Killing Church Management (Part 2): The Perils of Following from in Front


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By Derek Penwell

Last week, I talked about leading from in front —that vestigial assumption about leadership that comes to us from the industrial economy. Leading from in front assumes that leadership and management are synonyms, that what characterizes good leaders is an ability to have good ideas, and then get other people to help realize those ideas faster and cheaper than anyone else.

I argued that in a connection economy—preoccupied as it is not with mass-production, but with creating for smaller, more localized markets—the form of leadership necessary is leading from behind. Leading from behind, I suggested, attempts to liberate the creativity in others, providing permission and resources so that others can produce interesting things.

Today, I want to talk about something I consider a simulacrum of leadership, one that, without care, might be mistaken for leading from behind—but most certainly is not.

I knew a minister once whose default leadership style wasn’t leading from in front. It wasn’t even leading from behind. He followed from in front.

He refused to do anything until he was certain that the whole congregation was behind him. Of course, he called it “consensus building.”

The truth of it was that he found new ideas vaguely threatening, always afraid that any action might blow up in his face.

He tended to mistake polling with deliberation over the benefits of a new initiative.

His ability to read the direction of the prevailing winds got more and more refined. He had an amazingly well honed aversion to risk—which I find bewildering in any person who claims to follow Jesus (you know, the guy who made his living rushing face first into the headwinds of public opinion).

But not only is that kind of constant temperature-taking a failure of courageous leadership, it’s exhausting. Trying to stay ahead of what conventional wisdom suggests you should believe—especially because conventional wisdom has such a slippery way of changing—will leave you*breathless, and everyone else confused.

Now, you might be asking, “How is what you’re describing different from leading from behind?”

Leading from behind empowers people by taking their ideas and vision seriously. Following from in front disempowers people by taking their ideas and vision … and claiming them as your own.

Following from in front isn’t discerning which ideas are good, what vision makes sense. It’s the fear that you can’t tell which ideas are worth pursuing; so you chase whatever seems popular.

Following from in front doesn’t mean you trust others; it means you don’t trust yourself.

Indeed, leading from behind invites the creativity of others—not out of fear that you can produce nothing yourself, but out of a sense of selflessness, a sense that other people also have wonderful things to offer. And the job of a leader isn’t to make herself look smart, but to help set others free to become who they have it within themselves at their best to be.

Leading from behind is generous. It values the contributions of others.

Following from behind is selfish. It values the reputation of the leader.

The obsession with what others think that drives those who follow from in front stems from a fear of failure.

Fear of failure is crippling to a leader. It means you’ll never do anything interesting, except by accident.

Failure is a good leader’s friend. Viewed properly, failure offers key information.

Failure doesn’t kill the process of discovery; it refines that process, helping to focus the range of possibilities.

It’s important to point out that being unafraid of failure isn’t the same thing as recklessness. Good leaders don’t set out to fail. Neither do they do the first thing that comes to mind. Leading fearlessly still requires the same kind of thought and planning up front; it just refuses to be paralyzed into doingnothing by the prospect of falling flat.

Failure is a necessary part of success. Doing something remarkable almost always requires a series of setbacks and missteps before getting it right.

If you want to succeed, you need to make peace with failure. Following from in front is threatened by failure, because decision-making appears to reside with the leader (who already has too tight a hold on his reputation)—which we’ve said already is a dicey illusion to maintain.

Leading from behind, on the other hand, can handle failure with a lighter touch because everyone knows that the way forward is always a communal effort, and never the work of a single person.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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