The First Thing Every Leader Should Do

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“Because no matter how gifted you are, there are at least three things that you don’t know.”

Listen. That’s the first thing that every leader should do. They should listen. Before they plan anything, they should listen. Before they announce anything, they should listen. And certainly, before they change anything, they should listen.

It seems like such a simple thing, such an obvious thing. It seems like common sense. But ask a church member, office worker, or school teacher and many of them will tell you that common sense is not as common as it used to be…at least not in this area.

Leaders, especially new leaders, need to listen before they leap. More damage is done by leaders who lead before they listen than you can imagine. What’s worse is the fact that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And if the first impression is that the leader’s agenda came fully formed, trouble usually follows.

When leaders neglect the listening stage, even if there is success, often that success will never be fully shared or appreciated. It’s painful to listen to successful leaders who were never really honored or appreciated by their church or organization. The problem can often be traced back to those early days. First impressions are lasting.

The Hippocratic Oath is a great example of practical wisdom. A wise physician knows that the primary responsibility to a patient is to, “First, do no harm.” That’s not just good wisdom for physicians, it’s great counsel for pastors, presidents, principals and anyone else called to lead. As gifted as you are and as desperate as the situation may seem, in most cases, you have the luxury to take your time and listen.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I might not be the best source for this subject. I was always impatient in the listening stage. Especially when I confronted issues that I was confident I had the expertise to handle. But I learned. And the older I get, the more convinced I am, that a leader who misses or mishandles this listening stage, is in for a rough leadership ride.

For some young pastors, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to immediately launch that great idea or series that fascinated them in seminary. Combine that youthful zeal with a reluctance to respect any information or individual over thirty, and you have a recipe for disaster. Same for older pastors who think that what worked at one church will automatically work in another.

Why is it so important for you to look and listen early in your assignment, regardless of the organization? Because no matter how gifted you are, there are at least 3 things that you don’t know.

1. You don’t know everything!

The Barna Group’s 2017 research release is entitled, “Pastoring in the Age of Complexity.” It makes the case that there has never been a more difficult time to lead a local church than now. Why? Because of the complexity of it all. The churches they pastor defy one-size-fits-all solutions and easy answers. The world that we minister to and work in is exploding with complexity.

As it is with pastors, so it is with leaders in other vocations. It is just as complex and challenging these days to lead a marketing firm, a non-profit hospital, a charter school or even a family. Complexity challenges us all. But don’t make a difficult task an impossible task, by attempting to handle it without counsel, without conversations, without listening.

2. You don’t know everybody!

It’s all about relationships. It’s cliché but true, people still don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care (I can’t believe I said that. How did my mother get in the room?). You never lose when you invest time in getting to know names and faces. One of the most undervalued ministries is the ministry of presence. Just being present can make a powerful impression. It provides the soil for relationship building. It creates the capital you need now, to get things done later.

3. You don’t know the culture

Churches and organizations have their own culture. Culture is the way things are done, based on shared values and history. It takes time to learn that, what is valued in one culture is vexing in another culture. What is rewarded in one culture is rejected in another culture. A leader must look and listen to understand the organizational culture. It takes time.

The leader who leaps into action before understanding the organizational culture is like the physician who prescribes medication before examining the patient. The leader who ignores organizational culture is like the parent who assumes that what worked for one child will work for the others. 

So take the valuable time to look and listen early and you will reap the benefits later.

Be sure to add your thoughts in the comment section below and on Facebook.

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