Two Random Encounters with Good Leaders

Early this summer, I listened an NPR radio interview with Dame Stephanie Shirley, a pioneer in British software development.  Dame Shirley is now in her 70’s, no longer involved in the company, and is using her considerable talent and wealth to do philanthropic work. She was one of the first in the software business whose model was based on selling software; at that point, companies gave the software away with the purchase of the hardware. She also was one of the first to give women a family friendly place to work, allowing them to work at home if they wanted.
She spoke of a time when she was going through her own personal and family crisis: the business was consuming her and her two boys were going through puberty. When she realized that she was at the very edge of holding things together, she decided to take a three-month sabbatical. Everyone predicted the worst: friends and colleagues inside the company and out, not to mention so-called industry experts, all were convinced that everything would fall apart in her absence. Instead, the company thrived. She talked at some length about how her job was not to create a company or a philanthropic foundations dependent on her, but to grow organizations that do good work and make a difference in the world.
That same weekend, I attended the Eagle River (Wisconsin) Congregational Church. I could tell when I walked in the door that this was going to be good. By appearance alone, nothing stood out. It was a typical brick building from the early 20th century, a fairly typical sanctuary with old pews facing forward, the typical UCC chancel with sparse, simple furnishings. What was different was intangible; there was a vitality and life to the room. People were talking, the congregation was streaming in, and there was a palpable sense that people wanted to be there.
Just before the service, one of the ushers made a quick round of the entire sanctuary greeting folks, calling them by name, welcoming one back who apparently had been traveling and was attending that morning with her granddaughter. A deacon made announcements, and then that same welcoming usher stepped to the podium. “You might wonder why I’m here now and not Mary Ann. . .” he began. Mary Ann, it became clear, was the pastor; he went on to tell how Mary Ann would not be there. She had become ill during the week and though she was improving, was still not feeling well enough to lead worship. So, the lay folks stepped in and led, including reading the sermon that the pastor had written (quite a good sermon, by the way, and delivered quite effectively) and a children’s sermon that closely related to the themes of the sermon and lessons. Later in the service, new members were received, and all of it without the resident pastor present. It’s not just that the lay members limped along in leading the service. They seemed to embrace the task enthusiastically, as if it were their community and this was their work.
I don’t know Pastor Mary Ann Biggs, and she doesn’t know me from Adam (although I did stop in later that week and tell her about my experience). But good for you, Mary Ann Biggs. You and the people of Eagle River Congregational Church are doing good work. You have created genuine community and together you are leading a congregation in multiplying gifts and making sure that good, vital, life-giving ministry is happening.
It’s purely coincidental that I encountered both the interview and the worship service on same day. As different as they are, they are yet related. Both leaders have created vibrant, energetic organizations in which they as leader are important, yet which are not dependent on the leader to thrive.
That’s what good leaders do. They help create organizations where those within the organization people take responsibility and are accountable for the organization’s thriving. Pastoral leaders at their best help create congregational cultures where the members take responsibility and are accountable for the work that God has called the congregation to do, and even more so, move out from the congregation where they are empowered to do the work that God has called them to do in the world.
Our culture is infatuated with leadership. Just look at all the books available to help us become better leaders. Too much leadership theory apparently thinks that if the leader gets more competent, then the organization will do better. But that hasn’t really worked very well for us.
I don’t intend here to make this a long explication of leadership, but this much is true about being a leader. Good leadership is not programmatic nor is it reducible to universal principles. It’s organic, contextual, and above all, relational. Leaders have to engage people on more than the technical, informational level. They have to care about the people around them, discovering in conversation what people care about and are concerned about. Leaders build webs of relationship within their organization and the community around them and nurture and mentor others to do the same.
See, as these two women who lead very different organizations have demonstrated, good relational leadership empowers people, and where people are empowered, good things happen.

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