By Jeff Iorg
Leaders need more than an intuitive feeling, an experienced hunch, or a moving emotional moment to solidify a decision to lead a major change.
Using a series of diagnostic questions to guide this kind of strategic decision-making helps clarify the issues and produces a more measured, data-driven conclusion.
Asking these questions in the context of submissive prayer before God and collegial humility among your leadership team makes answering them a spiritual quest, a path to discovering God’s direction.
One of the diagnostic questions—“Is relational trust high enough to sustain the change?”—addresses the confidence followers have in their leaders, and vice versa.
Most discussions of relational trust in organizations focus on leaders gaining the trust of their followers. This is certainly a priority, but trust must flow multiple ways for major change to happen.
In short, the trust has to flow many directions—from leaders to followers, followers to leaders, among the leadership team, and among the followers themselves.
Leaders must earn their followers’ trust before asking them to undertake major change. Followers must trust their leaders in proportion to the change being proposed before they will take the risks needed to get it done.
Leaders gain trust in two primary ways: sacrificial service and demonstrated competence. Both rest on a foundation of character qualities like integrity and transparency.
When Jesus said, “But he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11), he revealed the secret to achieving greatness with followers: serve them.
A few years ago, a younger pastor shared his dream for his church and invited my input. He rolled out a comprehensive vision involving new facilities, staff expansion, community improvement, and global impact. It was well-written, beautifully illustrated, and compellingly presented by a passionate, gifted young man.
When he finished, he asked, “So, what should I do first?”
My answer was short and direct, “Go home and marry and bury some people.” He looked baffled, paused thoughtfully, then said, “I don’t know what you mean. What does that have to do with my vision?”
I explained, “You are 26 years old and have been a pastor for less than a year. You are planning to ask people for millions of dollars and thousands of hours. If you want people to devote a significant portion of their productive lives to helping you fulfill this vision, they need to know you care for them and are loyal to them.
“Sit up with some families who have a loved one dying, intervene in some marriages that are on the verge of break-up, and celebrate some happy events like weddings and graduations. Sacrificially serve people by meeting their heartfelt needs and then ask them to sacrifice to serve your vision.”
Leaders earn trust by serving people. Younger leaders have to pay their dues, making deposits in their “leadership trust fund” with every sacrificial act. Veteran leaders often have a reputation for service, earned by past acts, that project into and through their current leadership situation.
Service stories spread quickly among people who have been cared for by a leader they respect. That is why older leaders can often initiate major change more quickly when given a new ministry assignment.
Even veteran leaders, however, must continue to earn trust and gain influence by serving people.
Leaders also earn trust by demonstrating competence. When a leader does a good job leading lesser changes, followers are more likely to risk making major changes.
When our pastor in Oregon first proposed building the new campus, including moving away from the previous commitment to not owning facilities, my children asked my opinion on the decision.
I told them, “Our pastor has a track record of making good decisions. He has worked on this one with his leadership team and their past decisions have been good for the church. Based on their track record, I believe they have made the right decision and I’m going to support it.”
When a leader has a history of successfully leading one level of change, they earn the right to be trusted with more significant changes.
Veteran leaders, particularly when they enter a new leadership role, have the advantage of presumed competence when it comes to leading major change.
Presumed competence is the confidence people have in a leader based on their past successes—not necessarily what has been done in the new setting.
It is important for veteran leaders to embrace this concept, particularly when asked to take over ailing organizations that need immediate, often major, change.
The trust necessary to make those changes rests on presumed competence because of past effectiveness, more than what has been demonstrated in their short time leading their new organization.
When I became a seminary president, faculty members embraced my leadership because of my track record of accomplishing major change while maintaining stability in past settings—not because of my academic experience (which was minimal).
When leaders demonstrate competence, they earn trust from both current and future followers. Over time, significant trust can be built up in reserve to be drawn down during times of major change.
Keep in mind, however, trust in leadership relationships must flow both ways for major change to be accomplished. Leaders must also trust their followers and build trust among them—meaning they believe their followers have the resources and abilities to make changes effectively.
This trust is built by treating followers with respect, speaking well of them, empowering them to accomplish lesser changes, and allowing them to make some ministry decisions.
When a leader browbeats followers by denigrating their efforts or questioning their motives, trust is undermined. When a leader refuses to delegate tasks or allow others to make final decisions (even on mundane matters), opportunities to demonstrate and build trust are lost.
Leaders build trust in and among their followers by investing them with responsibility and authority for decision-making, giving them incremental responsibility for ministry programs, and celebrating their successes.
Wise leaders build trust in and among their followers over time, knowing when major change becomes necessary, followers must already be trust-infused so they can confidently take on a big challenge.