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Take me to Church - Early Leadership lessons

Having done quite a bit of reading around leadership recently, I realised that much of my early leadership development happened outside of education. In my late 20s I was appointed to the leadership team of a small church and for several years was in effect the pastor’s right hand man. When that church was joined to a larger church I occupied the equivalent of a middle leadership position. It occurs to me if I’ve learned anything over the years, the lessons learned in these settings have been instrumental both in my day job leading a large humanities department and in my second job as a principal examiner.

One of the accolades that I never really wanted is that apparently I am ‘very good at dealing with difficult people’ and ‘leading teams through difficult change.’ I suspect this is a skill developed in church. Leading change in churches is hard, if you can do it here you can probably do it anywhere. People will threaten to die in a ditch over the choice of hymnbook, the style of music, the type of seating in the main hall and so on. It is not that they are setting out to be difficult; these things do really matter to them. Often by spending time with them, listening and carefully explaining why changes are necessary, it is possible to make progress – but it may be slow progress.

Where there has been success, it is because people have seen the bigger picture and have thought about the place and purpose of the church within the community – they have looked outward. The opposite has also been true; where people have been unable to look beyond their own immediate concerns no progress can be made. Unless people can see and broadly agree on purpose, things won’t move forward.

A second powerful lesson is that it is all about the people. In one church I was in, the finances were such that it looked for a brief while as if the church building might have to be sold. Yet the congregation was pulling together remarkably at the time. One of the national leaders came to speak to us and said ‘if you lose the people you lose everything, if you keep the people you’ve got everything.’ Whether you are able to take people with you on the journey is the main thing. People are everything and everything else is secondary.

Speaking of people, they really can surprise you. People are amazing and infuriating in quite equal measures. I’ve seen people throw their toys out of the pram at the most unexpected things. I’ve also seen people give generously and sacrificially of their time without complaint. I’ve learned not to prejudge or assume. In my first church we reached the conclusion that we needed to sell our very expensive minibus and instead offer lifts to church using cars. This would surely be too big a change for one of our older ladies who was blind, had been in care nearly all her life and was perceived to be difficult. One night after church I decided to bite the bullet and explained to her what we had decided. It wouldn’t be the last time that I would find I had underestimated this lady’s shrewdness and capacity for forward thinking; a remarkable and wonderful lady.

Finally I have learned that character matters as much as – if not more than – skills in churches. There have been a couple of occasions where people have been given significant positions on the basis of talent but their character has let them down. One business leader once said that you should hire on character as you can train skills later. It’s probably an oversimplification in education but when I am appointing or looking to promote someone, character really matters. Who would metaphorically take a bullet for you? Who would throw you under the bus to save their own skin? Of course it goes without saying that people will also ask the same questions of you and being a person of integrity matters, as hard as it can be in some settings.

We all bring our diverse experiences to our classrooms and leadership teams. I wonder what you have learned in other settings that has been useful for you in school?

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