Receiving the baton

A couple of months ago we did a blog on how we can support new leaders when they take over in our church, agency or team.  This week we’re going to look again at the same topic but from the perspective of the new leader.  How can you make sure you pick up the baton safely and get off to a good start, particularly if you’re following in the footsteps of a significantly strong, influential or much-loved leader?

Believe in yourself.  If you genuinely believe you are called by God to fill this role, you need to be bold enough to recognize that you’re in that role because of who you are.  You have your own set of characteristics and abilities which are different to those of your predecessor.  You don’t need to apologise for being who you are, but to trust that you have come into your position for such a time as this (Esther 4:14).

Take your time.  Before you make major decisions you should wait until you’ve got to know the organization (if you’re new to it) or understand some of the leadership dynamics if you’ve been promoted within it.  You need to take time to become informed before initiating significant change.

You also need to be aware that needing to stamp your mark on the organization is an indication of character weakness, and a response to feeling insecure.

Don’t waste time.  Paradoxically, there is a fine line between acting too rashly and too indecisively, and taking too much time to find your feet can create the impression of indecisiveness among your team.  They need to feel that there is a firm hand on the tiller, even though you’re not changing course.

Let people know you’re listening, but lead the decision making.  Much milk has been spilt over different leadership styles being needed in different situations, but one very good example of leading a very diverse group through potential conflict is the Jerusalem council of Acts 15.  Everyone had their say, then the leader – James – summarized the discussion and made a decision (“my judgment” – verse 19) which appears to be unanimous (verse 22) and is later couched in a press release as “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28).

You can recover from a bad start.  If it doesn’t start well, don’t panic.  Endurance and perseverance can recover the situation.  After Southampton football club defeated Man U to win the 1976 FA Cup their manager Lawrie McMenemy, reflected that although people were now waving to him in the street in Southampton, three years earlier he’d been used to ducking whatever the people were throwing at him, as he was unable to prevent the team being relegated.  A Biblical example would be Moses, coming in from outside to lead his people to freedom.  The people were opposed to him because of the increasing hardship they faced, and Moses was ready to quit (Exodus 5:20-23).  But it worked out alright in the end.

 

Taking over a new role is not easy.  It will drive you to your knees in prayer – and if it doesn’t, beware of trusting in your own skills and ability rather than the grace of God who provide all you need.

When the baton is passed

I have recently been reflecting on how hard it is to take over leadership from someone who has done well.  Think, for example, of the difficulties Manchester United has had since Sir Alex retired.  It can often be the same in churches or mission agencies following the tenure of a particularly significant leader.

While it will be a perfectly natural response to miss a much-loved leader, and wonder what will happen without them, or even have fears for the future, such feelings can easily become negative thoughts about their successor.  We can start to wonder if she is fit to follow in the footsteps of such a great saint.  Or possibly even resent every change that she makes even if it is for the better.  This then gets us into the habit of continually being cynical about her tenure.

So how can we be good team members at a time of transition?

1. We can recognize that transition destabilises us emotionally. We are crossing over from a place of certainty and we need to be aware of our own fragility which can make us overreact to even the smallest changes.  At times like these we need to focus on what has not changed, and this helps us through.  Other colleagues, friends, and of course God!

2. We remember that we support the team not the leader. After Sir Alex, retired, very few Man U fans will have stopped supporting the club.  In fact their subsequent disappointment and frustration are functions of their love for Man U!  Likewise we are in partnership with an organization, a family, a movement which is bigger than any one person.

3. We understand that any agency evolves over time as leadership passes from hand to hand. For some organisations that has been happening for decades, maybe even a century or more, and the agency still goes on.  Each new leader has the opportunity to shape the agency but it has weathered handover before and probably will again.

4. We can give the new leadership time. In fact we can empathise with them because no matter what our current role, we too were once rookies and had to learn the job from scratch.  We asked stupid questions and made silly mistakes which would embarrass us now if we remembered them.

5. We acknowledge that each new leader needs our support. When King David headed off a power grab by his ambitious son Adonijah (1 Kings 1) by publicly crowning Solomon instead, it was only the loyalty of brave people like Bathsheba, Nathan and Zadok that created a groundswell of popular support.  We have a choice – we can be a backstabber or a cheerleader.

Not everybody taking over the baton does well.  Sometimes they drop it, or get off to a slow start.  That’s not the time to lose faith in them.  They may be able to pick it up and carry on running.  If they do, it’s our cheers that will help them catch up.