by Eddie Pipkin

If you want to manage better, lead better, coach better, there are no shortage of programs, gurus, “next big things,” or magic formulas for success.  Take your pick of best sellers, TED Talks, management assessment tests, skills rubrics . . . leadership blogs (!).  They all have something to offer.  And there is no secret ingredient – or it might be better to say that one leader’s secret sauce isn’t necessarily as deliciously effective for the next protagonist down the line.  There are two principles driving the process to lead better: 1) Never stop learning; 2) Find what works for you.  There are many ways to sabotage these straightforward steps, but remain faithful to them, and steady growth is assured.

We, here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, have worked for years to produce and refine resources that can help you and your ministry answer your calling, but we’re not under any illusions that our approach is the only way to do leadership or discipleship.  In fact, one of the key takeaways from the EMC approach is how Phil has synthesized many best practices and relevant resources and organized them in a logical and uncomplicated process.

We believe in it.  But one of the things that makes it unique is that it emphasizes that for any spiritual discipline, for any leadership goal, there are plenty of options and variations for getting there.  Finding the ones that resonate with your ministry and your local context is what leads to growth (not following some set-in-stone formula).

Every popular new idea that comes along is worth considering – and each one fits somewhere within the framework of all those ‘options and variations’ – it is, indeed, inevitable that most of the new approaches in the pipeline are just interesting ways to repackage ideas that have come before.  Of course, for marketing purposes, the creators of these repackaged strategies are bound to pitch them to us as critical to our continued relevance, if not our very survival.

I really enjoyed an on-the-money quote from one of my favorite authors, Dave Eggers, who writes about our obsession with the next big management / leadership fad in a new novel called The Every.  It’s a near-future dystopian tale of a world in which one big tech company has taken over everything (think in terms of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon all combining to form one corporate behemoth that controls every aspect of our integrated technological lives).  The novel’s protagonist is being introduced to the corporate culture of this company, called, of course, The Every, when she passes a ‘playground for adults’ and ruminates on the frantic effort to keep up with the hippest new strategies for leading organizations:

Capital-P Play was last year’s management theory, following multitasking, singletasking, grit, learning-from-failure, napping, cardioworking, saying no, saying yes, the wisdom of the crowd, trusting one’s gut, viking management theory, commissioner Gordon workflow theory, X-teams, B-teams, embracing simplicity, pursuing complexity, seeking zemblanity, creativity through radical individualism, creativity through the rejection of groupthnk, organizational mindfulness, organizational blindness, microwork, macrosloth, fear-based camaraderie, love-based terror, working while standing, working while ambulatory, learning while sleeping, and most recently, limes.

Some of those are genuine management / leadership fads of the last few years, and some of them are totally made up, but it’s hysterically hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?

In each of the real ones mentioned, there is something useful to be gleaned.  And the gleaning is an important part of our continued growth as humans and as leaders.  We take what works for us and our organization, and we use that.  Not every idea is useful for every situation.  We don’t get hung up on trying to adhere to the ones that don’t work for us.  Every community is unique.  The people who inhabit those communities are, themselves, unique, so we are constantly on the lookout for ideas, processes, and strategies that are most useful to us and most useful to our teams and to our unique communities.  (And we try not to lose sight that even within our communities, depending upon their size and temperament, different things work for different people.)

I saw a delightful illustration of this principle this past weekend when we visited a local outdoors arts fair.  It was one of those events where each of the artists had their own portable canopy set up, and as we were strolling along perusing the art, I noticed that while every canopy had some sort of gizmo to weight the corners so a gust of wind would not upend them, each gizmo was different.  They were all doing exactly the same job, but they were doing it with differences of style, engineering, and cost level.

One artist was using a five-gallon bucket with rocks inside; one was using PVC pipes infused with concrete.  One was using fancy, purpose-made backpack weights with Velcro straps, while another was using old kettlebells.  Some were classy; some were strictly utilitarian.  The metal sculpture artist had fashioned some exotic, artsy custom canopy weights.  The diminutive jeweler had weights that were easier to carry.  Whatever they looked like, all the canopy weights did the job they were designed to do, while meeting the individualized needs of each vendor.

That’s the way management / leadership techniques should work for us.  Study as many as possible; try out as many as seem applicable; take and use the best parts of each; stick with what works; share as much as we can as we encourage others to do the same.

There are plenty of ways to foul up this simple process:

  • We feel the pressure to conform ourselves to the latest new fad (even the ones that are obviously not a good fit for our local context). The general culture, as well as ministry culture, bombards us with messages that if we’re not doing the hippest new thing, we are dying on the vine.
  • We acquiesce and conform ourselves to the thing that our supervisor insists works for them (and thus has been force fed to us. We need to strike a balance between a willingness to fearlessly try new things and a determination to stand our ground when an approach is clearly not a good fit.
  • We stop learning. We don’t take the time to discover new ideas in leadership / management, or we are so comfortable in doing things the way we always have that we aren’t willing to experiment or change.
  • We find something exciting that works for us, but in our excitement, we lose our minds and try to force others into the thing that works for us exactly the way it works for us (but may or may not work for them). This is a phenomenon that happens regularly in churches large and small.  A key leader (frequently the lead pastor) becomes enamored of a new technique and makes it mandatory for everybody – we are proselytizers by nature, after all.
  • We discover a new technique or approach that works for us, but then we chicken out on fully engaging it. If you find something that seems to be making a difference, lean into it.  Don’t just skim the surface and learn a few buzzwords.  Learn all you can about this approach and pursue it with energy and purpose.  The more intimately you understand and experience this approach, the more successfully you can help others implement the parts of it that work for them.
  • We try to do everything that works for everybody, everywhere all at once. It is possible to take the principle of “all things to all people” a little too far.  Defining some best practices that work best on average for the most people is the path to organizational cohesiveness.  If everybody in the organization is practicing an idiosyncratic management style, we’re tilting the ship towards chaos.  Better to have a framework with everyone on the same general page, but with options for individualization.  And it’s very cool if there is good communication throughout the organization so that people have exposure to the different approaches of individual leaders and disparate teams and what’s working for them.

I can’t stress enough the importance of avoiding this trap of thinking that something that works for us will be the magic bullet for everybody in our organization.  Much damage is regularly done by shoehorning people into approaches that don’t click with their skill set, natural work flow, or emotional equilibrium.  At the least, we should as leaders identify the people who will struggle with a management approach and acknowledge for them that, even though it’s the best approach for the team, we know it is a struggle for them.  Otherwise, we engender poor self-esteem in those folks, if we are implying that anybody who doesn’t love the new and awesome technique is somehow personally deficient or refusing to be a team player.

When people are able to experiment and find an approach that works for them – that feels right – they are inspired and energized.  No more potent example exists of this phenomenon in everyday life than when individuals find the approach to personal fitness that pays off for them.  For instance, I hate the gym.  I like my fitness to happen on the open road, out in the weather, all by my lonesome.  My wife, on the other hand, finds that for her that is a recipe for failure.  She would rather be in a climate-controlled gym doing an organized workout with a qualified, enthusiastic instructor.  What a disaster it would be (and has been) for either of us to try to enforce our preferred routine on the other.  Running a ministry or a business is no different.  We should collaborate on agreed upon critical goals that serve our vision (fitness, in the example I used, which is a useful goal in the furtherance of a healthy and happy long-term marriage), but how we get there should be open to a lot of personalization of those basic principles (and the more sharing about how we live out those principles in our unique ways, the better).

So, what are the management theories, leadership philosophies, and organizational strategies that work most consistently for you?  What are the quirky techniques that serve you well but don’t seem to be helpful for others in your organization?  What are things you do begrudgingly for the good of the team?  How do encourage your teams to keep absorbing new ideas and keep sharing them with one another, testing and adopting best practices along the way?  These should be questions for which we have answers.  That’s how we grow, and that’s how we achieve our goals while building a foundation for long-terms success.