Skip to content

A Dangerous Leadership Myth

October 15, 2012


To lead is to succeed…or is it? We live in a culture that places a very high premium on success and leadership is defined as the ability to reach predetermined objectives and goals on behalf of the organization. Churches and other Christian ministries assume the same line of reasoning – effective leadership is able to create measurable success. Leadership is driven by pragmatism. In the end, the bottom line is growth. As a result, most leaders define success by criteria that are praiseworthy and pleasing to others.

This myth, to lead is to succeed, has been elevated to new levels in our consumer culture and continues to shape the church in profound ways. Recently, a Christian journal crossed my desk promoting the myth. On the cover of Outreach I read: Top 100 Churches: Largest and Fastest Growing. The subtitle asked “Who’s on the list? What can your church learn?” Pastors who are exposed to this type of thinking become conditioned to believe that growth is the only goal worth pursuing.

This emphasis on bigger and better moved to the forefront with the birth of the church growth movement in the 1970’s and 80’s. Success was directly tied to the growth rate of the congregation. A healthy church was defined as one that was growing at 10 percent or higher per year. At the other end of the continuum were churches that had “plateaued” or were in “decline.”

As a pastor, I remember our annual district conference where the statistics were published for all to see. Plateaued and declining churches were targeted for redevelopment through training or, if necessary, a pastoral change. The message was clear – to lead is to succeed by ensuring numerical growth in your ministry.

If we come at successful leadership through the lens of numerical pragmatism, we unknowingly allow church to function under the same rules that guide capitalism. Capitalism survives by creating growth. Economic health is connected to the need for new markets and new products. In a similar way, contemporary church culture insists on growth as a definition of health. The attendance curve must be up and to the right or we are in danger of a stagnant “economy,” one where declining numbers lead to downward spiral: reduced giving, reduced staffing and reduced programs. Momentum must be maintained or the organization falters. In the end, growth overshadows all other concerns.

George Allen, a hard-working football coach said, “Most men succeed because they are determined to.” In this statement we find the false assumption that feeds the “to lead is to succeed” myth: We can secure the success we want if we are committed to attain it.

Such thinking flies in the face of much wisdom that has been taught and modeled throughout the ages. I recently read Victor E. Frankl’s best seller Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl is a Viennese psychiatrist who experienced the horror of the holocaust and wrote a book describing his experience in World War II concentration camps. To his surprise, the book sold over two million copies. In response to such success, Frankl writes the following in his introduction:

I admonish my students both in Europe and America: “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself… you have to let it [success] happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

For Frankl, success is the surprise that occurs by committing yourself to a higher goal and greater purpose.

Leonard Sweet highlights the surprising nature of success in his book, Summoned to Lead, “We want to know how something will work out before we get into it. But that’s not possible. We don’t know… It is the nature of life to ‘break in’ – to surprise us, startle us…” Sweet contends that we have the “wrong plot” when it comes to leadership… “Life is false to formula.”

In contrast to the advice of Frankl and Sweet, most leaders make success their singular objective and live for a predetermined outcome.

When we take a closer look at scripture it becomes obvious that we should never hook leadership to success – at least “success” as defined by cultural norms. Probably the strongest example of this would be Moses whose ministry was characterized by failure on many levels and yet exemplifies the kind of leadership God seeks. Others follow in Moses footsteps — we need only think of Jeremiah’s disappointment, Paul’s critics, and Jesus’ apparent loss of influence after three years of ministry.

However, in contrast to the biblical examples, the church today is all about producing measurable success. This has led to increased pressure on pastors and is now resulting in unprecedented burnout among clergy. The statistics are alarming. According to George Barna, the average length of a pastoral career had rapidly declined to fourteen years.

The pressure to deliver is evidenced by the fact that 23 percent of all current pastors in the United States have been fired or forced to resign in the past and 34 percent of all pastors presently serve congregations that forced their previous pastor to resign.

Ministry has become a high-risk profession because we foster the myth — to lead is to succeed.

In response to the pressure that leaders are feeling, numerous books have been written in an attempt to redefine leadership. In Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, Kent Hughes writes, “As much as I am sincerely certain that God is, indeed blessing us, I believe even more certainly that it’s a dangerous and misguided policy to measure God’s blessing by standards of visible, tangible, material ‘success.’”

Samuel Rima, another pastor writes about his experience with burnout,  “Many of my attempts to ‘be successful’ left me feeling more miserable and frustrated than they did fulfilled.  It wasn’t long before I began questioning the nature of true success in ministry.”

One of the key reasons why leaders fall prey to burnout is because Western culture has fostered an inordinate need to demonstrate our worth by performance. Behind this need to perform is an even deeper need — leaders are motivated by affirmation and affirmation is offered to those who can produce results.

We fall into dangerous places when, as leaders, we take our cues for success from the people we lead. Yet, so much of what drives leadership today is the need to satisfy the demands of others. Sadly, this is most evident in the world of the politician and the pastor.

We pay a high price when we buy into leadership myths. Many pastors and churches have been destroyed by an assumption that is rarely tested in our culture – to lead is to succeed. When we subject ourselves to this axiom, we find ourselves trapped in a man-centered model of leadership, one that puts the pressure on performance instead of dependence.

Choosing to question leadership myths is counter-intuitive to the ingrained values of our culture. Few leaders are willing to step outside of the box by resisting the temptation to define their leadership around pragmatic and measurable outcomes.

If we hope to steer away from leadership myths, we must explore new territory – to lead is to love.

Jesus was clear about this. Everything we do in ministry begins and ends with love. To make love the starting point for leadership will, at times, take us to places that are less than spectacular and often questioned by others. Yet, in the end, we will be surprised by the kind of “success” that follows:

I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it. — Viktor Frankl

From → Uncategorized

  1. Joe Chambers permalink

    I loved this post. Thank you for encouraging words. “…the church today is all about producing measurable success. This has led to increased pressure on pastors and is now resulting in unprecedented burnout among clergy.” Amen!! We have to learn the art of caring for our souls and relying on a different metric for success.

    Good work.

  2. Very good Morris. I floated this around my network. Keep it coming.

  3. asecondtaste permalink

    I flipped through that issue of Outreach magazine and we’ve discussed the issue of success a lot as a church staff. But you nailed it summarizing this myth of leadership = success. No true leader believes this and regardless of the success that may follow some, it can never become the motivation. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

  4. You should spend some time in Texas- the home of the megachurch. It’s everything you outlined in your article, but on Steroids.

  5. Good post Morris.

I invite your perspective in the comments section below. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: