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.

 

What we can learn from Sir Alex

FergieThere can be no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson, who announced his retirement from Manchester United last Wednesday after an incredible 27 seasons, is an extraordinary character. Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to deny his impact on MUFC and his achievement as the club’s most successful manager, despite many other great names having held the same position. He has won the Manager of the Year award more times than any other British manager.  The news of his retirement hit news headlines and front pages, and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson even did a prime time report analysing his qualities as a leader – ‘I’ve yet to see [a leader] to match Sir Alex’, he commented.

This is something that leaders in mission agencies might want to reflect on. Probably more flawed and controversial than many of us (how many of us have kicked a boot at one of our team members?!), Fergie nevertheless has a number of qualities we would do to emulate:

A long-term view. As well as staying in his post for an incredibly long time (he was MU manager before many of his current players were born!), he has also taken a long-term approach to team development. While the success of the team has often revolved around star players like Keane, Cantona, Ronaldo and Beckham, Fergie has always brought new players in to ensure a broad and deep skill base, even rebuilding the team when necessary. He recognises that his players are only with him for a few years, and he plans beyond that time frame.

Perseverence. It hasn’t always gone well. Some years have yielded no silverware at all, and there have been calls for his resignation, particularly in the early days. MUFC won nothing in his first three seasons, their best result being runner up in the league. But he remained focussed, and over time has delivered an unparalleled collection of trophies. Results are more often delivered over time than in the first few years.

AFAbility to manage volatile people. Let’s face it, most of his players are young, overpaid prima donnas. Many of them have personal issues, particularly with anger. They’re not ideal team players. Their egos can get in their way. Does that sound a bit like your team? Fergie didn’t change them – he channelled them. He gave them a vision of what they could achieve together and enabled them to raise their expectations above their own personal goals.

We should also take note that there are aspects of his character however that are completely incompatible with Christian mission. For example, his leadership style is utterly uncompromising – ‘My way or the highway’ – which while delivering excellent results does not always deliver good relationships. It is widely rumoured that many of his best players ultimately moved on because they didn’t like the changing room environment his iron hand created. But this did not seem to matter significantly to him, since there were always plenty of new players to replace them. As one member care agency comments – The Great Commission should not be fulfilled at the expense of the greatest commandment.

All of his success of course, has been achieved on the back of a massive investment budget which has turned Manchester United from a football team to a global brand. Maybe developing inward investment should be our first priority!

Whether we like Sir Alex or not, or follow his team, we would do well to study his leadership style and cherry pick the best of it. He understands how to motivate and inspire people.