When is Leadership like a Church Chair?

By Ray Wheeler, DMin. It is apparent by the volumes written on leadership that people want to know what authentic and effective leadership looks like. Defining leadership is difficult because definitions of leadership are profoundly impacted by (1) the personality of the leader; (2) the context in which the leader works; (3) the culture in which the leader lives and (4) the social status in which the leader was raised. In the words of one of my favorite mentors (Bobby Clinton) leadership is complex – which is why we need leadership.

Given the complexity and diversity inherent in definitions of leadership a figurative description of leadership provides an easy way to reflect on what leadership entails. Illustrating leadership figuratively allows for the greatest degree of application across the socio-economic, cultural, personality and gender differences in which the act of leadership actually occurs. So, I offer the following leadership simile.

Leadership is like a church chair. I was sitting in a meeting thinking about what I saw demonstrated by the leaders in the room. The conversation was intense and passionate. We had not yet come to a consensus about how to respond to the situation in front of us. The leaders in the room represented the functional departments of the company and each had a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities they saw in the situation. As we wrestled through our differences I noted that we were making progress because none of us approached the discussion off balance. We each brought our whole selves to the discussion. That is when I thought about the balance or stability inherent in the legs of a church chair.

The Legs of Leadership: Vision, Compassion, Organic Structure and Discipline

If leadership is like a church chair then what do the legs of the chair illustrate about leadership? The foundational behavior of highly effective leadership in any context consists of four primary activities: compassion, organic structure, vision and discipline.

Compassion. Early academic studies of leadership (Ohio State and Michigan State Studies) identified two universal leadership behaviors i.e., benevolence and structure. By benevolence these researchers meant that effective leaders consistently care for those they lead. Another way to say this is that leaders express compassion for people. For example most of Jesus’ miracles were preceded by descriptions of his compassion for the crowd. Compassion is a fundamental motivator in effective leaders – they care. Compassion is one of the legs on which leaders stand.

Organic Structure. Structure was the other behavior identified as a universal capability of leadership. Effective leaders enable people to act toward specific goals by organizing resources in a way that helps the group achieve specific objectives. Building appropriate structure is an organic rather than a mechanistic activity. By organic I mean that structure is a living and dynamic rather than static aspect of organization. Because living organizations are also growing organizations they consistently outstrip the ability of structure to remain supportive. If structure does not change with the organization then it becomes an impediment to growth rather than a support of growth. Read also that inflexible structures constrict the life of an organization and lead to a slow stifling death. Effective leaders consistently assess and morph structures to new demands and opportunities that allow the organization to achieve its maximum potential. Structure is another of the four legs of leadership capability and stability.

Vision. The importance of vision is not lost on either the Scripture or leadership research. Wisdom as old as Solomon notes: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.” (Proverbs 29:18) Vision casting is also a universal capability of effective leaders. Why is this? Organizations depend on shared meanings and interpretations of reality to facilitate coordinated action. If there is no vision, as Proverbs says, then the ability to coordinate action dissipates in competing priorities and urgencies. Leaders must realize three things. Leadership vision actually reframes situations demonstrating new perspectives that call others to action. Leadership articulates and defines what had previously remained implicit or unsaid thereby clarifying the need for action. Leadership consolidates and/or challenges prevailing wisdom to suggest new directions. Leadership isn’t always about the novel, sometimes the most radical actions are those that consolidate prevailing wisdom and simply act on it – this too is visionary. Vision is an essential leg of leadership.

Discipline. Some researchers grasp this very biblical concept i.e., leadership brings the discipline needed for organizations to maintain effective performance. The author of Hebrews said it this way,

[1]Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked

out for us, [2] fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of

God. [3] Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV)

Jim Collins noted that great companies identify their key drivers and practice them with discipline over time in a culture of discipline while expressing: vision clarity, consistent action, and clear criteria. Discipline is the oft forgotten leg of leadership. Many leaders need the reminder Paul gave to Timothy,

[6] For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on

of my hands. [7] For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1: 6-7, NIV)

As I participated in the interaction that day with the other leaders of the company it was obvious that if any of us engaged that kind of spirited discussion without all four legs of leadership the discussion would wobble out of control like a chair with a missing or broken leg see Figure 1. On the other hand, if we fail to engage in spirited discussions about how to meet the real needs of our customers we fail in our primary business.

Figure 1: Leadership’s Four Legs and Three Characteristics

Three Character Qualities of Highly Effective Leaders

The meeting finally did define a creative resolution to the situation we faced as leaders in the company. I left the meeting still thinking about leadership and chairs. I returned to my office and pulled out one of our catalogues and looked at a picture of our best sanctuary chair, the EverFlex 77025 (sketched in Figure 1). As I looked at the material I thought about three characteristics that the legs of leadership support. Leaders that provide vision, compassion, organic structure and discipline possess three unique character qualities: resilience, flexibility/rigidity and support. In a chair these characteristics do not exist without the platform provided by the legs (see Figure 1). The same is true in leadership.

Resilient. Defining resilience in a chair is a function of the quality of materials we put into manufacturing a chair. Foam has a resilience measure for example that rates how much pressure it takes to compress the foam to 25% of its thickness. This affects the feel of the sit. The idea is that foam not only offers support under pressure but also returns to its original position after pressure and does not collapse completely under pressure. If the foam collapses then the person sitting in the chair bottoms out on the seat pan or platform. Here is the first characteristic of highly effective leaders – they do not bottom out under pressure.

The ability to engage pressure successfully is a core characteristic of leadership. The oft quoted Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong it will) is not pessimism. It is simply a definition of the reality in which we work as leaders – and it is a call to faith in action.

Chairs also illustrate leadership resilience in fabric ratings. Every fabric has an abrasion rating measured in double rubs. A machine with a wire brush moves back and forth across a sample fabric over and over to test whether or not the fabric can withstand the abrasion of normal use. Leaders also face such tests often in their relationships with people who are most unlike them or who are in need of leadership.

Abrasive personalities offer a test on the resilience of a leader. If the leader fails this test the result is often a diminished stature or loss of trust in those who observe the leader’s behavior. In facing abrasive tension leaders do not have to be super human they simply have to be resilient or hardy. This is not the same as passive or being a victim. The idea behind resilience is that leaders resist abuse or abrasiveness on the part of others helping others see the impact of their behavior. Resilience requires an ability to engage in what Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations” i.e., conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle a tough challenge and enrich a relationship. She calls such conversations the gift of giving another our attention. [1] How do leaders maintain their engagement in resilience and fierce conversations? One thing that helps is for leaders to have people they talk to about the challenges they face. Outside perspective helps significantly in maintaining perspective and resilience as a normal part of leadership.

Flexible and Rigid. Our EverFlex seat is amazingly comfortable. Besides having all the characteristics of our Impression Series chairs our designers added a flexible back. I have sat in the chair for day long conferences without tiring of sitting. The EverFlex back got me thinking about another characteristic of highly effective leaders; they are simultaneously flexible and rigid. This is not a form of capricious unpredictability but rather an ability to adjust to unique situational demands for different kinds of leadership behavior without loosing one’s core values or violating ethical/moral centers. Researchers Katherine A. Lawrence, Peter Lenk and Robert E. Quinn describe this as the work of leadership within organizations that often requires that a manager/leader adopt complementary and even contradictory roles needed to stimulate new efforts while also maintaining existing routines.

Organizations are dynamic and complex settings. Leaders and managers have long felt the tension inherent in the diverse roles they are required to assume in addressing the various constituencies that they encounter. Effectiveness in a managerial/leadership capacity actually requires integrating competing roles. Effective leaders overcome the tendency to see leadership behaviors in an either/or fashion and engage competing or contradictory roles as part of a tool kit of behavior that enables them to address the multiple and competing demands of the organization. [2] For example, managing the work of the congregation often requires rigid compliance to best practices (e.g., accounting, human resource management, etc) while simultaneously requiring pastors to lead change.

How do leaders engage this kind of leadership behavior? Raising a leader or manager’s awareness of competing values helps validate the tensions a manager or leader feels in the routine demands of their role and provides a means for determining the source of internal tension and possible strategies in assuming a different point of view and acting in a different set of appropriate behaviors. It also provides feedback on how to leverage behaviors already familiar to the leader while also practicing behaviors with which the leader may not be as familiar. If this is really new to you then find a coach who can help you identify the divergent behaviors and how to employ them in your leadership situation.

Supportive. At one point in our meeting tension got a little high. That is when one of the leaders in the discussion offered their observation of the difficulty faced by one of the other functional leaders and described the skills they had to meet the challenge in front of them. An offer of supportive feedback like that expressed in the meeting is a critical leadership skill. I imagine support being like the ergonomic design of our Impression Series chair backs. They cradle the back and offer the right kind of lumbar support. I am always amazed at tradeshows when tall, short, skinny and wide people sit in the chair and all of them talk about the comfort of the lumbar support and the ergo back. Highly effective leaders demonstrate a similar capability of offering unique support to many different kinds of people because they have taken the time and effort needed to observe each person’s strengths.

One of the most frequently cited reasons leaders give for excelling in their careers and callings is that they received critical support by other key leaders and mentors. Given how frequently effective leaders describe support as part of their own success it makes sense to develop the ability to offer unique support to a wide variety of people. In my experience highly effective leaders often make me feel like a champion (offer support) while they simultaneously tell me things that are hard to hear. I walk away from such conversations with a clear plan for developing my skills and a sense that I just endured major surgery but am not a bloody mess. My prayer is, “God help me be as loving and clear in my work with others.”

Conclusion

So is leadership like a church chair? I think the answer is yes. When you stand in your sanctuary looking at your church chairs think about this simile of leadership. Leaders who remained engaged through successes and challenges exhibit the stability and dynamism inherent in possessing a clear vision, compassion, ability to set up organic structures and discipline to get things done consistently. These four legs of leadership are non-negotiable.

When I consider the resilience, flexibility/rigidity, and support highly effective leaders exhibit I am reminded that the development of character as a leader is non-optional. These characteristics in a chair are critical to how the chair feels and its durability. These characteristics in a leader are critical to whether they relate successfully to the diversity of people their career and calling bring across their path.

Do you have other insights on leadership? Let me know. Do you have illustrations of these principles? Pass them along. We are still learning.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.


[1] Susan Scott. Fierce Conversations (New York, NY: Berkley Publishing, 2002), 249.
[2] Katherine A. Lawrence, Peter Lenk and Robert E. Quinn. “Behavioral Complexity in Leadership: The Psychometric Properties of a New Instrument to Measure Behavioral Repertoire” (The Leadership Quarterly, 20:2, April 2009), 88.