For many congregational leaders, leadership means being out in front with a vision—and expecting to turn around and find people behind them. But what does it mean to be an effective leader today, when “being in charge” seems to be a less and less effective model for leadership?

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” is a leadership strategy deeply imbedded in the memory and vocabulary of our American culture. A leader is exemplary, influential, successful, and “attractive.” In this approach, there could be only one principal leader in a congregation—the senior minister. And the Protestant impulse, especially in North America, has been either to follow that leader or become one, starting your own congregation, if not denomination.

A late family member of mine was a retired military officer. In his eyes, the available styles of leadership came straight from his Army Manual. According to the Army, there were just three kinds of leaders: authoritarian, democratic, or delegative. “You’re in charge, we’re in charge, or they’re in charge.” The implication was clear that real leadership isn’t something “we” can vote on or that “they” can do for you. A leader steps up and is decisive, inspirational, and effective—authoritative, if not sometimes authoritarian.

Yet many of us grew up in a world that has been less and less comfortable with, committed to, or persuaded by this “traditionalist” leadership approach. For instance, baby boomers grew up knowing that good leaders have the ego strength to get out of the way of others. Effective leaders resist top-down, hierarchical practices of leadership and instead work in a more horizontal or egalitarian fashion, facilitating rather than dictating what others do. They don’t require others to get the leader’s approval before acting, yet value transparency highly, ensuring that everyone on the leadership team is fully informed before decisions are made.

Now we are finding that the definition of leadership is shifting again, as is the identity of leaders as boomers begin to retire. In When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work, Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman suggest that younger leaders today experience even a “coaching” model as too directive. For these young people, they say, leadership is about forming equal partnerships for the tasks they do. Younger leaders see problem solving not as requiring “expert resources” (especially from the senior generation) or as an “approval-driven” process—or even as a matter of hub-and-spoke power-sharing, where a variety of team members are essential to a central decision-making process. Rather, for a new generation of leaders, healthy leadership is a team of colleagues making truly collaborative decisions, partnering with people in their own organization, and networking with others outside it to pool resources, insights, and imagination. In their minds, no single person is ‘in charge’; instead, the group process itself emerges in a leadership role that transcends the contribution of any one individual.

This view of leadership suggests several things you may want to consider as you continue to grow as a congregational leader today:

  • Personal leadership is only part of the dynamic of community-driven congregational growth and change. As Ronald Heifetz wrote in Leadership without Easy Answers, leadership is mostly about identifying a vision and aligning a community with that vision, thus enabling the whole organization to adapt. Leadership is systemic, social, and organic. A leader is not mainly out front, inspiring a vision; he or she is in the midst of congregational life, nurturing the process whereby genuinely adaptive change takes place.
  • The best leaders don’t try to overcome chaos to achieve order and a coherent vision; they provide leadership by learning to move with grace within a world of inevitable change. Writers like Meg Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science) challenge us to lead by becoming capable of recognizing and playing our part in a vast web of interconnections that embraces change (rather than resisting—or even channeling—it). According to Wheatley, leadership means treating congregations as “self-organizing systems,” where chaos and connectivity are often neighbors, and leadership emerges through participation in the rich, fertile, and often messy processes of a living community.
  • One of the greatest roles of a leader in congregational life is not “being in charge” but assuring that everyone learns to hear and tell the stories that shape our understanding of ourselves and one another. The narratives we tell tend to become the reality we are capable of living; they determine the ways we understand leadership and the sorts of leaders we can imagine or allow ourselves to be.

As you reconsider leadership as more than being in charge, try inviting both the younger and older generations in your congregation into a process that long antedates all of us: handing on the tradition—the narratives—that shape and claim us as people of faith. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, himself often viewed as a reactionary traditionalist, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” The traditions we pass along in the stories we tell, generation to generation, are our truest marks as leaders. For, as we say at the Alban Institute, leadership is what happens when faith communities themselves become “agents of grace and transformation to shape and heal the world.” In the end, it’s about the congregation—not any one individual—taking on the role of leadership for the sake not just of the present but of those still to come.


Adapted from “Ask Alban” in Congregations Fall 2008 (vol. 34, no. 4), copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

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