The Biggest Leadership Lesson I Learned in 2016

After spending a few hours at a friend’s house playing dominoes on New Year’s Day, my friend asked me to drop a young lady home.

I said “Yes”, but only if she didn’t talk to me…

I was already grumpy that I was out late. I was equally grumpy that I hadn’t gotten over my stomach flu and was feeling queasy. And instead of a peaceful ride home, I now had to talk to someone for 30-minutes.

But I ended up having one of the best conversations that night…

The young lady and I spoke about our delights and frustrations with the positions we hold at our churches. I had just finished my two-year run as Youth Ministries Leader and she just completed her first year in a similar role at her church.

And then the conversation turned to a project she was frustrated with…

She tried every which way to get the project team to take action. She called bi-weekly meetings. She assigned tasks. She assigned roles. She even wrote a 20-page manual of what each person needs to do on the team.

And if someone didn’t do what they said they’d do, she’d just do it for them…

So, I asked her a question:

What would happen if the next time you called a meeting, you did nothing?”

She turned in her seat, looked at me with wide eyes, and said:

I can’t do that!”

And I know exactly how she feels; because I used to do that…

As an entrepreneur, I’m used to getting things done. If a contractor promised something and didn’t deliver, I’d do it myself. If I needed to hire someone to do a task, I’d put together the process map and templates before assigning the task to the person.

I had to be in complete control…

And I brought this “can do” attitude to my role as Youth Ministries Leader…

When I was asked by the leadership committee to lead the Youth Ministries department, I reluctantly said “Yes.” I was then handed eight names of those who said “Yes” to serving on the Youth Ministries team.

When we met for the first time, we hashed out who would do what on the team. Each person on the team volunteered for the various roles we’d need to play.

Because I was working with volunteers, there was only so much I could demand. And because it’s a church, the level of accountability is low.

In other words, if one of the volunteers said they’ll do something – and they didn’t do it – I can’t fire them. I can’t go to human resources and complain.

So, I ended up doing the task on my own.

For example, if the volunteer graphic designer didn’t get the flyer designed for our upcoming youth program because she was studying for exams, I opened up Canva and designed it myself.

Or, if the volunteer responsible for booking music for one of our youth programs didn’t do so, I’d jump in and find a musical group on my own.

And after doing this a few times, my Associate Pastor pulled me aside…

He shared with me that the fastest way to alienate a team is to continue doing everything on my own.

He advised that if I wanted to have a team working with me, I needed to step back. Like, all the way back. Like, go to meetings with a blank page and ask them to fill it in.

That meant I couldn’t go to meetings with a full calendar of programs, unless the volunteers on the Youth Ministries team were the ones that already gave me the full calendar.

I couldn’t go to meetings and assign roles to people. I couldn’t go to meetings with the ideas on how a program should be organized. Or, what they should be named. Or, how they should be planned. That if a program had to be cancelled, I couldn’t go to the team with my idea on what should replace it.

I had to simply ask questions and let the team do the thinking and planning. Because when they did this, they then owned the results. 

And just like the young lady in my car on New Year’s Day, I looked at the Associate Pastor with wide eyes…

This was completely foreign to me. My brain couldn’t even work out how to go to a meeting without a plan, without a course of action, and without providing my suggestions.

At the next meeting, I tried my best to stay silent. In fact, I didn’t know what to do. So, the Associate Pastor pulled me aside after the meeting and said:

When the team is brainstorming, you tend to kill their momentum when you yell out ‘Oh, I know!’ Resist the urge to solve the problem and just let the team figure it out.”

He provided more examples and for the next few months, I slowly released my need to be in control. For example:

  • I stopped saying what must be done and started asking what must be done.
  • I stopped assigning tasks and started letting the volunteers assign them to themselves.
  • I stopped generating ideas and started asking for ideas.
  • I stopped trying to remember everything and started letting someone else remember for me.
  • I stopped having the plan and started letting someone else own the plan.
  • I stopped being the point person for every program and started letting others play that role.
  • I stopped saying I had all the answers and started enjoying not having any.
  • I stopped trying to save those who failed to complete their tasks and started letting them feel the disappointment that came from others who were sad it didn’t happen.

If I didn’t stop, I’d be stuck with a team that did this…

This concept is known as Leading from Behind…

Nelson Mandela talked about this concept in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He states that a leader is more powerful when he allows those he’s leading to go ahead and shine.

In an article on Harvard Business Review, Linda A. Hill states:

People are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organization’s purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.”

This is what my Associate Pastor was trying to teach me.

He wanted me to see that when volunteers can contribute, not just their manual labour, but also their ideas and creativity, they feel more valued, and they feel associated with bigger purpose.

The result?

  • When my term as Youth Ministries leader ended on December 31, 2016, Youth Ministries was one of only 7 active ministries in the church (of 22).
  • Of the 8 volunteers, 7 were still active.
  • And of the seven, one was elevated to the position of Youth Ministries Leader (to replace me) and two were elevated to the position of Assistant Youth Ministries Leader.

I shared all this with the young lady in my car as we sat in the driveway of her home…

She repeated over and over “I don’t know if I could do that. Nothing? Like, do nothing?”

I told her “Yes, do nothing.”

And that’s when she said “Well, I’ve tried everything else, what do I have to lose?”

She got it.