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Leadership Pitfalls: Crashing on Autopilot

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Question: “I seem to be wasting my time as a leader. No matter how much I invest, my leadership seems to be making very little discernable difference. It’s discouraging. What am I doing wrong?”

Welcome to the world of leadership. It’s often very discouraging. It takes everything we’ve got, and yet, more often than not, it seems like we’re losing ground. Leadership is messy and complicated.

In spite of what all the leadership experts and consultants tell us, it’s not an exact science, and there’s no magic formula. You can do everything right, and still everything will go wrong. You can do everything wrong, and without explanation, everything starts working right. You can do nothing, and stuff happens. You can do everything, and nothing happens.

However, though all of this is true, the role of leading isn’t as confusing or dark as it may seem. We really can make a huge difference through our leadership. Of course, it will seldom work predictably or quickly, but your leadership can and will make a significant difference if you faithfully invest it in the right areas, toward the right issues, with the right motivations and in the right ways.

Obviously, I can’t specifically tell you what, if anything, you’re doing wrong without being in your world. However, from my own failures and years of observing and consulting with other leaders, I can share what I’ve found to be a common reason for the lack of leadership impact.

Unintentional Investment

It’s what I call the “Unintentional Leadership Investment”—investments of time, thinking, energy, effort, finances and influence void of any strategic intentionality. Of course, for leadership to make any worthwhile impact, it must be both intentionally and strategically invested toward fulfilling the organization’s purpose. Sadly, more often than not, this doesn’t happen. Most leaders waste a ton of their time and resources on unintentional, nonstrategic investments, significantly robbing us of any potential leadership impact.

When I’ve experienced this, I realize I haven’t forced myself to regularly assess the investments I’m making against missional effectiveness. Instead, we lead on autopilot, continuing year after year to invest our leadership in the same way, even though the needs of our church and the world around us are significantly changing. Or, out of a false sense of love for people or concern for our own well-being, we lead according to someone else’s expectations for us rather than God’s will.

Admittedly, one of my greatest weaknesses is falling in love with great ideas I or someone else has developed and continuing to invest in those ideas even when they don’t advance our church’s mission. Recently, I had to pull the plug on one of my all-time favorite ministry investments because it was not advancing the purpose of the church. It was very difficult for me. Making that decision took much longer than it should have. I believe this is a major reason for the insane time investments leaders are making with very little impact to show for it. Remember, time is one of the most valuable and limited resources we have. If we waste it, we significantly undercut the potential of our impact. Without a doubt, the difference between a good and great leader lies in how they manage and leverage their time.

So, from my own need to overcome this problem, I encourage you to consider a few practical suggestions.

Don’t allow yourself or your leadership to exist on autopilot.

Stay awake. Don’t lose sight of the mission. Develop simple and consistent metrics for assessing your missional effectiveness. Remain keenly aware of the needs in your ministry and the world. Remember, these are constantly changing. As they do, our leadership must realign to the new reality. And, don’t allow yourself to waste time by coasting. If we coast, the people and organizations we lead will coast.

Continually re-evaluate your leadership priorities.

Over time, you can and will experience priority creep—unimportant or less important tasks become priorities. This happens for numerous reasons, but it’s the leader’s job to prevent it in his leadership and in the organization he leads. Of course, to do this, you need a clear view and understanding of your purpose and leadership priorities, as well as the purpose and priorities of the organization and people you lead.

Caution: A common reason we waste our leadership investment stems from allowing those who don’t have a clear understanding of the mission or how to accomplish it to set priorities for us. This is common in the church, where people who understand the church least are charged with telling those who understand the church most what to do. Fulfilling impact potential in people’s lives and the church requires you to address and resolve this issue—a job only you as pastor can do.

Be willing to pull the plug on any investment you’re making that’s not advancing the church’s mission.

In a church, there are always things that need to be done, but that doesn’t mean the pastor should be doing them. It’s your job to make those changes. The early leaders of the church did it in Acts 6:1-7. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul gives us an excellent strategy for doing this successfully.

Finally, though it takes time and can be discouraging, I want to encourage you to keep leading.

The church and the world need you. But make sure you invest your leadership with strategic intentionality.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Outreach magazine.