“A leader’s trophies are not etched in brass; they are written in flesh.”—David L. McKenna
Are you called to be a leader? If you are, then you know that leadership can be an exhilarating experience. But your level of experience in leadership will determine to what degree you’re acquainted with the challenges leadership brings with it.
This is the message of a wonderful book I recently read on leadership by evangelical statesman David L. McKenna, Never Blink in a Hailstorm and Other Lessons on Leadership. Dr. McKenna, former president of Spring Arbor University, Seattle Pacific University, and Asbury Theological Seminary, gets to the heart of the rewards of leadership. But where his book is most helpful is when he discusses leadership’s challenges.
Without reviewing the book, I want to share with you some of its most poignant “takeaways.” Dr. McKenna gives 12 maxims on leadership in pithy statements which I’ll summarize, and then I’ll tell you what was most penetrating and illuminating to me.
Before he gives his 12 lessons on leadership, Dr. McKenna spends some time talking about the raw materials of leadership. Outstanding leaders have boards that say “GO until we say STOP,” not “STOP until we say GO” (p. 16), and they should be “subject to only two major limitations”: prudence and ethics (17). Prudence, Dr. McKenna says, means “Don’t do dumb things,” and ethics means “Don’t do wrong things” (18).
Part and parcel of prudence are taste and judgment (quoting John W. Gardner’s book Excellence): “Don’t violate good taste,” and“Don’t violate sound judgment” are at the heart of prudence and are absolutely necessary for outstanding leadership (18).
Violations of sound judgment would be things like “saying what’s wrong with the company before employment,” and taste is “tested by such factors as dress and demeanor.” McKenna is on target when he says, “There is no excuse for sloppiness in taste or shoddiness in judgment under the name of Christ” (18).
Now to the 12 lessons. . . .
Never Play God
The best of leaders are tempted to play God. “We want to be as wise as God by pretending to be competent, in control, and deserving of credit for our accomplishments. Nothing is further from the truth” (23). Don’t be tempted to substitute success for faithfulness, Dr. McKenna warns. The disciples in Scripture were not “accountable for results or judged by their success” (24). Christian leaders play God when they substitute success for faithfulness.
There are three main besetting sins that accompany this substitution:
The sin of competitive statistics: Numbers being the end-all, be-all.
The sin of cheapened means: When we place so much stress on “competitive statistics as the goal of the church,” we are tempted to “cheapen the means of ministry” (26). In connection with this, McKenna gives some pungent nuggets of wisdom for pastors and leaders of Christian nonprofits alike: Don’t sacrifice “richness” (depth, faithfulness) for “reach” (numerical growth). But don’t ignore reach simply because you’re trying to maintain richness!
The sin of stolen glory: This is the sin of leaders whose “favorite word, when speaking of organizational successes,” is “I.”
Lastly, Dr. McKenna says that we try to play God when we make an idol out of competence and control. While we need to work on our competence as leaders, Dr. McKenna reminds us, sometimes our competence can “get in the way of our dependence upon God.” And, while he is all in favor of strong, transformational leadership, McKenna warns against the misuse of power and control.
Never Blink in a Hailstorm
President Lyndon Johnson once said being a leader was like being a donkey in a Texas hailstorm: “You just have to stand there, close your eyes, and take it” (35). McKenna is so right when he says, “It is lonely at the top when the buck stops and the hail cuts loose” (35).
Decision-making is lonely. The confidentiality that comes with Christian leadership is lonely. And sometimes it seems like what Billy Martin, the New York Yankees coach, once said of a good baseball manager: “one who keeps the five who hate you away from the four who are still unsure” (36). But as Christian leaders, we must go on and never blink.