Effective leadership

Effective leadership has three requirements:

  • A compelling vision (where we want to get);
  • Incremental steps (what we will do next to get there);
  • Patience (not passivity).

Leaders often stop at the visioning. It’s fun, it’s intellectually stimulating and it can be done in an orderly process with some interesting people.

Grand visions, however, tend to be grandiose — and therefore absurd and paralyzing. They promise more than they can deliver. They make the visioning team feel good, but leave everyone else untouched. In the end, the grand vision becomes “noise” to be ignored, not a call to action.

In the world of recovery from addiction, they talk about “doing the next right thing.” Instead of grandly vowing a lifetime of sobriety, commit to one more day of abstinence. And if a full day is too much, try for one hour.

In the end, a sustainable recovery happens one day at a time. It’s how an effective church is nurtured.

Incremental steps are where the transformed life occurs. One time of choosing family first. One act of kindness. One act of self-restraint in the face of provocation.

The effective leader sets a stage where incremental steps can be taken. If not taken today, maybe tomorrow; if not this step, maybe a different step. But always movement forward. The leader can keep the process moving — not at an ideal pace, perhaps, but moving.

The leader’s role is to honor incremental steps, teach the vision and honor those who are trying.

Churches tend to define the grand vision, adopt an orderly top-down approach and set a timetable. Leaders often think they have done their work with the initiating vision, the brochures and projects developed to support it and parceling out duties.

Problem is, most faith communities can’t do more than one major thing at a time, and they don’t respond well to pre-defined terms, timetables and outcomes. People need to engage with ideas, participate in planning actions, exercise their own creativity, be heard and be allowed to resist.

Doing good things at the highest level while expecting others to fall in line usually leads only to frustration when incremental steps are ignored and when leaders become impatient.

The effective leader can frame the questions, identify some key options, speak to allocation of resources and offer some guidance on how to proceed. At some point, however, the leader turns it over to the people — walking with them, working with them, keeping accountability in the forefront, but not steering or controlling or blaming. It’s a difficult note to strike. That’s why so few organizations are well led.

It’s also why effective organizations make it the highest priority to recruit, train and support the best possible leaders. Simply turning the church over to whoever wants leadership is irresponsible.

The best recruitment process starts by giving prospective leaders small assignments, monitoring and nurturing their performance, and then culling the ineffective. Look for the three elements: a capacity to imagine a different future, a strategic sense of how to engage people in incremental steps and patience.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to