Improving the Ineffective Leader: Moving from Bad to Good

Leadership literature is chock-full of ways in which an average leader can become great. We all believe we’re good. Greatness is just a book, a conference, or a degree away. Indeed, I believe run-of-the-mill leaders can become better with training. A desire to learn, self-awareness, and a solid work ethic go a long way.

Some leaders, however, are just bad. They don’t lead well. Poor decisions are normative.

I believe most pastors want to lead their congregations in a way honoring to God. I believe most pastors care about their flocks. And God uses different types of leaders in different contexts. A rural setting, for example, requires a different type of leader than an urban setting. One is not superior over the other simply because of contextual expertise. But not all leaders—or shepherds for that matter—are great. And some pastors are poor examples of leadership, even if they really do care.

Years of practice entrench bad habits.

At some point, enough imbedded weaknesses transform an otherwise mediocre leader into a bad leader. Sometimes bad leadership is caused by context or position. The church leader is a poor match for the church, ministry focus, or setting. What makes a good senior pastor does not make a good middle school pastor. What makes a good worship pastor does not make a good children’s pastor. While environment and position influence bad leadership, not every case of poor leadership can be blamed on a mismatch. Some leaders are just outliers on the wrong side of the bell curve.

There are two types of bad leaders: the inept and the unethical.

Prominent malicious leaders tend to make the news. Unfortunately, scandals and scoundrels abound. But another category of bad leaders involves those who do not intentionally lead people astray. They are not malicious, just incapable. I’ve written previously on what makes a pastor a bad boss. These leaders desire to make ethical decisions, but they are oblivious as to how their decisions affect others. They shoot from the hip and trigger collateral damage.

The focus of this post is improving the ineffective rather than redeeming the unethical. What are some ways in which bad leaders can become better? A recent study sheds light on behaviors helping a leader transition from bad to good.

  • They shared their knowledge. One of the main drivers of poor leadership is poor interpersonal skills. Many people get promoted because of their expertise in a specific area, but leadership is more than technical knowledge. Bad leaders are stingy with knowledge. Bad pastors can guard theological and methodological black boxes. Good leaders use their knowledge to develop others.
  • They raised the bar of expectations. Expecting little of your church or staff is usually a reflection of low personal expectations. Raise the bar of personal expectations and improvements are bound to occur in the people around you.
  • They shifted from a discouraging posture to an encouraging posture. Bad church leaders become better when they stop focusing on why something can’t be done and rather focus on how something can be done.
  • They worked at becoming proactive change agents instead of reactive change agents. If all you do is put out fires, then you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Little flare-ups always exist. Bad leaders reactively move from one to the next. Good leaders proactively discern the dangerous fires with the potential to affect everyone.
  • They began to encourage cooperation rather than competition. Bad leaders divide people, creating opposing camps. Bad pastors use theological nuances as a wedge. Bad church leaders pit style preferences of one group against another. Good church leaders are bridge builders, demonstrating how different people can cooperate rather than compete.

Bad church leaders fail in many areas, but average leaders have weaknesses in specific areas.

Good, bad, or ugly—we can all improve our leadership. And the best pastors recognize continual improvement is the only option for leadership. While only a work of God can redeem unethical pastors, I believe every incompetent pastor can become a good leader. Bad leaders are not locked into poor decisions. Greatness is a noble goal, but good is an achievable step.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Rainer III

Sam serves as president of Rainer Research. His desire is to provide answers for better church health. He also serves as senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church Cookeville, TN. Sam is the co-author of the book, Essential Church. He is a theological review editor at CrossBooks and regular contributor to Church Executive magazine. He has written dozens of articles on church health for numerous publications, and he is a frequent conference speaker. Before submitting to the call of ministry, Sam worked in a consulting role for Fortune 1000 companies. Sam holds a B.S. in Finance and Marketing from the University of South Carolina and an M.A. in Missiology from Southern Seminary. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University.

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In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
 
— Ken
 
Thank you for this article! I'm the pastor of a small church. My gifting is in teaching and we are known for aiding Christians in becoming Biblically literate. Visitor's often comment on God's presence being very real in our services. But we just don't seem to be growing. I have some soul-searching, etc. to do and this article provides some solid ground from which to proceed. Thank you again.
 
— Jonathan Schultheis
 

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