Leadership in ministry has never been more complex. There are more demands on the lives of people than ever, the place of faith in our contemporary culture is up for grabs, pressures on families and single adults alike are more intense than ever. For the busy pastor, the question is often “What exactly am I facing here?”
Given these challenges, what are the skills critical for leadership in ministry today?
I would like to offer a framework that can help a leader first identify what kind of challenge they are facing, and then offer insights in how to use those skills. Transforming Church utilizes The Leadership Triangle methodology to identify and chart challenges.
Triage: An Essential Skill
Leadership is more than an attribute or an activity. Leadership is also when you and your team identify a problem and know you must choose from an array of options to tackle that problem. When the leader chooses the wrong option, the solution can become part of the problem itself. A skillful leader chooses the right option, resulting in exponential success. This is the unseen iceberg right underneath the waterline in the leadership challenge.
The key to successful leadership is to understand the types of challenges you are facing so you choose the right skills to address the challenge.
Thus, the first, and initial critical skill for leadership is triage: identifying the challenge correctly, and then applying the necessary leadership skills critical for addressing that challenge. When you are sick and call for an appointment at your doctor’s office, the person you speak with first is not actually your doctor. Rather, the first person you encounter is a triage nurse.
And when you are on the phone with them, they are asking you a series of questions in order to determine whether or not you should take an aspirin and call in the morning, make an appointment, or go to the emergency room. Triage is the single, most significant initial skill the effective leader must develop. Identifying which type of leadership challenge is presenting itself through the triage process is critical for successful leadership.
The Leadership Triangle
There are three primary types of leadership challenges: tactical challenges; strategic challenges; and transformational challenges. These are represented by the respective sides of The Leadership Triangle. (For more on this see the book of the same name by my partner Kevin Ford and his coauthor Ken Tucker – click here).
Each challenge requires a different mode of leadership behavior in response, i.e. a different “option.” Most leaders fail to identify the type of problem, and therefore fall back on their preferred, or default, option.
The art of leadership is in knowing what sort of problem you are facing and what leadership option is required to tackle it. Each problem requires a different set of skills, language, questions, and styles of interaction.
1. Tactical Challenges
Tactical issues can also be called “operational,” “technical,” or “fiduciary.” Tactical challenges are the “daily bread” of the operations-oriented manager.
Tactical issues are solved by expertise. If the roof of your church leaks, you call a roofer. If your server crashes, you call the Geek Squad. If the sound system is on the blink, you call the A/V professional.
The role of the leader is to be the expert, or the expert finder. The tone of the tactical leader must be confident; you don’t want to speak with an IT specialist who thinks they can maybe bring your server back on line, but they waiver in the tone and instill more anxiety than confidence. And the tense is the present: you don’t want to wait three weeks to have your roof fixed, because you have a basketball tournament you’re hosting and the income is critical for your sports budget—you needed it fixed now!
An astute leader faces tactical problems by identifying the right expert who offers the right solution and empowers them to solve the problem. While tactical challenges may reoccur, they can always be solved by identifying the problem and employing expertise to fix it.
2. Strategic Challenges
Strategic challenges have to do with responding to the world outside your school. These challenges are not necessarily problems to be solved, but challenges you can anticipate and goals you want to accomplish.
Strategy has to do with surveying the environment outside your church and deciding how best your team can adapt to external opportunities and obstacles. For example, the demographic base in the community around your church is projected to shift dramatically in the next ten years. Or a very large and rapidly growing church is locating a satellite campus down the street. What internal capacities do we have that we can meet an external opportunity within our community?
This is the work of strategic leadership: to synthesize those external challenges and opportunities with your internal capacities. And the tone of the leader is inspirational. “We can work through this successfully,” intones the strategic leader. Instilling confidence, hope and lowering anxiety are the key deliverables. The tense is in the future—directing the focus of the organization forward.
In the face of strategic challenges, tactical effectiveness is not enough. Anyone can operate effectively and still go out of business, fail in a charitable fund-raising endeavor, or coach a losing team. Strategy is when you choose a unique value proposition through a series of activities that become rooted in your system. Essentially, strategy is what differentiates your school from any other.
When you are using the Strategic Option, you are observing challenges rooted in the future. These challenges may transition from one generation to the next, or one era to the next. Such challenges require more than a tactical fix. Strategic challenges require you to use strategic leadership—the act of leveraging strengths in order to minimize weaknesses and capitalize on opportunities. It involves asking the question “what is the focus?” and then casting a vision will address these problems.
3. Transformational Challenges
Transformational problems are the truly vital challenges, the ones relating to values, behaviors, and attitudes. Transformational problems are often rooted in the system and are not usually visible to the naked eye.
These are the ones that keep you up at night, the ones that tempt you to think, “We’ll never be able to solve this one!” The essence of a transformational problem is in the concept of “competing values.” Your real work of leadership will be done on the transformational level as you accept and even provoke conflict over values so clarity can be reached and real change can be created.
The role of the leader within transformational challenges is to be the facilitator. And what are you facilitating? You’re facilitating conversations with the key stakeholders impacted by this challenge.
Let’s go back to our example of the mega church opening in your medium sized church’s backyard. Do you try to match their worship environment? Hire new staff with deep experience in large churches. Or decide to double down on your existing programs to emphasize the difference? Those are not bad options, but they aren’t necessarily the solution you should offer.
The first role of the leader addressing a transformative challenge is to first ask: What’s the problem? And very often the answer is unclear. The role of the transformational leaders in such instances involves gathering the possible answers with the challenge, facilitating conversations as a collective, and providing a safe environment for wrestling with difficult issues.
This is challenging to do, often because of the pressure to ‘fix the issue’ or the expectations and pressure from internal constituents and external forces. But transformative leaders must not allow those internal and external forces to compel them too quickly to a solution. If that happens, the solution presented is often tactical and will end up becoming part of your problem. Here the tone of the transformative leader needs to be curiosity; curiosity invites the stakeholders into the conversation to work collaboratively in an effort to bring insight, understanding, and ultimately solutions to the fore. Transformational challenges involve the central work of leaders: engaging those with the problem to be part of the solution.
The Leadership Triangle in Action
To begin putting The Leadership Triangle in action, consider gathering your leadership team and any involved stakeholders around a current challenge that is proving difficult to solve or manage. Explain that our first task is to diagnose what sort of problem is being addressed. Is this an issue for an expert that involves a transparent fix (tactical)? Is this an issue for an expert that involves factors outside of the organization and requires change leadership (strategic)? Or is it a deeper, systemic challenge relating to competing values and beliefs (transformational)?
Kurt is a Senior Partner with TAG. To get to know him better, click here.