By Daniel Darling
Our culture is no stranger to major leadership failures in church, in ministry life, and in the marketplace.
Sometimes these failures are surprising and we ask ourselves, How could this happen? But most of the time, if you know the leader and the culture he or she cultivates, you can trace the steady and sure path of their descent.
But we’re in danger of repeating their mistakes. We’re just as capable, as fragile, and as vulnerable. We should endeavor to create environments that help us flourish and check our worst impulses.
I’ve been in several organizations and have worked with all kinds of leaders. But one thing is constant: Leaders who don’t intentionally surround themselves with the right kind of people are setting themselves up for failure.
Leaders should do this early—before they’re a “big deal,” before they get too busy to cultivate these key relationships. Otherwise, bad habits and harmful patterns can form that make it difficult to lead in ways that help others flourish.
Here are five kinds of people you need in your life:
1. You need a father or a mother.
It’s often easy to tell when someone is leading out of their insecurities—their need to prove themselves to those around them.
It’s good to be motivated, to be ambitious, to have big plans. But leaders who are deeply insecure and cannot rest in the knowledge that they are loved will take out their insecurities on those they are called to serve.
Ultimately, we find our security in knowing and being known by God. But we often have this communicated to us by someone who fathers or mothers us. This could be our earthly dad or mom. Or it very well might be someone in our same field, who is several miles ahead of us in life, who can put their arms around us and affirm our callings.
For me, this has often been my own godly father. But at times I’ve had wise, older leaders mentor me at critical times of crisis. I’m convinced we cannot go farther in our faith without spiritual fathers and mothers to guide us.
2. You need sons and daughters.
These may be our actual sons and daughters, but more often this means sons and daughters in the faith.
Barnabas had Paul and Paul had Timothy. Think of those around us who are looking for fathers. I believe it’s critical for leaders to intentionally find others a few paces behind them to encourage and launch into their own kingdom work.
You will often have opportunities to speak confidence into people and open doors for them. Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to try to do this. I both try to be available for those who seek advice and I try to proactively reach out and offer a word of support.
It can be as simple as things like, I’ve read your work and I think you are really gifted. Have you considered writing more? Or I’ve heard you speak or have seen you lead and I want to help you in any way I can. Think of the folks who have opened doors for you, who made it possible to be where you are. Then do that for others.
3. You need real friends.
One of the worst pieces of ministry advice I received was from a pastor peer. He advised me not to get too close to anyone in my church—to keep people at arm’s length.
I didn’t know much in those days, but I knew enough to reject this advice. I need good friends and you need good friends. And by friends I don’t mean people you know as ministry or work acquaintances or through social media connections.
You need friends with whom you can be completely yourself without having to measure up and perform. You need friends who bring you joy and life rather than exhaustion and anxiety. These are the friends with whom you can be vulnerable.
I have a handful of close friends with whom I can share just about anything. Some of them live in the same town, but many others live in other parts of the country, but we communicate regularly in some way—be it voice call or text.
These are folks I love and would do absolutely anything for. David had Jonathan. Jesus had his three close friends. And so should you. Isolation will absolutely destroy your leadership.
4. You need people who will tell you things you don’t want to hear.
This is likely the most difficult person to place in your inner circle. But you need them.
Unlike fathers, protégé’s, and friends, these are people who are committed to your well-being but will tell you when you are doing wrong things. You need people like this around you in your ministry or organization or business.
Think of Nathan, who had the courage to hear the word of the Lord and rebuke King David for his sin. In this case, the leader created an environment where such rebukes were welcomed. You have to be willing to allow people in who disagree with you and push you. Not in a cynical, destructive way, but in a way that helps you flourish.
And the earlier in your career you do this, the better. If you surround yourself with “yes” men and women, you’ll create a sort of bubble around you that isolates you from reality. I have seen this kind of dangerous environment over and over again my lifetime.
But if you put people in your life who are allowed to tell you no, you can avoid the kind of pitfalls that take leaders down. It’s critical to your leadership to have few folks around who don’t see you as their hero—who don’t think you’re that big of a deal.
5. You need people who complement your gifts and your life experiences.
If you are a visionary leader who isn’t great with granular details, you’ll need others who are excellent in systems and execution. If you’re introverted, you’ll need some extroverts in your circle.
You also need people who compliment you in age and experience. Surrounding yourself with people who are your same age, who think the same way you do in every way, and who are from the same kind of social background, will only influence your leadership with an eye toward people just like you.
This is especially important in church life. You need a diverse set of staff and inner circle that offer insight born out of lives different from your own.
Cultivating this diverse inner circle will take some effort—and maybe a little pain. But by inviting these five key people to work alongside you and speak into your life and ministry, you’ll be glad you did this hard work when you look back after a strong finish.
And those you lead and have led will be glad you did, too.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.