There are really two types of leaders: Those who attempt to force their way on the people they lead and those who work to get maximum consensus before making big decisions.
The former can achieve small successes in the short run, but ultimately fail to achieve their long-term goals because they sow resentment and anger. The latter might have a slower pathway to change, but it is steady and, over a long period of time, much more successful. Those who lead by crushing opposition end up making the crushing of their opposition their singular focus. Those who lead by seeking buy-in and serving those they lead end up not only building healthy organizational cultures but also helping to develop future leaders.
Of course, even the best leaders will have opposition and will have to make, at times, unpopular decisions. In a fallen world, even in the best environments, there will be those who dissent from the leader’s vision. Still, a leader who works hard to bring along those he or she is called to lead—this is a leader who can be used by God to build a healthy culture.
So how is this done? Here are four essentials for building consensus in any size organization:
Build relational capital
It’s amazing to me how many church leaders discount the important of building relationships with the people they serve. But all the seminary education and vision casting in the world won’t make up for a lack of intentional, one-on-one relationship-building. This is what separates pastors from mere preachers, leaders from title-holders, public servants from politicians.
You can’t lead people effectively if you’ve not sat down, with them, and gotten to know them personally, until you’ve heard their stories, felt the weight of their sorrows, and stepped into their shoes. You can issue directives. You can make pronouncements. You can fire off emails. But will people trust you? Will they follow you into battle? Will they accept culture change? They won’t.
What’s more, you should build this kind of relational capital, not so you can manipulate it for future change, but in a genuine attempt to build friendships. People can smell, a mile away, when you are insincere. Build relationships because God has called you to love the people you serve.
Along the way, this kind of personal investment pay dividends, it will give you critical insight into the unique needs of your team and will help sculpt your future vision.
Invite people to the table.
There are times when leaders need to simply lead (see point #5) and make decisions and resist overanalyzing. However, for big, paradigm-shifting decisions, it’s important to not lead from an echo chamber. I’ve heard of pastors who, without telling their leadership team, suddenly announce big decisions on a Sunday morning because they “felt led by the Spirit.” I don’t want to question someone’s walk with God, but my guess is it wasn’t the Spirit leading such rashness, but a fleshly, impulsive pastor.
The best way to lead through change is to invite key stakeholders to the table. If this is a small team within an organization, make sure you involve anyone whose job will be affected. Avoid a “committee of two” echo chamber where big, paradigm-shifting moves are made in a smoke-filled backroom. Instead, early in the process, let others in on your process and ask, rather than tell, your plans and ideas. Let these plans be shaped by the collected wisdom of the group. Not only will you come away with better choices and avoid disastrous ones, you’ll have won the confidence of key people who can communicate your vision to the larger organization. In a church setting, this might mean involving more people and not just the kinds of people who are eager to rubber-stamp your ideas. Invite folks from a cross-section of life stages and experience.
Communicate early, often, and well and in a variety of mediums.
Once you’ve made your decision, it’s important to communicate early, often, and well. It’s important to communicate early in order to give those affected a reasonable timeline for action and adjustment to the new reality. It’s important to communicate well because it’s important to communicate well. Communicating well doesn’t simply mean: “I said it, why can’t they get it?” It means anticipating questions and objections and marshaling plenty of facts and information. You know you’ve communicated well when people can repeat back to you the basics of the message you’re trying to get across.
This means communicating in a variety of mediums: publicly, in print, online, through social media, in blogs, in newsletters, via email. You need to look at communication vehicles as streams. People are diverse in the way they input information. By putting your message out there in a variety of streams, you’ll ensure nobody misses what you’re trying to say. Oh, and repeat yourself, over and over again, until you’re sick of hearing yourself say it.
Hold your macro tightly; hold your micro loosely.
The ideas that motivate the need for change—hold these tightly. So if you’re a pastor and are trying to move your church to get the gospel message into unreached corners of your city—don’t let go of this vision. If you’re an organization and are sensing the need to tighten your focus to more closely hew to your stated mission—don’t abandon this. However, what you should hold loosely is the micro, the specifics of how you can lead change. And by micro, I don’t mean holding loosely a biblical ecclesiology. I mean the exact mechanics of how this mission will be accomplished.
As you’re building relational capital, meeting with people and getting a sense of their needs, your perspective will adapt and grow. As you’re floating key ideas past important stakeholders, you should be sculpting the plan for change. And you will gather new and fresh ideas from people with different perspectives and angles you haven’t considered.
Only a proud and insecure leader is too stubborn to learn, grow, and adapt.
You need to actually lead. If bullheaded leadership that doesn’t seek consensus is one leadership extreme, deliberate overthinking is another. This is paralysis by analysis. At some point, after you’ve prayed, built relationships, sought wisdom from key stakeholders, gathered data, and communicated the vision, you need to actually lead. It will surprise you to know people actually want to be led. They want to know where the organization or team is going and how to get there. Don’t be so immobilized by fear that you don’t actually move people forward.
Good leaders are not only unafraid to move forward in faith; they’re wise to discern the proper pace of change. This is, in many ways, an intuition, born out of building relational capital, understanding the people you lead, and gathering the best data available. Making change involves risk and faith, but if you’ve done your homework and have earned trust, people will follow.