I am humbled to build on the December blogpost “Leadership for the Long Haul” recently shared by Chad Fenley and Kory Hicks as part of the CACE series Rising Leaders Guide to Change and Innovation. They highlighted the principles of prioritizing spiritual renewal, modeling servant leadership, connecting with fellow leaders, and maintaining a healthy pace.
Their words reminded me that leaders who finish the race are those who effectively take a long view. These leaders move their organizations forward to the best of their abilities and allow the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
This perspective is captured in this homily excerpt penned by then-Father (later Bishop) Ken Untener, words quoted by Pope Francis in 2015:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
How can we best be “prophets of a future not our own”—leaders for the long haul? In my experience, the keys are spiritual formation, strategic vision, collaboration and delegation, continuous learning, and leadership development.
“Train yourself to be godly… [G]odliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (I Timothy 4: 7-8, ESV). It cannot be stated enough: the spiritual charge of leadership requires leaders to foster their own personal faith. In his book Building Below the Waterline, Gordon MacDonald exhorts leaders, “The forming of the soul that it might be a dwelling place for God is the primary work of a Christian leader.”
This important work of spiritual formation comes through the spiritual disciplines of worship, reflection, prayer, and the study of God’s word. In my own spiritual growth, I have appreciated humility, empathy and compassion, steadfastness, faith beyond site, and self-control as key virtues to develop.
Through the work of spiritual formation, I have experienced the joy of finding God in the context of leadership rather than missing God in the context of leadership. Ruth Haley Barton (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership) reminds us of the importance of a leader’s spiritual vitality. Barton states those we lead “need us to keep searching for the bread of life that feeds our own souls so that we can guide them to places of sustenance for their own souls. Then, rather than offering the cold stone of past devotionals, regurgitated apologetics or someone else’s musings about the spiritual life, we will have bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our intimacy with God.”
Rallying an organization around a shared vision is one of the most important tasks of a leader. It is no surprise that a strong vision is directly linked to leading for the long haul. A vision articulates how current stakeholders, who are stewards of a sacred trust, will accomplish the mission at a given point in the ministry’s existence. Vision enables leaders to prioritize tasks and experience accountability based on mission and strategic vision. Without vision, it becomes easy to get lost in the details, to become sidetracked or lose focus on the bigger effort–all of which lead to burn out.
Leadership for the long haul includes keeping your mission and distinctives in clear focus, which in turn keeps your efforts purposeful. With over 20 years of leadership in Christian schools, I have learned that the future is widely unknown, so a lack of vision can have long-term ramifications. Vision prevents leaders and the organizations they lead to be tossed to and fro in the storms we will face. Now more than ever, our schools need leaders to cast hope, vision, and clarity in a time when fear, uncertainty, and the tyranny of the urgent reigns.
Collaboration and Delegation
Perhaps Andy Crouch summarized this point best: “Leadership does not begin with title or position. It begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than your own.” Leading for the long haul requires building teams who stand together, who can engage in difficult conversations, and who lean-in with grace to assume the best about each other. The principle of collaboration calls for teamwork not competition, connection not isolation.
Long-term leaders empower their teams, often delegating the important work of developing and communicating vision, eliminating obstacles, managing projects, developing culture, and celebrating short-term wins. This sharing of power and responsibility requires the right team composition, a high level of trust, and shared objectives.
Continuous Learning, Improvement, and Innovation
Organizations are living things composed of invested stakeholders. People are drawn to vibrant, living organizations and want to believe in the collective vision driving them forward. Growth and learning are two deeply interconnected realities. You can’t have one without the other. Continuous improvement, curiosity, and learning are highly valued by the Delaware County Christian School (DC) community. Leaders who lead for the long haul did not stop learning 20 years ago; they make learning part of their professional work, daily discovering new insights they didn’t have before.
In his recent blog post “Why A Culture of Learning is Your Competitive Advantage,” Ben Stroup challenges leaders to Infuse learning into the habits, expectations, and workflows within teams and employees. Leverage your greatest assets (your people) so they can become agents of change, not keepers of compliance. Stroup states, “When you are humble enough to learn from yourself or someone else, you are open enough to ask the questions necessary to discover gaps and develop new thinking and approaches.”
Leadership Development (Mentoring)
Leaders actively look for and identify future talent for their organizations. Leaders intentionally seek to create structures that enable investment in team members with the goal to “mentor up.” In addition to discussing routine operational matters in direct report meetings, l regularly invest time to develop our executive leaders’ talents and to discuss strategy and vision for their respective areas.
Leaders with longevity seek to hire-up, pursuing candidates who will not only achieve success in current responsibilities but grow into future opportunities. In the DC community, employees will be hired to fulfill their immediate job description and a “plus one”–to encourage ongoing mentorship and investment into the lives of students, parents, and staff. We seek the genius of the “and” in our hiring practices. The principles of spiritual formation, strategic vision, collaboration and delegation, continuous learning, and leadership development position not only a leader to lead for the long haul but also their organization for continued mission delivery. Humbly, we submit to be builders, ministers, prophets of a future not our own as we leave room for the work of the Holy Spirit to craft His kingdom here on earth