Drew Unruh

How hard should a leader push if they want to give their very best?

This can be a tricky question to answer.

What makes this question so tricky is that its answer is relative.

It depends.

Specifically, it depends on how long you want to effectively lead. It depends on the span of leadership for which you’re defining “best”.

In a former life before church leadership, I represented my country in multiple world championships in cross country running. One of the most basic principles of running became a secret to lasting vitality in organizational leadership.

Your pace depends on the length of your race.

Think about it. Sprinters give their very best—lunging toward the finish line—but their very best only requires ten or so seconds of strain. Similarly, marathoners give their very best but their efforts are spread over multiple hours. In both cases, the runners have given their very best to their respective races, but how hard they pushed in a given moment was entirely dependent on the length of their race.

The length of their race determined their pace.

This became a valuable lesson for me when I started in leadership.

In my case, the existing leaders of our church handed the reins of leadership over to a handful of younger leaders—a process often used in small business and referred to as a “generational transfer”. As my generation assumed leadership for the local church we grew up in, we did so in pursuit of “a forty-year vision.” In our mid-twenties, we imagined investing the best of our lives into the leadership of our local church. And we defined the length of that race as the majority of our adult working lives. We were committed to a forty-year vision of leading our church.

I believe defining the length of our leadership race has been critical to our sustainability. We’ve never felt like Rome needed to be built in a day. We’ve always had space for days off, weekends and vacation time. When our families were younger, we could prioritize our kids and their events. And in our work planning, we’ve been able to be realistic each ministry year and season as to what God could accomplish through us as we gave our best to him—because our ‘best’ has been paced over forty years.

Obviously, there have been seasons that have been more challenging or unmanageable. Our commitment as leaders, though, has been to make sure what we’re citing as an extraordinary season only lasts for an actual season and doesn’t become a trend. Nearly a quarter century into my leadership of our local church—together with some friends—we’ve enjoyed what may seem like surprising longevity that I believe is the simple product of pacing ourselves for a lifetime of effective leadership.

From my experience, to do that has everything to do with how long you define “long haul”. The length of your race determines your pace.

So, at a practical level, ask yourself:

1.How long is your leadership race?

How long do you desire to be effective in leadership, allowing yourself to be continually grown by God in your capacities? Whether leading a company, leading as an educator, leading in politics or leading in the social services, what would it take for you to have a finish line where you most aspire for the end-of-life voice of Jesus saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”?

2. What does your finish line look like?

Do you have a vision for the legacy you want to leave? What do you want people to say about you beyond your leadership? In addition to the effectiveness of the organization you’re leading, are you equally concerned with the impact your life and leadership influence has on those around you? Remember the words of Jesus, it’s actually a waste of time to gain the whole world but to forfeit your soul in the process. The finish line is not just what you’ve built, but who you’ve become.

3. Who are you leading together with to monitor your pace?

Every runner requires training partners and every racer benefits from pacesetters. Make sure the leadership race you’re running is done together with others—shooting for the same finish line—to help monitor your pace and encourage one another along in giving your best to God and to those your serve in leadership. Do you have colleagues or peers to encourage and support your life and leadership for the long haul?

For God to truly do extraordinary things through leaders in our lifetime requires leaders like us to be usable by Him for our lifetime. He can’t achieve culturally-transforming impact—in any leadership arena—through flash-in-the-pan leaders. Even more, God isn’t looking to provide thriving leadership through people who aren’t personally thriving in the process of being used by Him.

Let’s commit together to be lifetime leaders, and to set our pace to give our best to God and those we lead for the long haul.

I’m sure we all want to lead our very best. But we’ve got to be crystal clear as to how we’re defining “best”. The length of your race determines your pace.

Let’s define “best” according to that long-haul finish line of leadership and give God our very best for a lifetime!