The person who possibly has done the best writing on leadership was Warren Bennis. He moved to the University of Southern California’s business school in 1979. There he would advise CEOs and American presidents, found a leadership institute, mentor students and work on the majority of his nearly 30 books. He died in 2014 at the age of 89. He was referred to by one person as the “Dean of Leadership Gurus.”

In one of his early books, he reported on extensive research that his organization did on leadership in America. First, they identified 80 leaders in a wide range of American organizations. These included political, church, non-profit, and artistic leaders as well as various business people. He asked colleagues to identify the best leaders in their field and then did extensive interviews with the 80 who emerged. He noted four consistent things these leaders emphasized.

They are:

1. Leaders define reality by casting vision.

This doesn’t mean that all leaders were visionaries. Many were not. He just found that outstanding leaders understood the importance of vision for today’s organizations, and helped create one.

2. Leaders effectively communicate this vision to others.

I’ve found this critical in my work with church leaders. Most clergy tend to be visionary people, but many cannot communicate the vision effectively, consistently and in ways others can translate into action. For example, I am convinced that Bishop Griswold has a vision for the church, but I don’t think he is effective in communicating it into action. (Editor note: Griswold is a National Bishop for Episcopalians.) His liability is that he cannot say things in simple and direct ways. It is the downside of his extensive education and his intellectual

3. Leaders connect this vision, to the organization and the needs of the
wider culture.

Bennis calls this “positioning the organization.” To do this, a leader must understand both the internal and external environment.

4. Leaders practice self-discipline!

Bennis found that the best leaders did not over-extend themselves. They remained focused on the skills and abilities they brought to their organization. I find church leaders with passion and great vision who are ineffective because they lose focus. He says that most leaders lack the discipline of sticking to what they do best and what they do that only they can do for the organization. Most of all, they avoid wearing themselves out trying to live up to the unrealistic expectations of their followers.

Of these four, he believes that this last one is the most critical to long-range success.

Let me end this with something that I’ve concluded about Christian leaders.  In the 40 years I have focused on developing leaders, I have discovered that if I push hard enough, I often find that they already “know” intuitively – deep inside – exactly what they lead need to do. Why, I have often wondered, don’t they commit to what they know, develop a consistent strategy, and just do it?

The answer is two-fold. 

First, many leaders are afraid of conflict. This fear causes lots of leaders to hedge their bets, take low risks and try and appease people.

Second, leaders tend to pursue too many things, wear themselves out, try to balance too many demands and to carry out tasks in areas were they are poorly equipped or just not skilled. Some leaders simply try to micro-manage every aspect of people’s responsibilities and fail to delegate effectively. These dynamics of fear and over-extension render us less effective than we could be. In Bennis’ terms, we lack self-discipline.

Try this challenge. No matter how busy, hassled, tired or over worked you currently are, stop! Go on a personal retreat for at least a full day and prayerfully ask God:

What are you teaching me right now as a leader?

What do I need to stop doing, start doing or do differently so I finish well?

Then make a list of just a few important things you believe He wants you to do right now to move toward being the leader He wants you to be.

Before leaving your retreat, ask God to give you the strength and courage to pursue these things and make yourself accountable to someone.