Drew Unruh

In a world of increasing polarization, scandals and abuses, people are hungry for a better brand of leadership. Lately, there seems to be growing conversation around the structure of leadership required to achieve that, suggesting “flat organizational charts” or “leaderless institutions” are becoming a growing trend.

When it comes to great leadership—in the marketplace, education, government, social services and the church—is that realistic? And is it possible a healthy leadership structure could provide safety and strength instead of stress and struggle to our groups, teams and organizations?

Navigating the Tension

The Bible values leadership and provides some critical guidance regarding how to organize groups of people that are well-led. What’s critical to appreciate, though, is that the key values of scripture, when it comes to leadership, often live in tension with one another. So, it’s the navigating of the tension of a healthy leadership structure that’s the key to delivering and experience God’s best when it comes to great leadership.

On the one hand, the Bible encourages a structure where everyone has a voice. The wisdom of the Proverbs encourages leaders to include “many counsellors” in decision-making. Early Church leadership celebrated a well-made decision that “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” that made “all the people glad.” Clearly, great leadership is not intended to be one-directionally top-down or authoritative. A healthy leadership structure includes everybody.

At the same time, a healthy leadership structure doesn’t include everybody. The reason Paul provides Timothy with character requirements for leaders, and the reason one of the spiritual gifts described in the church is called “leadership” is because some people—only a subset of the whole—possess the character and competence for Jesus to lead by His Spirit through them (which, to be clear, is the whole point of any Christian leadership—to let Jesus lead). Corresponding to a disproportionate responsibility, there is a disproportionate authority that some within a group are to be entrusted with. Clearly, a healthy leadership structure is not for everybody.

How can everyone have a voice into decisions, while the person responsible is empowered to exercise the authority to ultimately make a decision?

Practically speaking, how can a leader navigate this tension? How can everyone have a voice into decisions, while the person responsible is empowered to exercise the authority to ultimately make a decision?

In my leadership context, here are four tips we’ve learned along the way about how to give everyone a voice, while empowering the decision maker.
  1. Embrace transparency: Some leaders feel the need to provide their people with great decisions, so instead of including everyone on their team, they isolate themselves to process things alone and then return “from the mountaintop” to deliver their news. In our context—using a baking metaphor—we’ve felt, when you include people in the baking of the cake together, it’s a lot easier for them to eat it. And, even better, when people can contribute “ingredients” (preliminary thinking) to a decision, their ownership and embrace of decisions increases significantly. So, don’t keep your leadership decisions a secret. Be as fully transparent about the issues you’re facing as possible, to allow others to include their voice in them.
  2. Embrace consensus: I’ve been clear with teams I lead that there are three kinds of decisions I make. One is the decision where everyone agrees (consensus). The second is where not everyone agrees, and I allow the opinion different than mine to get its way (deference). And the third is where not everyone agrees, but I insist the decision goes in the direction I’d prefer (authority). Interestingly, to my team, only the third kind of “decision” is ever felt by them, so I work to stimulate as much consensus-building as possible. Even through this effort, you’ll sometimes gain the value that “people don’t need to get their way; they just need to get their way considered.”
  3. Embrace clarity: Very rarely—if ever—will you please all the people, all the time, with your decisions. But I’ve often experienced that well-articulated decisions are consistently respected, even if they’re not constantly agreed with. So, I’ve had to develop my leadership to include as much or more time clarifying the rationale behind decisions as I’ve spent cultivating input and consensus to determine them (appreciating that a greater degree of transparency makes this easier too). The making of a good decision is not the finish line; it’s only the halfway mark, because the strategies and communication to clarify a decision to the stakeholders around you is just as critical as the discernment invested into making them.
  4. Embrace accountability: Because we’re not perfect, leaders don’t always get it right. The question is: what happens when leaders get it wrong? I’ve found the people I lead don’t need me to be flawless; they need me to be accountable. So, in our context, we’ve worked diligently with our board members (who provide the governance oversight of my senior leadership) to develop a system of inputs on my work plan, combined with a system of grading my performance (and decision-making) evaluation, to generate a weighted average of their opinion of my leadership of our organization each year. That not only helps me be clear on where I’ve missed the mark; it helps others know that I’m accountable to someone for my decisions—especially the ones that didn’t turn out right.

I hope you’ve noticed something with these four recommendations: none of them are structural in nature. That’s because I believe that the structural values of Biblical leadership—that need to live in tension with each other—get navigated behaviorally, not structurally.

The strength of a leadership structure isn’t its structure; it’s the behaviors that help manage the tensions any healthy leadership structure requires.

From my experience, a leadership structure can be extremely flat and still find itself way off course. And a leadership structure that is highly authoritative can sometimes be fantastically healthy. The strength of a leadership structure isn’t its structure; it’s the behaviors that help manage the tensions any healthy leadership structure requires.

How does your leadership structure work on your team or in your organization? And which of the behaviors does your leadership need to most grow in, in order to better navigate the tension of a thriving leadership structure?

Let’s embrace the behaviors of great leadership—instead of assuming a structure, on its own, is the solution—in order to experience, enjoy and express a better brand of leadership!

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