Anonymous case study
In 2017 our organization decided to go from a single International Director to an International Director team. There were lots of questions about whether this would work. No one knew of a good example of this at a top level of an organization. In fact, one leader that we suggested the idea to from a large church network replied that if we could make it work, we should write a book.
One of the reasons that several of us wanted to move in this direction was that we wanted to tell a new story about leadership at a senior level. Yes, it was partly about sharing the burdens and the workload of leading an organization of about 1500 members. Of course, we wanted to accomplish our goals by having more than one share the leadership load. But even more compelling were the elements of a new story which included trinitarian theology, seriousness about team, trust, stewardship, and diversity. We also felt that God was leading us this way through prayer and words of encouragement.
Once, someone asked me what our model was for doing a three-person team at the International Director level. My first thought was ‘we have no model’. But then, it occurred to me that we do have a model and that it was the Trinity. It is not an equal analogy, but I have always been intrigued by the idea of one God in three persons where each person of the Trinity shows deference to the other. If this is an attribute of God, it could be an attribute of our leading as we follow his example.
Our organization has always had a high value of team. In fact, it is one of our six non-negotiables. We encourage teams to collaborate, we’ve adopted team leadership at other levels, and we promote a view of New Testament church in which multiple elders were the preferred pattern. So, why not practice what we preach at the highest level of leadership in a Christian organization?
An organization should be more than a loose collection of individual teams. We aspire to be a community or coalition of teams. For that to work well, connection is needed between teams which includes communication and relationship but also another vital aspect –mutual submission. On our International Director Team this looks like supporting the idea of one member when the other two wouldn’t necessarily lean in that direction or letting another member choose which conference they’d prefer to attend when an International Director is invited.
One of our initial promises to the organization when we were being voted in as a team was that if the case arose that one of us needed to make a decision individually (if it were necessary or urgent to do so) the other two would back that decision. It was a concrete example of us trusting each other. We believed that trust between us was a key factor in making a team model work at this level of leading. It also communicated that we would take collective responsibility for our team, even when just one spoke or acted.
To achieve this level of trust is partly a decision to do so. It is also a result of our having already worked together enough to know each other relatively well before we became a leadership team. This was especially true between two of us, but we all three intentionally developed more of this trust together as we worked.
One further aspect is friendship, perhaps one of the least discussed topics in Christian leadership. Jesus calls us friends and his phileo love was evident in his ministry with his closest disciples. The three of us have become closer friends through our sharing of this experience
Leadership and stewardship aren’t mutually exclusive, but the idea of stewardship suggests that leadership doesn’t belong to us, that we are holding something in trust for the sake of someone else or for others. This hugely changes perspective. For one thing, it constantly reminds us of being at the service of others rather than being over the servants. This, we believe, is an actual working out of Phil. 2:3 in leadership.
A steward is not looking for perks, power or prominence. In fact, he or she is looking for how to promote others and give prominence to younger leaders. If the goal of stewardship is to create space for the next generation to lead, then invitation, creativity, and humility are far greater advantages than authority, IQ, or eloquence.
Since our founding, all of our international directors had been middle-aged, white, American men who were married. This was partly because our organization was started in America by American males and the first wave of people joining were largely Americans. However, by 2010 we had grown to over 1000 people that comprised a significant number of Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans, women and singles. Today, Americans only comprise about 50% of our membership. It was time to have more international and diverse leadership at all levels.
Our current team is made up of three men: Swiss, German, and American. So, as some people remarked, it doesn’t look that diverse! But it was a big step in the right direction. The doors to ‘top’ leadership are now open for more of our diverse membership. Though we believe in greater inclusion, we don’t feel bound to merely satisfy a cultural trend. We want to acknowledge the multicultural and many-coloured reality that God designed as well as who we are as a community and seek God’s guidance for the best leadership.
How do decisions get made?
We have most often come to unanimous consensus. In the cases when all three of us were not in agreement, we decided in advance that two of us would outweigh the third member. That has been rare, and without a fight.
What if there’s an important decision to be made quickly, Won’t that be a problem?
We don’t feel that very many decisions are critically urgent. Usually, we have time to deliberate, pray, wait on God, and listen to others. The cadence of our meeting together has seemed to work for doing this. We have weekly virtual meetings, quarterly in person gatherings, and annual retreats (which we do with our wives, as well). But if it was necessary to make a quick decision apart from the other two, the principle mentioned above under Trust would apply.
Isn’t this like leading by committee?
Not at all. Not when there is the kind of trust we have in each other and in God. Surely, God is bigger than our finite understandings and points of view. We believe that our model is neither a democracy where merely the majority rule, nor a committee, where individual agendas or egos may get in the way.
How do you divide up responsibilities?
We have acknowledged our different gift and skill sets. So, according to that, we’ve divided up some areas of general oversight and responsibility. But we consult with each other often and could usually answer for one another about most things.
The one thing that is a bit trickier is written communication that will be published in all three of our names. Usually, one of us drafts something and the others feel free to edit. There could easily be adjustments of style, phrasing, and emphasis, especially since the main language of communication is English and not all are native English speakers. But, again, we lean on trust and respect of one another more than fine-tuning a perfect communiqué.
Doesn’t one person naturally rise to the top, like a first among equals?
Given that we have different giftings and responsibilities, it could appear that one of us is ‘first’ in a particular area. For example, someone might contact one of us to ask questions because we’re known as a point person for a particular initiative. Or we each might have more current knowledge of certain information. But we actively work against this natural tendency by often affirming the contribution and strengths of the other. Doing this eliminates the impression that one of us has become the first among the rest.
How has the community received the model of team leadership at this level?
The choice of our International Director is decided by the vote of our team leaders. At the time of approving our International Director Team, the discussions leading to the vote were filled with questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of such a team. I remember the previous International Director leaning over to me to say, “I think we’re going to need a plan B!” However, the team leaders ended up voting unanimously in favour of the International Director Team.
Our team model has been affirmed repeatedly by most members. No one has pointed to this aspect of our leadership as a negative or has vocalized a desire to go back to a one-person model. That’s not to say it is the only model for the future or a perfect one. But it has worked!
In leadership discourse, the Great Man theory dominated much of the leadership space until recently. Perhaps it’s time for the Great Team model to take up more of that space. We want to pursue life and leadership like our great leader, Jesus, who said ”not my will but yours be done.” We can only do this with humility and without ego, and that’s a great way to lead.
Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash