Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the WayToday in my Bible reading I read Judges chapter 5.  After God granted them a great victory over Jaban king of Canaan, Deborah and Barak sang a song of praise and thanksgiving.  The first line of the song is this: “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the LORD!” (Judges 5:2, ESV)

The very first thing for which they praise God is “that the leaders took the lead” and that the people were willing to follow them.  That struck me as interesting on my last time through the Bible, so that verse was already highlighted.  Don’t leaders always lead? Why should this be the first item of thanksgiving?

Why Leaders Don’t Lead

Sometimes those in leadership positions do not lead.  When that happens, the entire church or organization is severely handicapped and has a very difficult time moving forward.  Why wouldn’t a leader lead?  I can think of several possible reasons.

  1. Those in leadership have very little leadership ability.
    Sometimes we simply put the wrong people in leadership.  Certainly a servant heart is essential to spiritual leadership, but that alone is not enough.  Leaders need to be capable of leading.  The problem here is faulty leadership selection.
  2. The leaders might not know what to do.
    When we face complex issues it is not easy to decide on the correct course of action.  Difficult decisions tend to be put off for as long as possible. It is legitimate to send an appropriate amount of time studying the problem, but then a decision has to be made.  The problem here could be “paralysis by analysis” and/or lack of courage and faith.
  3. The leaders are afraid of criticism, so they do as little as possible.
    Leaders who have been criticized too often can become overly cautious. Their primary goal is to avoid criticism, which means that they will tend to make as few changes as possible.  When there is a crisis or a new opportunity that requires change, they can become paralyzed and unable to act. The problem here is excessive criticism, plus a lack of courage on the part of the leaders.
  4. The organizational structure and/or culture can prevent the leaders from acting.
    Sometimes the way things are set up makes it hard for the leader to lead. Excessive red tape, or a micro-managing supervisor, can make forward progress difficult.  A church board that looks for unanimity to make a decision makes it difficult to try anything new.  The underlying problem here is often a lack of trust of leaders, with the result that leaders are not free to lead.

Can you identify with any of these situations?  Have you ever been frustrated with leaders who don’t lead?  Have you been there yourself?  What can we do about it?

How to Get the Leaders Moving Again

The solution to this situation needs to deal with the underlying causes.

  1. Select the right people as leaders.
    Leaders need to be godly people with humble hearts.  They also need to have the ability to lead.  Leadership is a natural ability as well as a spiritual gift.  It needs to be developed, but not everyone has the same potential to be an effective leader.  The godly handyman who fixes whatever is broken at the church might not be gifted as a strategic decision maker. Or maybe he is.  Choose wisely.
  2. Help leaders to grow in godly character and leadership ability.
    Gifted leaders still need to grow into their spiritual lives and leadership ability.  Many churches do not have a plan to train people how to be spiritual leaders.  Even deacons and elders are often asked to serve without being given any training.  We can do better than this. If you would like help in doing some leadership training, see my Leadership Training page.
  3. Refuse to tolerate destructive criticism.
    Healthy discussion and disagreement is a good thing, and every leader needs to be accountable.  But sometimes there are a few people who take a negative, critical approach to everything. You can even see it in their families, and their kids are often miserable.  That is not healthy behavior.  They may think of themselves as watch dogs who make sure that the church does not make a mistake.  But their criticism can tear down a new idea before it gets a chance for a fair hearing.  Someone needs to take them aside and help them learn to join the discussion in a more constructive manner.
  4. Set the leaders free to lead.
    Every leader needs accountability, but they also need the freedom to act.  Too many constraints and checks and balances can result in the leader giving up and going on cruise control.  At that point they become caretakers of the system rather than real leaders.  When the situation requires a significant change, they are unable to act. The challenge is to find the right balance between accountability and freedom to act.

Each one of these points deserves a detailed blog post if its own.  I have a lot more to say, so maybe someday I’ll write a book on leadership.  But for now, I hope that these brief suggestions are helpful to you and spur your thinking.

Can you relate to any of the issues in this article?  What is your experience?  Please add a comment to share your own insights.

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