Thursday, October 08, 2009

Team Leadership: Inspiring Staff and Volunteers

Part of my job as a pastor is to build ministry teams that are motivated, hopeful, and strategically pushing towards a clear and compelling picture of the future. These teams, made up of paid and unpaid staff, must be led by leaders who, though uncertain about exact outcomes, know how to encourage and lead their teams forward into an unknown and uncharted future. Inevitably, any pursuit into the unknown will provide set-backs and discouragement that, depending on the key-leaders ability to rally the troops, could either stall all forward movement or inspire creative and compelling solutions. Further, because most Kingdom-problems are community-problems, most Kingdom-solutions have community-solutions. As Christian leaders then, it is likely that we will find the majority of our leadership time sitting around coffee tables with our teams looking for these community-solutions. Follows are four things I have learned about inspiring my teams to hope and purposeful action.

1. No BS.

People know when the ship is sinking, crap in the fan usually ends up on the walls, and sugar coated razor-blades are always tough to swallow. There is no disguise that staff and volunteers will not see through eventually. Team leaders who try to divert their teams’ attention away from the cold hard realities are the leaders who end up losing credibility, build shallow solutions for deep problems, and who often end up discouraged and confused as to why the vision seems so unattainable. Teams that operate in their prime are known for clarity of analysis and interpretation, courage to move forward against impossible odds, and who have a face like Clint Eastwood in an arm-wrestle with Chuck Norris. Teams can only move forward if they know the reality of the situation they face; this means that part of the role of team leader is to strip away the peripheral and engage head-on with the task at hand. No flowers. No sugar. Cut the BS.

2. Never Waste a Crises.
There is nothing that will unite a group of people faster than a problem, crisis, emergency, or disaster. Some of the most powerful revolutions were born on the back of shared injustice, lack, or shortfall. People, bonded together through the memories of conflict and crises, find themselves at impossible odds orchestrating an impossible uprising of creative and unstoppable solutions that are totally surprising and, very often, from the ground up.

For years, one requirement of my leadership teams’ was to go on a roadtrip every six months with people they had just met in the last six months. Besides the community and relationships this built, it was fundamental in helping our team leaders use crises to look for creative solutions. Why? Every good road trip is bound to have a few wrong turns, a missed exit, a weirdo hitchhiker, a flat tire, or an empty tank of gas. Four people in a car, while learning to either love or hate each other, must put everything else aside to work towards crises resolution – most often resulting in strengthened relational bonds.

Crisis bond people; it brings us together. As team leaders, we must never ever waste a crisis. These are absolutely critical times that will determine the strength and creativity of our teams. While we do not manufacture crises, we shouldn’t be all that fearful of them either. For the healthy team it tests them, allows them to do necessary purges, and brings about a closeness that is not possible when times are quieter, softer, easier, and greener ($$$).

3. Ante Up.
As one pastor puts it so eloquently, “Put your cup on, lower your head, and head back into the ring.” Volunteers and staff are more likely to face the challenges of adversary head-on when they go into battle side-by-side with their leader(s). Team leaders must respond to challenge by upping the ante themselves, calling people to action, and daring people to move with them. This often requires the blood, sweat, and tears of leaders in breaking ground and punching out new and exciting possibilities even when all the odds are against them. Staff and volunteers don’t mind taking a few shots and enduring a few hardships when they see that their leaders are out front bearing the assault as well. Leaders, ante up, and then challenge your people to put their money on the table as well.

4. See the Future.

Team leaders who inspire and motivate their team towards significant action open windows into the future that are both compelling and achievable. Sometimes these windows are very small and are only open for a moment to help re-direct the team; other times the windows into the future are massive floor to ceiling portholes that provide sweeping panoramic vistas of a land far away and beautiful. Either way, these windows into the future are what will continue to drive the church – staff and volunteers – towards imaginative and strategic movement. Vision is about hope. It’s about the people and places we hope for and about clearly seeing what might be. Vision is about community. It’s about where we expect to be and who we expect to be there with. It’s collaborative and felt by all, seen by all, and believed by all. There are times, however, where team leaders need to become the mouthpiece of “we” re-envisioning, re-imagining, and re-calibrating what exactly it is that the team sees. In some ways, team leaders become the teams’ optometrist ensuring that the vision stays sharp and in focus. A clearly defined image of the future is often enough to ensure the continued hope, inspiration, and creativity of our teams.

Leaders Get Discouraged

Finally, leading teams through discouragement, set-back, and failure is perhaps one of the more difficult leadership challenges that a team leader faces. In my own experience, these are the times I feel most vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy, thoughts of resentment towards team members, and to thoughtless reaction that further damages or slows progress. I am continually faced with the truth that not everything I do, the future that I see, and the current reality that I describe, are not always as I see them. Yet, I must continue. I must remember that God is at work and often in the most surprising of ways. I must remember that I am loved and cherished by the God whose image I am made. I must remember that my value as a person is not attached to my accomplishments, net-worth, or leadership skill set. Rather, my inherited worth is that I am undeservedly heir to the Kingdom of heaven, known as a child of God, and called and equipped to serve His community with humble faithfulness.

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