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Exploring Functional Church Leadership Teams

Leadership Model: “The Five Functions of a Team”

What exactly is it that makes up a good and effective church leadership team? This is what I’m exploring in this post.

Much of the content for this article has been adapted from a great book by Patrick Lencioni, entitled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Josey-Bass, 2002). This post is also a work in progress, related to a Theodemy course I’m in the process of putting together about building missional teams.

In my research, and experience in over 12 years in ministry, I’ve noted that good and effective teams model the following five values (with a sixth thrown in for a bonus):

  • Value 1: Trust – in humility, team members being genuinely open to the other teammates about their mistakes and weaknesses. This builds vulnerability-based trust.
  • Value 2: Conflict – engaging in the unfiltered and passionate exchange of ideas. This conflict must be issue-oriented, rather than personal.
  • Value 3: Commitment – buying into clear decisions, even if it goes against one particular team members’ recommendations.
  • Value 4: Accountability – calling their peers on actions and behaviors that are counterproductive to the good of the team, regardless of the resulting interpersonal discomfort and desire to avoid this type of conflict.
  • Value 5: Attention to Results – placing the collective goals of the team above the goals of the individual.
  • Additional Value 6: Humility—it is essential that every team member embrace the value of being humble and teachable. They must be also open to constructive criticism and loving feedback. Humility serves as the catalyst for the success of any team that seeks to work together to advance the vision and mission of the organization. Any team with un-teachable people on it will only result in ego-driven outcomes; the result will be that people who are not humble will instead tend to focus upon individual goals and achievements, over against the results of the team as a whole.

What is Buy-In?

A group of leaders committed to passionate and unfiltered issue-oriented dialogue that then commits to clear decisions made by the team facilitator, taking into account the feedback from the entire team. The team therefore can have ownership over the final decision since each member bears some responsibility in committing to the ultimate outcomes of that decision. This commitment also allows for team members to support each other as leaders, since they have a high degree of ownership over the decisions made and the ultimate direction of the organization.

This is not a description of “operating by consensus,” which according to Lencioni is the killer of teamwork and organizational momentum. It is also the least productive, and generally least effective way to lead an organization. Consensus conveys the idea of not making a decision until all are all in agreement, which means that any vocal minority can consistently derail the decision-making process until their desires are met. Also, fearful team members can constantly “apply the brakes” to any decision-making process, thereby slowing or stopping entirely the forward momentum of the team.

Why is Buy-in Important?

Because a unified team of trusted—and trusting—leadership, moving in the same direction together, is the key to the success of any mission. Lencioni states this negatively when he notes that “…an executive team that does not commit to clear decisions creates unresolvable discord deeper in the organization” (p. 209). Therefore, if the people at the top of the organization do not buy into and commit to clear decisions, this will inevitably create problems for the organization–both currently and in the future.

Who Fits on the Leadership Team?

People with the strength of character to contribute to the team dynamic, yet with the emotional and spiritual maturity to buy into the final decision, even if it goes against their initial recommendations. Ultimately this is a person pursuing, and discovering, what it means to be truly teachable and humble.

Potential Issues & Problems with a Dysfunctional Team

Without organizational vision, buy-in, health, unity, and a sense of collective purpose from the top down, the entire organization will sense the “leadership chaos” that exists at the top, and there will be a resulting lack of collective accomplishment. Ultimately there will be no discernible sense of overall achievement or forward momentum. People on “lower levels” (i.e., employees or congregation members) will sense that lack of direction and leadership, and may in turn question the effectiveness of those on the team. Credibility as a leader is of critical importance; once you’ve lost it, there’s really no going back. It is very easy to lose one’s credibility, but it is extremely difficult to build it back up again.

Returning to the issue of lack of organizational direction, there may indeed be many individuals working extremely hard throughout various levels of the organization; but if, for example, a ship has no rudder, it matters not how clean the decks are, how shiny the brass work is, or how neatly coiled the ropes on deck are. The ship is going nowhere fast—drifting aimlessly—and people are essentially spending their time merely “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” while the ship slowly sinks into oblivion. This state inevitably leads to people within the organization burning out from overwork and frustration, since they cannot understand how all of their effort and hard work fit into the vision and mission of the organization (if indeed it even has them).

The critical point being made is this: if there is a distinct lack of focus, purpose and direction on the part of the executive team, the organization will be in a state of malaise. Morale will suffer, and there will be no meaningful accomplishments on either an individual or an organizational level.

Seemingly small divisions at the top levels will inevitably lead to larger divisions deeper down within the organization. This is Lencioni’s point made above regarding “unresolvable discord at deeper levels in the organization.” Such discord results because direct reports (or congregation members) end up receiving different versions of team decisions, goals, vision, etc. from the various members of the executive team. The lack of clarity at the top will then be magnified on lower levels as subordinates try to figure out their disparate “marching orders”—or distinct lack of them.

Bottom Line

The executive team must function as a healthy team or several possibilities may well result:

  • A lack of buy-in for organizational and team goals;
  • Irreparable divisions both at the top and deeper down within the organization; and finally,
  • A lack of traceable, observable organizational progress.

Such an atmosphere of dysfunction on the executive team directly serves to breed an unhealthy culture throughout the organization. As the saying goes: “If there is a mist in the top leadership there will be a fog throughout the organization.”

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