Leaders aren’t fruit-bearers

What is your leadership philosophy? If you were to take a hard look at your approach to the organizational unit you give leadership to, which of these images best portrays your style?

A Jabuticaba (left), a Coconut Palm (middle) or an Orange Tree (right)?

My leadership style is more like the orange tree. I don’t believe leaders are fruit-bearers, but fruit-cultivators. Let me explain.

My board says that the performance of the organization is equivalent to the performance of the president. That’s a huge job! Certainly it’s a heavier load than one person can carry. So my job is to peel parts of the role away and delegate them to competent people. Then my primary role becomes serving them and making them successful.

As I’ve reflected on this view of leadership, I realized a few things.

1. Fruit shouldn’t grow on the trunk. In a smaller organization or unit, a leader might be busy doing a lot of the work himself or herself. There may be exceptions, but my experience is that even in early stages of organizational growth, a successful leader will not hold onto activities long. Even the youngest orange trees don’t produce oranges next to the trunk. I constantly catch myself engaging in activities I enjoy doing, but which hold up the work of my leadership team, who need my help or energy to fulfill their roles. If I’m really successful at building my team, they will ask me why I’m doing a job rather than delegating it.

2. Building trust is my main line of work. As the primary trunk of the organization, I am uniquely able to spot healthiness and manage communication and resource flow so that I starve or prune leafy limbs and branches that demand resources without producing fruit, while feeding limbs and branches that are capable of producing results (Luke 13:6-9). Any activity that strengthens the cohesiveness of the tree and empowers the supporting limbs is well worth my attention. People often ask me how I get any work done with all the meetings I have to go to. My response is that my real work happens in meetings, because meetings are often the vehicle by which trust is built, communication flows best and a group can move forward together.

3. Leadership grows limbs. Any time I can create a new junction of smaller branches that spread out, the chance of fruit is highest. If I can spur ideas or get people together who can spark new thinking, I’ve best fulfilled my role.

I don’t know about you, but I think that Jabuticaba tree looks wrong. As a metaphor, it reflects an inverted leadership style where the limbs and leafs simply exist to bring resources to the fruit-bearing centre. That centralized style of leadership will leave followers feeling used while wearing out the leader who, as central to every initiative, will become the limiting factor.

A theology of leadership

The best book I’ve read recently on leadership is Leading Across Cultures, by James Plueddemann, former executive director of SIM International. The book is his attempt to cut through cultural variations of leadership and get down to the core of what leadership is before building back out to find culturally-appropriate expressions of leadership. I’ve tried to do this a little by digging into what made me a leader, following Dr. Robert Clinton’s theory in The Making of a Leader. I’ve also tried to develop and articulate my personal philosophy of leadership, as a number of authors have urged. I’ve taught a session on my philosophy of leading in your strengths, leading in your weakness and leading in your context. (I should blog on those for you sometime.) But Plueddemann went deeper: he challenged me to consider my leadership theology.

As a church elder, I’ve had to spend some time trying to figure out theology. I’d never really been interested in theological discussions, thinking them a bit of a waste of time. Why not spend your time applying it instead of arguing it? But it has been helpful for me to dig into what I really believe about God so that I can then realize the implications. That’s what Plueddemann says: your beliefs about God will drive your leadership practices.

Let me provide an example. If we believe that human beings are created in the image of God and will live forever, what are the implications? If we truly believe that, therefore

the primary goal of leadership is to facilitate the development of people so they become all God created them to be. The atheistic philosophy contends that people are expendable for the sake of the government. Christian theology argues that governments come and go, but people live forever. People are more important than institutions, including the organizations we lead.

I’d never really considered that logic. I obviously believe in developing leaders, but I’d never considered why before. Of course, now that I have this foundation, it means that I have probably not gone far enough in my practice. Plueddemann points out one clear application to my task-oriented tendencies:

Effective leaders don’t use people to accomplish the job; instead they use the job to develop people.

It’s worth the time to focus for a couple of posts on some other theological beliefs and how they might apply to leadership. Plueddemann gives the why very succinctly:

The purpose and the worldview of leadership are intertwined. A bad theology of leadership will inevitably result in bad leaders. Leadership grounded in God’s glory and driven by a scriptural worldview is the hope of the global church.