Do what only you can do

For years, I’ve pondered the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. That’s the passage where the apostles noted,

We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.

Isn’t that a somewhat arrogant statement? In the servant leadership model, shouldn’t leaders be willing to do anything? Aren’t “Level 5 leaders” full of humility? I’ve come to believe that this statement isn’t arrogant; the more arrogant move would have been to hold onto running the food program.

It’s easy for leaders to get pulled into the minutiae and tactical activity surrounding a program that may be critical to organizational success but pulls them out of their element. The leadership principle is to do what only you can do and delegate everything else. A failure to delegate is a lack of trust. Underneath it is a foundational belief that you can do it better yourself.

But what if, like many nonprofits, you don’t have anyone ready to step in? This is a common problem for organizations that are rapidly growing or still run by their founder, but it’s also a problem for organizations that lack future focus. Why is it that some organizations seem to have an abundance of leaders available while others don’t seem to have anyone willing or able to take responsibility? Frankly, the failure to have people ready to step in probably reflects a long practice of doing things yourself. The root cause of a failure to develop leaders in the pipeline is the same as a failure to delegate: pride and control are the ugly idols hiding beneath.

What’s at stake when we as leaders don’t deal with our idolatry? At best, we become a limiting agent. Worse, the organization can become derailed. Consider what would have happened if the apostles had continued to spend time with widows. The new church would have ceased to grow. It would have neglected the Word and prayer. Spiritual development of new believers would have ceased while physical needs were taken care of.

No doubt the apostles’ decision was a controversial one. First, the elderly likely protested the loss of personal relationship with the founders. Second, the optics were bad. You don’t want to give the appearance that you don’t care about widows and the elderly. Third, the food program lost some of its luster, no longer falling under the top of the org chart.

But the decision was a complete success.

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.

A decision or a program in qualified and empowered hands, released from our control and micromanagement, often is a greater success than anything we could have done ourselves. But the real reason the church grew was not the food program as much as it was a group of leaders who were freed up to do what only they could do.

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3 thoughts on “Do what only you can do

  1. Interesting post Roy. 2 thoughts: 1) I’ve worked for a micro-manager who argues that still being involved in some areas in a more hands-on, detailed way is what energises him for the quantity of admin tasks he has to plough through on a daily basis. Valid? Or a reluctant leader who really should be released to do what he loves most?
    2) If our leaders don’t remain practitioners, even in a small and limited way, don’t they also risk becoming too removed from our core activities and distanced from the reality of the people they are meant to be leading?

    • Thanks for your comment, Kate. I used to advise potential managers that they needed to figure out a good ratio for themselves in things they enjoyed versus the things they had to do. One of my favorite leadership authors, Steven Sample, says that you should shoot for 30 percent of your time on substantive matters. The other 70 percent is spent “kissing frogs.” He’s not talking about exactly the same thing, but I’ve found widespread application for the broad principle. I got out of graphic design once I realized that the minutiae and technical details had gotten out of proportion. I wasn’t doing enough that I enjoyed anymore.

      You make a good point about staying engaged. That level probably varies for everyone. Some really need to be more of a player/coach, with much more hands-on work. There are ways to do that, where you delegate out a number of areas but keep your fingers in one. More specifically, there are ways to do that that don’t undermine your staff.

  2. I like to think of this passage as talking about the iceberg in which we work. The translators and literacy specialists are at the top, because they are the people that our organization implies we all are and supporters like to support front-line workers.

    However without someone waiting on the tables, without someone doing the IT jobs, without someone doing the Accounting jobs, without someone doing the Government Relations jobs, without someone doing the Transportation jobs, etcetera, without these support workers, the tip of the iceberg falls below the waterline and begins to melt faster. Cracks form, and the task of translation and literacy falls apart.

    Consider also the story of the “Good Samaritan”. When the man asks what else he should do, the lead man in the story gets beaten up by thieves, and only someone that is disliked by the man helps. So when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” is Jesus truly switching the focus away from the beaten up man, or is He imply accepting help from those we rather not get help from? I think this ties back into your idea of arrogance, in that some people do not want to delegate to others.

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