George Barna, the researcher and author who delves into Christian ideas, opinions and attitudes through his numerous polls, has written extensively about leadership and its ramifications for the state of Christianity in modern America. Recently, he interviewed 30 leaders about what it takes to provide leadership in this modern, cynical era. Cumulatively, the leaders that he interviewed have “more than 1,000 years of direct leadership experience, have published more than 300 books, and have sold more than 50 million copies of those books.” Armed with over 150 questions about the practical aspects of leadership, Barna’s goal was to “capture their wisdom” and discover lessons that would help others to grow in their “leadership capabilities.”
The book, Master Leaders, consists of 16 chapters that cover various components of leadership as identified in the leadership literature — such practical topics as hiring and firing, conflict and confrontation, discipline and developing trust, as well as more esoteric factors like vision, values, character development, and building teams. The leaders who were interviewed came from the theoretical world (Ken Blanchard and Warren Bennis), political leaders (former House Majority leader Newt Gingrich (R) and former Governor Mike Huckabee (R)), sports coaches (Tony Dungy and Lou Holtz), along with military and ministry leaders. Most notably missing from his interviewees were leaders in the not-for-profit world and leaders of Christian organizations. Among the more important lessons that we can learn from Barna’s interviews are: • It is very dangerous to operate an organization where nobody knows the truth and where issues are not discussed. • Having employee contracts is important because when things aren’t going well, it is necessary to have somewhere to turn. • Candor and transparency are characteristics of successful organizations and companies. • Every organization has a specific and unique “culture” that is developed by sharing a vision and employing “healthy” people who contribute to the fulfillment of that vision. • Numerous participants emphasized the need for the leader to be “there” — the person leading the organization must be open, available, and vulnerable to colleagues so that those involved in making the organization a success can draw strength from the solid presence and input of the leader. • While physical presence is necessary, humility and an attitude of service are essential — leaders who put themselves on a pedestal are not effective, nor are those who rule by fiat and make decisions based on their needs rather than organization’s. • Those who were interviewed agreed that power comes from “moral authority” rather than from a title or position within the organization. They added that respect is earned, and power is granted to the leader by those in subordinate positions. Great leaders, one participant noted, comes when the leaders have a sense of moral direction and exercise power with intelligence and respect for others. • The leaders agreed that the ability to handle criticism was a crucial factor in whether a leader succeeds or fails. Pressure is inherent in leadership positions, and those who cannot handle the pressure or are too sensitive to criticism cannot make the tough decisions. Perhaps the most insightful observation that Barna made after his series of interviews was that great leaders are effective storytellers; they are able to speak persuasive and authentically in telling the organization’s narrative. They are able to compellingly motivate others through exceptional public speaking and interpersonal skills. And, they are good listeners. Effective leaders ask for the opinions and advice of others and then listen carefully to their responses. They have the wisdom to assimilate what they hear, apply it to their own situation, and make informed judgments that are appreciated by those affected by the outcome. Further, those who make the best leaders truly respect others and give appropriate credit to those who make the organization’s wheels turn. They build a climate of cooperation where each individual’s gifts are acknowledged as essential to the total effort. Once again, Barna’s findings conform to the accepted wisdom that leadership is as much “art” as it is “science,” but respect for others and genuine humility go a long way in helping those in “power” to succeed.