Leading Well for the Long Haul

The following is a guest post by Larry Osborne. Larry has served as one of the senior pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, CA.  During that time, North Coast has grown from a fledging group of 128 meeting in a rented high school cafeteria to a multi-site church ministering to over 11,000 in weekend attendance.

Larry has written a number of influential books including Sticky Church and Innovation's Dirty Little Secret. Today's post addresses 4 vital skills essential to leading for the long hall. And Larry should know, he's been serving at North Coast for over 30 years. 

In today's post he's giving you the keys to running the marathon. Enjoy. 

Enter Larry. 

Everybody wants to leave a legacy. But the reality is we can’t control the impact or the length of our legacy. We’re prophets to our own generation (Acts 13:36) who serve God, play our role and are gone.

That said, how we live and lead does have an impact on our endurance. Our perspective, the way we love our people, our dependability and our sense of security all directly affect our ability to lead and serve effectively for the long haul.

1.     Maintain Perspective

Don’t take yourself too seriously. We’re just a mist that’s here today, gone tomorrow (James 4:14). When our work is done, God will say, “Next!” and the kingdom will go on quite well without us.

I tell pastors I’m mentoring to simply do your best, then take a nap. Because at the end of the day, all we can do is prepare the horse for battle. Ultimately, the victory or defeat belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:30-31).

2.     Love Your People

Solomon said that a throne or leadership position is made safe and secure by two things: love and faithfulness (Proverbs 20:28). These two traits are essential to a lasting leadership run.

The first trait, love, is simply treating those we lead with a 1 Corinthians 13 attitude. This means responding to them with patience and kindness, not being self-seeking or keeping a record of wrongs. Treating the people we lead with this kind of agape love is directly tied to Jesus continuing to show up. When the church at Ephesus lost the agape love that it had at first, all of its passion, hard work and endurance came to naught. Jesus said he would stop showing up if they didn’t repent and go back to loving one another.

3.     Be Dependable

The second trait Solomon extols is faithfulness. We call it dependability today. It means keeping our promises and fulfilling our responsibilities, being someone people can count on.

When we say God is faithful, we mean he keeps his promises. We can count on him. He won’t let us down. A leader who keeps his promises and consistently fulfills his responsibilities is the kind of leader people will gladly follow for the long-term.

4.     Develop a Thick Skin

Servant leadership is a great idea until people begin to treat us like a servant. But that’s exactly the kind of leadership we’ve been called to emulate. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. He said the way to the top was through taking on the role of a servant and the way to the very top was to take on the role of a slave (Matthew 20:25-28).

Leaders who are easily hurt, offended or need oodles of affirmation don’t usually last very long. Their insecurity betrays them. But those who develop a sense of security in Christ respond differently. They learn that it’s a glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11) and that forgiving as we’ve been forgiven isn’t a cliché—it’s a command.

As Sam Chand pointed out in his excellent book, Leadership Pain, our leadership is closely tied to our relational pain threshold. Those with thicker skin can keep moving on with God’s greater glory in front of them and the cross behind them. Those with thin skin have to stop and lick their wounds, lash back or go into hiding.

Keep these four vital things in mind as you consider how you’re running the ministry marathon. They’ll help make sure you don’t run out of gas or hit the wall before the race is over.

If your hope is to lead well for the long term, consider joining me at one of our upcoming Sticky Teams conferences. In addition to being a main speaker, I’ll be hosting a special pre-conference session: Leadership For The Long Haul.

I welcome any pastor or ministry leader who is serious about leading well to join us. Learn more about our upcoming Sticky Teams conferences in Lancaster, PA in April and Charlotte, NC in May.

Ugly Teams Ruin Longevity

Do you think it’s possible for your people to enjoy volunteering with you more than they enjoy their day job? That might feel like a tall order, but it’s entirely possible. The elements that make a great working/volunteering environment are the same.

But what if they don't enjoy volunteering on your team?

ugly teams

Why would anyone stay in a bad job? The answer is simple, they stay because of an great team.

Think about it. In any organization the only thing that has the potential to deeply impact your experience is your team. You will have great times and times of crisis but your team is the thing that can hold you through. It’s the same for anyone on your team.

Look at the graph below. Imagine you are on a great team. When things go well, the team high is awesome. When it goes through times of crisis you push through because you’re willing to push through it as long as you have your team.


Now imagine that you don’t really get along with your team. You could take them or leave them. Think about those highs, they aren’t nearly as exciting. They seem like a small payoff for having to deal with the team. And when you hit those times of crisis, you constantly ask yourself “Is this even worth it?”

In fact most people don't quit because they've hit a time of crisis, they quit because they don't connect with their leader or team. 

People don’t quit because they’ve hit a time of crisis.
— StevenJBarker

So how do you insure you are creating an awesome team environment? Ask yourself these 12 questions (adapted from "First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" by Marcus Buckingham [affiliate link].

  1. Does everyone on your team know how they can best contribute?
    Everyone wants to know what you need from them, they want to know how to play their part. Feeling unsure whether your contribution matters is a sure fire way to suck anyone’s energy tank dry.
  2. Does everyone have the materials and equipment necessary to do their work right?
    It’s hard to do the work when you don’t have the right tools. You show your volunteers appreciation if you work hard at getting them the right tools. It cost money, but it’s a worth while investment.
  3. Does everyone have the opportunity to do what they do best every time they serve?
    It’s easy to look at the ministry you are trying to accomplish as a mountain that you try to throw volunteers at. In reality it's a playground you to plug gifted people into. Help them find their spot, when they find their spot it only puts fuel in their tank.
  4. Is everyone being recognized and praised for doing good work?
    You don’t have to be the only one doing this. Help your team encourage each other. Point out great work publicly, make a habit of it. Look for excuses, even if it means walking up beside someone and whispering “I just saw what you did, great job.”
  5. Do your team leaders care about each volunteer as a person?
    Sometimes all it takes is a simple question, “How are you doing?” When they say “Good” ask again. “No really, how are you doing?” Volunteers are people too.
  6. Is each person on your team being developed?
    Everyone on your team wants to get better. Are they being encouraged and equipped to do so?
  7. Do their options count?
    Do you ask the people on the front lines for their feedback and ideas? 
  8. Does everyone feel like their role contributes to the organization’s mission/purpose?
    It can be easy to feel like a small job on Sundays isn’t really making a difference. Help people see how they are fulfilling the mission. “When you do __x__ it helps people __y__."
  9. Is everyone on the team committed to doing quality work?
    If someone isn’t, maybe they aren’t in the right spot. They probably aren’t having any fun either.
  10. Do the people on your team feel like they are building relationships?
    One of the reasons people serve is that deep down they want to be known. Relationship give serving context.
  11. Are you taking the opportunity to talk about how your team members have improved over the last six months?
    When you review the last season’s goals, look for opportunities to shine a light on various team member’s growth. Did Josh take on a new leadership role? Did Cathy become more approachable?
  12. In the last year, has everyone had opportunities to learn and grow?
    Have you sent your team members to conferences? Bought them books? Offered them helpful, compelling training?

If you answered no to too many of these questions and you’re on your way to building one ugly team. And you inevitably will be dealing with turnover in your near future. Start tackling these in order. Work on questions 1 & 2 until you feel like they have turned into a yes. Then move on to 3, 4, 5, & 6 and then on to 7, 8, 9 & 10. And finally put your effort into 11 & 12. Don't bother jumping ahead to much. If your team members don't know how they can best contribute, it won't do you any good focusing on their improvement.

Answer yes to these 12 questions and you are on your way to building one awesome team!

Question of the day: Thinking about your own experience, could you answer yes to these 12 questions?

How To Know If You're In The Right Leadership Position

Leadership is a life long experience and at times it can be difficult to figure out if you’re in the right spot. Sometimes you may feel underwhelmed, or maybe you feel over loaded. Then again, maybe your just stuck.

Finding the right (and timely) leadership position can keep you on a sustainable path; failing to do so will inevitably lead to burnout or boredom.

Failing to find the right leadership position will lead to burnout or boredom.
— StevenJBarker

I recently bought my first motorcycle and it’s as if driving is new again. Things that I had long since taken for granted are fresh and interesting. What had become just another metal box flying down the highway next to me now has become a potential deadly obstacle. Smells and sounds that I had never really experienced in my car are now a vivid multi sensory experience. Driving has become raw and invigorating. 

For many of us, if leadership is going to be sustainable it needs to feel just raw enough and invigorating enough to keep us in the game. 

So how do you know you’re in the right leadership position? 

Don’t Outdrive Your Headlight

To stay engaged in your leadership role you need to stay at the edge of your capacity.

When you drive a vehicle at night for example, you really can only drive as fast as your eye can see. If you begin to outdrive your headlights you won’t have the time to react to any obstacles you may encounter. 

The same is true of leadership. It can be tempting to “bite off more than you can chew” but in reality, you really just want to bite off enough that’s somewhat difficult to chew. You want to take on enough responsibility that the work is challenging but not so much that you’re floundering. 

And to clarify, when I say take on responsibility I mean taking ownership for delivering results. If that means you’re starting something new, you’re taking on the responsibility to make that new “thing” a success. If you’re taking over an existing team, that means taking ownership of that team’s continued success and growth. 

Push yourself to the edge of your capacity. Keep yourself just uncomfortable enough that you have no choice but to keep learning. As you learn more you upgrade your leadership headlight and subsequently you can see further and further down the path. 

Keep Your Tank Full

At the same time you’re pushing forward, you’ve got to keep your gas thank full. Do you know what fills your tank? Is it your family relationships? Is it time with “safe” friends? (Do you still have those?) Do you have a hobby? Are you taking days off, just for you? 

Keeping your tank full is incredibly important. 

Schedule that time, invest in yourself. You’re no good to anyone else if you aren’t taking care of you. 

Watch Your Gauges

Then keep an eye on your gauges. Thing of it like this: leadership is supposed to hurt your head a little. It’s supposed to be challenging enough that it makes you think hard enough to make you feel a little tired at the end of the day. Your leadership pain gauge has three colors, you want to spend most of your time in the yellow zone. 

Green: If you’re to relaxed, eventually you’ll find yourself getting bored and tired of dealing with frivolous issues. You won’t have enough skin in the game to push through because your “purpose” engine won’t be burning hot enough. 

Red: If you find yourself maxed out, where you’re overly stressed about keeping all the plates spinning, you’ll certainly get yourself in trouble. No one can operate at that speed for a sustainable length of time. Back off a little, ask for help. Ask your team for assistance (or form a team if you don’t have one). Find someone on your team that’s currently leading in the green zone and ask them to take some of the load. 

Yellow: This is the sweet spot. It means you’re working hard enough your head hurts a little. You’re paying attention to what’s going on. You'll find yourself reading more, asking better questions and pushing toward audacious but attainable goals. 

You’re in the right leadership position when your brain hurts a little.
— StevenJBarker

Finding the right leadership positions means you’re regularly evaluating your current role and responsibilities. Take some time today to ask yourself these questions (and schedule at time to do it again in three months). 

  1. Am I driving faster than my headlights? 
  2. Is my tank getting close to empty? 
  3. Which zone is my leadership pain gauge in?  

And if you’ve got the guts, talk to your boss or board about it….I'm willing to bet you have common goals. Every organization is stronger when everyone is running at top performance. 

Question of the day: What are your answers to the three questions?