What Jerry Colangelo taught me about recruiting and training leaders…by a former Suns ballboy

Walter Davis. A great guy, neighbor, and the silkiest jump shot in the NBA. A basketball was a dagger in his hands at the end of a game.

I picked up a great many leadership lessons as a teenage ball boy for the Phoenix Suns in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was a heady era when new Commissioner David Stern and General Managers like Jerry Colangelo remade the N.B.A. That leadership team gave us superstars and entertaining rivalries. Those were the days of Magic, Isaiah, Larry, and Michael. The N.B.A. went from a backwater 3rd tier sport to, arguably, the most influential professional sports league in America. Here are three leadership lessons from those days that have application for leadership recruiting and training for the church:

1. Get players who produce – people who can fill up a stat-sheet. You are never better than your best players. A team with second-level talent, will never be better than .500. Are we ordaining people because they are the most gifted or because they are not doing something better…or, even worse, because they self-selected? Scottsdale Bible, a church with a history of great pastoral leadership, finds 95% of the people they hire. Then, only ordain those people after they have proven that they can grow a fruitful ministry.

Most people who fill up a stat-sheet are quirky. So you need good training. That is why we need to…

2. Have great coaches.  As legendary Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry said, “Leadership is getting people to do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they want to achieve.” We need high capacity, high-expectation mentors for emerging leaders – folks who can get new leaders doing the things it takes to be successful. Success is not just Sunday Attendance. There are other metrics that are of great value to the church…but to not be concerned about Sunday attendance is absurd. What are some things great coaches do?

  •  Give structure. Quirky people need to be protected from themselves-structure does that! Teams have curfews on the road, dress codes, special diets. There is a theory- practice -theory pattern in the season. There is no three-year pre-season camp. It is 6 weeks of camp and then into the theory-practice-theory long season.
  • Show and tell. Someone who has played the game and can show others how.
  • Push them to over-achieve. Have the hardest practices in town!
  • Set clear goals.
  • Study to have a good game plan.
  • Live with your player’s quirks– after all they produce! Don’t frustrate them with making them impress those up the food chain…or those beside their ministry setting. Set them free to produce for the team and the fans.

All of this makes players into a team. Then, when they do well…

3.   Be a great PR person. Showcase your player’s talents. When the team does well, we all do well. Sing their praises. When your people know you will make them a star they will repay you in loyalty and effort.

A few thoughts specifically on leadership in the church…

  1. Calling is not just heard by the individual, it is discerned by the community and confirmed by fruitfulness in ministry.
  2. Capacity is not the only quality we are looking for:  Character (are they dependable) and chemistry (work well with others) are also important.
  3. We  should stop ordaining people because they do good ministry. We should ordain people who can recruit, encourage and deploy other leaders.

It was a lot of fun to be a junior and senior high student sitting on the floor and hanging out in the locker room during Suns games and watching a near-dead league ramp up into a day of influence it had never known. With the movement of the Holy Spirit and the right group of called people of character, capacity, and chemistry, I am convinced our “heady days” are yet in front of us. I am hopeful that I will be sitting front row and in the locker room when that day comes.

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