Do you tend to be process-oriented or people-oriented in your leadership? David McKenna reminds us in Never Blink in a Hailstorm of the need to remember that people in community are those whom we as leaders are leading. Though processes and methods are important, people are more important.

I continue, in this final blog post on this incisive book, with the “McKenna’s Maxims” on great Christian leadership.

Never Sniff at Symbols

“Human beings make symbols; great leaders master them” (113). Too many leaders are too busy pushing their own change agenda to understand the organizational culture of the organizations they lead and make sure the change they are leading is in continuity with the organization, its culture, and its past. But McKenna wisely reminds us that the outstanding leader always attends carefully to the “cultural symbols” of the organization. This is people-oriented leadership that realizes that people live in community and are best led with attention to that.

Harry Reeder said something similar about church revitalization: Pastors of healthy churches build their leadership on the history and traditions and cultural symbols of the churches they lead. Pastors and leaders in general veer from this model at their own peril. [1]

Never Ride a Pendulum

Like a swinging pendulum, a leader “is under constant pressure to take an extreme position or swing between the poles,” McKenna says (119). How true this is! Yet, he rightly argues, the best leaders strive for balance and consistency in their leadership. This involves building the trust of those you lead. Consistency builds trust—doing exactly what you said you would do and letting people know when you change your mind (122). This is people-oriented leadership. Great Christian leaders are those who have the courage to make tough, principled, convictional decisions but without “losing connection with people” (124).

McKenna goes on to say that “a ‘sense of self’ must be balanced by a ‘sense of others.’” An excellent leader “walks a tightrope between these extremes. The opposites may be clear, but ambiguity rules the ground in the middle” (124). Not everyone wants this balance. “Saboteurs” are “constantly at work trying to push the leader to one extreme or the other.” Effective leaders deal with this pressure by maintaining balance (124).

Never Expect Thanks

This is the toughest advice for most leaders to take. But it’s necessary to master this advice to excel in leadership. “Always say thanks,” McKenna avers, “But never expect it.” This is such sage advice. Thanking others is the leader’s “gift” and “tool” and builds organizational motivation and morale (127-28). The leader needs to reassure all sorts of followers, not just those “high” on the chain of command! Yet, “while leaders have the responsibility and privilege to say ‘Thank you,’ they cannot expect the same in return” (131). But when thanks does come, the godly leader humbly cherishes it.

Dr. McKenna gave a few illustrations of this that hit home with me and touched my heart—alumni who underwent discipline during his presidencies thanking him years later for doing the right thing, even though they were angry with him for years; alumni who years later thanked him for a chapel sermon that changed their lives when he thought it was a bomb. This causes us to pause and remember that “a leader’s trophies are not etched in brass; they are written in flesh” (133). And for the godly leader, our Lord will say, “Well done!” And that is what ultimately matters.


[1] Harry L. Reeder III, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).

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