This series got interrupted by life the last few months, but here is another installment of OPC pastors reflecting on what they’ve learned about leadership from a particular book they choose to breakdown.
A reminder about this series: We are seeking to always cultivate leadership that is effective and displays the compassion of our Lord. We asked pastors to choose a book that has influenced their leadership and tell us how they use it. These are not book reviews, and therefore the men will not qualify what is wrong or what they didn’t like in the book. We are making the disclaimer up front that some of these books are from non-Reformed and unbelieving authors. There are things in the books that wouldn’t apply to church life. That disclaimer now taken care of, the men share how the books have helped them.
(You can find the other posts in this series here: “Lessons in Leadership”)
Here is our sixth installment, from Dave Holmlund, a former local pastor and now OPC Regional Home Missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
The local library has a reasonably good collection of audio books and other recorded materials, so one day over the summer I was browsing for things to keep me occupied while driving. I came across the title of a business management book which struck me as something I must have heard recommended in recent years: Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. The book was first published in 2001 and – if Wikipedia is to be trusted – has sold a couple million copies in a couple dozen languages in the years since that time.
Since you are reading this as a part of the series from pastors on highly recommended leadership and management books, then you know that this book won me over even in the absence of any biblical or theological content. But I’d like to clarify that I was as doubtful as any discerning Christian about whether a business management book could offer something useful for the church. Isn’t that how Willow Creek and all the rest started? Wouldn’t all pastors be much better off reading a solid Reformed author or at least something intended for edification?
In this case, I think a pastor (or leader) would really benefit from this secular management book. Collins’s Good to Great offers a stunningly helpful glimpse into the dynamics of human organizations of many sorts, and the thoughtful pastor will find himself reading many pages at a time without a single thought about the Fortune 500 companies being described. Those of us in the trenches of church leadership will rather immediately notice how profoundly well this describes church life.
First let me describe the intended purpose of the book. Following the author’s success with a first book called Built to Last, which looks at the recipe for success in legacy companies like IBM, GE, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Walt Disney, a colleague challenged him to consider that this first book was not helpful for most people in business. Most people aren’t in such a company of proven superiority. Most of us begin with something of more modest quality, but then need to consider how to take something which is simply “good” and then try to make it “great.”
Collins assembled a team of some 15 researchers, and they decided that they would focus on Fortune 500 companies over the last 40 years that had a track record of steady financial health without doing anything really noteworthy followed by 15 straight years of radically accelerated growth and success. (You can read the first chapter of the book to hear about how they decided on eleven companies which met this criteria).Once they had the subset of Fortune 500 companies identified as having accomplished the good-to-great transition, then they took 5 years to do extensive research into every aspect of the companies. This research might explain the sudden breakout into 15 years of tremendous success after a long season of more modest growth.
The book focuses on five core values which seemed to be consistently expressed in all eleven large companies going from good to great. Those five principles are “Level 5 Leadership,” “First Who…Then What,” “Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and finally “A Culture of Discipline.” This single blog post isn’t the right place to get into all five of these aspects in relating them to church leadership, but I’ll offer some reflection upon the first two points which both involve leadership and personnel. You’ll have to read the book for yourself to explore the last three, which also have very helpful principles to adapt for church life.
The first principle – what he calls “Level 5 Leadership” – concerns what particular individual is typically perched at the top of any company that makes the good-to-great transition. We live in a day and age which is obsessed with the idea of the superhuman CEO who through genius and brutal force of will takes a company to the top of the world. But, while Collins and his researchers were expecting to see this pattern, what emerged was a quite different pattern in every example of the eleven companies.
All of the CEOs in the good-to-great companies exhibited professional excellence and dedication to the company, but they all showed surprising patterns of modesty and humility. Almost all of these remarkable leaders had steadily risen through the ranks of the company rather than through a splashy search for the world’s most gifted CEO. They were by in large not motivated by extreme wealth. They tended to avoid perks like private jets and luxury accommodations. Some of these CEOs were apparently still living in their humble starter homes long after rising to the top of their respective companies.
Another pattern, which Collins really highlights, is how quick they were to ascribe their success to the work of others or even dumb luck (!!!) rather than to accept praise for their role in the success of the company. When other successful CEOs (like Steve Jobs, Melissa Mayer, etc.) saw their personal reflection in the success of their companies as though they were a mirror, these good-to-great CEOs saw their accomplishments as a window through which they could easily note the great contributions of others who helped them. Not surprisingly, Level 5 Leaders seem to be driven by goals for the company much more than by personal ambitions.
Does anyone detect any parallels in the church? I was floored by what Collins was writing about these Fortune 500 companies. He was describing the common grace advantages of humble, servant leadership in the pattern of Jesus Christ, and he was certainly exposing the foundation of sand for any church in which Jesus Christ is not the true foundation. Collins helped me to see that we too often use worldly assumptions in thinking about which future leader is going to grow a church or a ministry should he be called. We assume it is going to be the brilliant and hard-charging celebrity pastor without realizing how much this kind of leadership really undermines the organizational dynamics of a church. To say nothing of the way this takes away from the perfect glory of Jesus Christ, our Great Shepherd whom no undershepherd can replace no matter how gifted.
I think the “Level 5 Leadership” principle gives hope to small churches and even church plants because it shows the great potential in leading people to organizational goals through humility and through commitment to the organization rather than by building a ministry on a super-sized personality. I think pastoral search committees would be greatly encouraged through reading this book in knowing that great leaders are often the ones who turn off the lights and sweep the floors (and gain the full confidence of their people in the process!) rather than those who speak at Gospel Coalition conferences or are known for being great leaders.
The second principle of Good to Great is what Collins and his researchers called “First Who…Then What.” This was a great chapter in the book. As Collins points out, it is often assumed in business leadership books that success begins with vision and then the force of will to make every project and every person subordinate to the vision of the leadership. But in their research into good-to-great companies, they noted how often the shift to long term growth and success began with assembling the right team of talent even before it was absolutely clear what they were supposed to do! Sometimes the people recruited to the team didn’t even have prior work experience in the field, but they had the personal capacities, work ethic, and people skills in order to add a tremendous amount of value to the company even if it took a while to learn the requirements of their job. In some interesting case studies, Collins even shows that the company needed to get the right people “on the bus” before they knew what the company was seeking to do for long term profitability – in his analogy, the bus’s destination.
In the church, most church leadership questions have to do with more immediate steps of developing ministries, discipling church members, achieving a breakthrough in success with outreach, fine tuning administration, handling budgetary restraints, etc. This second principle of “First Who…Then What” is a gentle reminder of how important it is to have the right leaders overflowing with spiritual gifts and graces before anyone tries to set the course for church development in any of these particular matters. There will be little chance of the “bus” reaching the right destination, Collins says, if the wrong people are on it. Sometimes those right people are needed to establish the right destination since earlier leaders were working with problematic goals. So start with the right people and then let the right personnel help lead the church in the right direction.
As I considered this, I thought of how important it is to wait for the right men to be available to serve as elders or deacons before ordaining quickly those who do not have the right spiritual gifting for the work. I thought of sessions bogged down with their own problematic interpersonal dynamics who of course struggle to grow the church because they can’t work well together. I thought of presbytery committees, and how important it is to have the right people on those “teams” before taking steps to advance God’s kingdom together. All of us know that building a strong ministry team is important, but this book on management helped me to see that it is a rule of life: to reach success in a human organization, the right people is to be prioritized over the right ministry plan. As I look at the qualifications for officers in 1 Timothy and Titus, this seems to be a management principle which is agreeable to the Holy Spirit as well.
I’m largely skipping over the third principle – “Confront the Brutal Facts” – but you should really read about this one for yourself. Church leaders and business leaders alike can be inclined to avoid taking in information that hurts their pride. However, good leaders and strong organizations learn to embrace brutal facts as learning opportunities and not areas to be ignored. This chapter is a helpful model for how to do this for the success of the organization – even for the success of the church!
By the end of the book, Collins offers closing remarks which indicate that he is aware that his principles of organizational success do work just as well in non-corporate settings like schools, community groups, government, and even churches. Indeed, he went on to publish a companion booklet called Good to Great and the Social Sectors to help give more specific guidance to non-profit organizations and other endeavors in which stock value and corporate profitability are not the highest measures of success. I have not read these supplementary volumes yet, but I was greatly impressed with the research of this former Stanford Business School professor who gives no evidence of religious commitments. He shows that there are common patterns for long-term success in the business world and in church life.
The thoughtful pastor (and leader) of any church – whether small, medium or large – can read this book and begin to notice opportunities for internal/qualitative growth and subsequently external/quantitative growth by wrestling with these ideas of secular business management while holding to God’s word and our theological confessions in church life. Yes, your church is good right now. But how can it become great? Adapt this book to the life and needs of your church, and I think you will have some very practical steps to help you get there.