The Leadership Dilemma: Questions to ask before giving someone a position of influence.

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All spring we will hear sports personalities argue Florida State’s Jameis Winston versus Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in the upcoming NFL draft. It is a conversation that happens every few years: an incredibly gifted, NFL ready talent with character and maturity questions, versus a good talent with character and maturity. One young man is a freak: So physically gifted he became the youngest person to ever win a Heisman trophy. The other is very, very good – good enough to win the Heisman trophy this year. Two players who will be asked to play the most difficult position in all of professional sports. If you land one of the eight or nine humans who have freakish talent combined character and maturity your team will be relevant for the next decade. How big of an issue is landing one of the “right guys” for an NFL team? They become the face of your franchise. They might mean a billion dollars in revenue over the ten or twelve years they play.

A similar conversation happens in the church: Talent versus character. I had a friend (with character issues) telegraph those once when he said, “I was having a conversation with another pastor. We decided our tradition has all of the gifts and yours has all of the character.” I could have very easily told him of the people in our tradition who have not exhibited character. Instead I cut the conversation short and wondered how long until his indiscretion was revealed. (It took less than 60 days. Four years later I remain hopeful that he develop character and be restored to grace in his own heart.)

Maybe you are on the team searching for a senior pastor. Maybe you are a pastor looking for coveted leaders for your ministry teams – People of spiritual passion and the gifts necessary to reach your community. You know the temptation when the gifted, articulate, personally charismatic person shows up on your radar. They start coming to your church, or you meet them at a ministry conference or a coffee house. They have obvious talent and fill a need you have been praying for the right person to fill. And they have “the stuff.” You know, that intangible thing that makes others want to follow them. The big question: Can you trust them?

Here are a few questions to ask before putting someone in leadership:

  • Is what they have holy fire or arrogance?
  • Do they submit to authority
  • Do they complain about their previous leaders?
  • Do they follow through on tasks?
  • Do they have a teachable spirit?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Do they have a past? (Do they flop churches when under accountability?)
  • What is their end-game? (What do they want to be doing in 10 years?)
  • Do they have a positive demeanor?
  • Do they have self-control under fire?
  • Are they a good fit? How does the rest of the team view them?
  • How much supervision do you want?

And for sure check their references!

When all of those questions are answered to your satisfaction, give them 6 months before you put them in charge of anything!

Make the process take a while. Make sure they know you like them and see their gifts, but that you want them to be part of your family before leading the family.

If you hire on character alone you end up with Tim Tebow: A great guy who could not get the job done. If you short circuit “due diligence” on talent you will wake up to find yourself in the position of the Cleveland Browns who got caught up in the hype last year and drafted “Johnny Football.” Now the Browns are stuck with a distraction who has shown little indication that he has the ability to turn into a dependable leader. In football that costs you wins and money. In the church it costs us the souls of those we have been charged with tending.

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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.