all want to be successful. Success stories inspire and encourage us to work hard for great achievements and to persevere until we attain them. They are powerful motivators!

What pastor hasn’t read about megachurches and wished for similar results!

Which executive director hasn’t read about the latest celebrated leader and had their heart burn to “go and do likewise”?

Why, even I am tempted! While I was thinking about this post, someone told me about a successful strategy some ministry leader wrote about, and my first inclination was to get the book and find out how I could do it too!

When you sincerely pursue God’s call, stories about what has worked well elsewhere are very attractive because they show us a way forward. They may be God’s provision for our success.

And yet, success stories can become obstacles to us and to God when time spent listening to the Spirit is replaced by time spent studying other people and what they did. In this case, God has a hard time getting our attention.

Biblical imitation

As Christians, we look first to see what the Bible has to say about imitation. There are some instructive situations

  • Moses parted the Red Sea and Joshua parted the Jordan river, but Joshua did not imitate Moses. As Joshua 3:7-13 makes clear, he obeyed God, who told him exactly what he was supposed to do.
  • Jesus twice told the disciples to go out on a mission trip and to “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (Luke 9:3 and 10:4). Yet later he told them to go out again and this time said, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Just because they had the same instructions for the first two trips didn’t mean they had a pattern to follow for their ministry.
  • Any study of biblical healings will show that there is no rhyme or reason to how people are healed. In each case, God decides sovereignly how to heal and this prevents us from developing a formula to manipulate God for our purposes.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a positive example in the Bible where someone said “Let’s do what so-and-so did” in terms of strategy. It seems to be discouraged because God wants us to follow him. And yet books abound today with formulaic prayer strategies and so forth. The clearest example of discouraging people from copying others is when Jesus tells Peter that one day he will be a martyr (John 21). Peter asks Jesus about John’s future, and Jesus replies “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 21:22). So even though copying others can be okay, we’d better be careful before we start blindly following someone else.

To reap the positive and avoid the negative of copying successful leaders, ask the question: When should we copy, and when should we not?

Copycat leadership is okay when we…

Imitate godly character

Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 1 Cor 4:16

Paul wrote that we should imitate him, but he didn’t mean that we should all become evangelists, apostles or itinerant ministers. He meant that we should imitate his Christian character. Paul imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1, see also Phil 3:17), which is why the Corinthians should imitate him. The goal is for everyone to imitate God (Eph 5:1).

One of the best parts of my job is meeting ministry leaders. I deliver seminars across Canada, and I always drop in to meet CCCC members in the area. I’ve met several people who just exuded the Spirit of Christ in a very special way. In their presence I felt like I was in the presence of Christ. They radiated the peace of God to me. Each time this happens, I pray “Please God, can I be like this leader?” (Which is to say, “God, please make me more like your Son.”) These leaders inspire me to be more godly. Imitate that!

Imitate godly thinking

After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:10

Paul and his team planned to revisit all their church plants and then plant new churches further into Asia. But God had other plans for Paul. There was nothing wrong with evangelizing Asia, it just wasn’t what God wanted Paul to do. According to tradition, God sent another apostle, Thomas, to evangelize Asia. Thomas did not copy Paul’s decision to go to Europe. If he copied anything, he copied Paul’s decision process and listened to God for his own instructions.

I love to hear ministry leaders explain why they made the decisions they did. Over and over I hear stories of people

  • seeking God’s leadership
  • taking a step of faith after careful discernment
  • reflecting on God’s character and how that intersects with their possible choices
  • coming back to their mission or call

Paul’s decision to enter Europe doesn’t make me want to leave Canada and go to Europe, but it does inspire me to be attentive to the Spirit’s direction and to instantly obey. Paul listened to God. Imitate that!

Copycat leadership may be okay if…

We understand why it worked for the others

Strategies may work well in some circumstances and flop in others. Make sure you understand the real reasons for their success. Story tellers tell the story they want you to hear. Messy facts may be overlooked and there are just too many details to tell everything.

Did their success depend on:

  • certain types of personalities? (If so, is it ‘you’?)
  • particular relationships? (Did they have access to people who gave crucial help?)
  • external or internal environmental conditions? (Such as a felt need, high trust in leadership, or unity?)

Ask:

  • How replicable is their experience into our situation?

We understand what would have to change and what would be changed

Programs and strategies require care and feeding.

  • You may need different administrative systems or other infrastructure.
  • You may have to prepare people for significant change, such as a congregation reaching out to a new demographic. Are people ready for youth, the poor, or the immigrant who are different from what they are used to?
  • What unintended side effects might crop up? One church changed its youth program to attract kids who’d never been in church before, but kids who had grown up in the church felt lost in the change.
  • It’s easy to start something new and a lot more difficult to keep it going once the initial enthusiasm and novelty wears offs. Will you find enough people who will shift their volunteer commitment from whatever they’ve been doing to the new activity?

Ask:

  • What are the full demands and effects of this new thing on our organization and people?

It fits with our identity

Unless you are willing to change your corporate identity, whatever you copy must fit perfectly with your values, culture, and public image. This is why major new initiatives sometimes spin off into new organizations. The policies, processes, and culture of established organizations often kill new initiatives when they are too different. If it isn’t a perfect fit with the existing organization, the new initiative is doomed before it starts.

Ask:

  • Is this new initiative really ‘us’ or should we start a new ministry for it?

It fits with our theory of change

Whether you know it or not, you have a theory of change. It is the basis for every decision about strategies, programs and priorities. A theory of change explains why things are the way they are and what must change to make it better. Why don’t people know Christ? They’ve never heard of him? They refuse to submit to a higher authority? They don’t have a Bible in their mother tongue? They have family or cultural influences that prevent them from choosing Christ? If you are designing an evangelism program, you need a theory of change to explain how you will overcome these barriers.

If you have never articulated your theory of change, then you risk misunderstanding or overlooking the real reason why the program works.  You might think a Sunday School program is successful because of its focus or content, and miss that the real reason is the deep relationships that have been built between people. Did they just happen? Or was relationship building something the leaders worked on apart from the actual program itself?

If you want to copy a program, if it aligns with your theory of change you have a good rationale for doing it. If it doesn’t align, then examine how the program makes change happen. If you agree with the change mechanism, then update your theory of change. If you don’t agree with it, then don’t do it.

Ask:

  • Does the theory of change implied by this new initiative fit our theory of change?

Copycat leadership is NOT okay when we…

…Steal ideas from others

Many ministries want others to benefit from their experience and creativity, so they share their success stories for others to use. In this case, feel free to consider using their ideas.

Also, if something is widely being done but you happen to see it first at a particular ministry, feel free to use it because that is in the public realm.

But if they have invested time and money to develop something new for themselves, don’t copy it without their explicit permission. They’ve done the hard development work for their benefit. If you just copy it, I would consider that as theft. Well, theft is a strong word. Maybe plagiarism is more apropos. The point is, come up with your own good ideas!

Ask:

  • Is this something they invested in by developing it themselves? If so, have they given me permission to copy it?

…Follow the ‘latest thing’ rather than follow God

If you find yourself constantly looking for the latest thing and jumping on board:

    • Make sure you are not just lurching from one new program to another out of desperation. If you are desperate, you have bigger problems to deal with.
    • Check that you are not suffering from ‘flavour of the month’ syndrome. There should be a sense of continuity and building upon previous work in your ministry. If staff and volunteers are thinking “Oh, here we go again!”, you have a leadership problem.
    • Stop and ask yourself how much of God’s leadership you have personally experienced recently. Maybe you unwittingly found a substitute for God or you haven’t been able to discern God. Either way, you can be sure that God is directing you at all times, so sharpen your spiritual discernment skills and devote some time to using them.
    • Reflect on the level of confidence you have in your own leadership. Copying others is a way of avoiding making your own creative decisions. Maybe you just need to be more daring to follow God and do what he has asked you to do. Sometimes that means copying others and sometimes that means forging your own path.

Ask:

  • Did I seek God first?

…Shift focus from mission to technique

A danger in looking for strategies and techniques to copy is that your focus can easily shift from “What needs to happen to accomplish our mission?” to “What will bring in the money we need” or “What will fill the pews?” When this happens, you have surrendered strategic leadership of your ministry to someone else who doesn’t even know your ministry exists.

You also can easily shift your focus from mission results to program activity.

You can justify the new focus on the basis that more money, more people, and more activity will help you fulfill your mission. But the natural result of doing that is that success becomes defined in terms of money, people or activity rather than mission results. A focus on activity gives the illusion of working on mission, but is it accomplishing mission?

We need to know how to raise money, recruit people and run programs, but always as a means to an end and not the end themselves. Stay focused on your mission.

Ask:

  • How does this help us fulfill our mission?

…Allow someone else to do our thinking for us

By copying others you run the risk of allowing others to do your hard thinking for you. If that is the case, then that is pure intellectual laziness! The trouble is, they are thinking about their ministries and their circumstances, not yours. They are consumed with God’s purpose for their ministry, not yours.

As a leader you must immerse yourself in the issues related to your mission. Only then will you get deep insights and creative ideas. If that deep thinking leads you to look for a particular type of program or technique to use, then use it knowing you have strong reasons for copying it, as opposed to desperately grabbing at straws because you can’t think of anything yourself.

Ask:

  • Am I personally an expert on our mission?

Copying has its place…

There are lots of transferable ideas and programs out there and many can be very useful to your ministry. Just be sure that they are a good fit, that you have been ethical in acquiring them, and that you are not allowing others to supplant God’s role as your true leader. Do your spiritual due diligence before copying.

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