Innovation in Leadership

Rev Karl Faase

The words innovation and leadership ought to be synonymous. To lead well should be to continually innovate but our experience in the world of ministry is that this is not always the case. Churches & ministries often run on a ‘business as usual’ basis and little of what could be called innovative takes place. In fact even more concerning is an attitude evident in a new generation of leadership where they are afraid to step up into leadership or roles that are responsible for change. There seems to be a ‘safety first’ attitude where little or no new and fresh ministry takes place. What is it that blocks leadership innovation or people stepping into leadership responsibility? While there are many responses, in this article I will be focusing on just one word – fear.

Many leaders are debilitated by fear. Their decision-making seems to be so dominated by fear that their only action in leadership is to stay safe. There seems to be an attitude of either keeping the status quo or following the latest trend that someone else has built rather than thinking for themselves. Even worse is that talented and gifted people will not even step into leadership due to fear. They prefer the safety of ‘followership’ rather than the uncertainty of leadership.

What are the fears that stifle leadership and innovation? I would like to suggest five.

The first is perhaps a fear many would not consider and certainly not put at the top of the list, and that is the fear of standing out. In a world of social media, self- promotion and the narcissism epidemic, it would seem odd to suggest that standing out is a problem. But many leaders are afraid to stand out from the crowd as different or pushing new forms of ministry. This is often portrayed as humility and self depreciation but it needs to be seen for what it is – fear. I have had several 2 conversations with leaders over the years where it seems that their reluctance to step out in ministry or into a new innovative approach is the fear of what others will think or say. In the Christian church in Australia we can tend to be cynical of home grown leaders and innovative ministry. This though doesn’t extend to ministries from overseas. Instead, we see them as the gurus to follow.

New innovative ministries require leaders to step out, to push a new approach, to seek support and adherence to a new ministry model. It seems for many leaders, they lack the heart to take these steps and so find it easier to follow the crowd, even if the crowd is the hip inner group congratulating themselves that they aren’t like everyone else! As bizarre as it sounds there are times when the in-crowd are the most contemptuous of innovation. They create a very specific definition of innovation that is acceptable and many younger leaders become fixated on fitting the model rather than thinking creatively.

The second fear is closely related to the first, and is the fear of criticism. Sadly one of the marks of the Christian church is that we are experts at critiquing what everyone else does, especially of those who don’t fit the prevailing styles of ministry and leadership. But it is not the criticism of conservative Christians who want to stick to the tried and true methods of past decades that bothers us most. No, it’s the criticism from our own reference group.

The term “reference group” is used by Ross Gittens in his book, “The Happy Economist”. He is referring to the people we compare ourselves to economically. The point Gittens is making is that we don’t feel envious of James Packer when he buys a new yacht or Bill Gates if he purchased a Caribbean Island. What we are concerned about is our reference group - the people we live near or compare ourselves with. We may not be concerned by James Packer’s yacht but we are overcome by jealousy at our neighbours new Audi or European holiday.

This is true in ministry and leadership. Most younger leaders are unconcerned by the criticism of the over 50’s leaders who they feel are completely out of touch, but they are overcome with fear that their ministry peers would criticise the choices they make or the ministries they lead. The thought that your friends would critique your decisions, direction or style causes all of us to shrink from innovation. I have always found Theodore Roosevelt’s reflection on the critic very helpful. Who could be critiqued more that the President of the USA? His thoughts on the critic are summarized in these words:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The church needs the critics and the thinkers but these people must hold their role with humility and grace. There is little more unedifying than critics with very few leadership runs on the board lecturing those “in the arena” about how they are failing. It lacks grace and respect for those seeking to lead with innovation in the toughest of circumstances.

Thirdly the leader fears innovation because of the very basic human fear of failure. To launch into some endeavour that turns out to be a dismal failure creates an overwhelming emotion of fear. We want to lead and be innovative yet we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to become a case study in failure and poor choices. The challenge is that there is no endeavour into a new ministry without the possibility of failure. If there is no possibility of failure then there is no stretch, no significant shift and probably little innovation.

To overcome fear we need to face the worst possibility and make the decision to step out. A number of years ago I was faced with a very difficult leadership choice with the distinct possibility of negative long-term ramifications on ministry and hence my leadership position. I spent several days agonising over the decision and fearful of the outcome of the possible scenarios. One day in prayer I asked myself, what is the worst that can come from this choice? I decided that it was that the ministry would falter badly, that I would be held responsible & this would make my leadership position untenable, forcing me to give up my ministry position. I had to ask myself, could I face that outcome if it were to transpire? I came to the place where I felt I could, that it was worth the risk and that I was willing to face that possibility. Once I had prayerfully considered that outcome it was actually easy to make the decision. By facing the worst outcome, the fear of failure, I was at the place where I was willing to make the choice.

Fourthly there are many times that people avoid innovation because they fear hard work. Creative change in building ministry and shifting organisations is a lot of hard work. It is long hours, it is difficult conversations, it is the dark night of the soul considering if this is right, it is listening to criticism of what you are doing, it is watching others take the easy road. We now live in a culture where hard work is not a popular route. We have technology that makes life in every area very easy, in fact comfortable. We love the option of an easy solution with guaranteed outcomes, whether that is investing for future wealth or losing weight. The picture of hard work is not a popular choice, in fact it seems out of step with our community.

The current leadership concern of seeking balanced lives and taking care of ourselves also works against a culture of hard work. We read the stories of burn out and poor health outcomes for the ‘work & ministry obsessed’ and so believe that hard work is actually an ungodly attitude and unspiritual living. Yet there is no innovation and ministry development without going through the challenge of hard work. For many it’s too hard. They prefer the relaxed life of following well-known paths or staying tight with the in-crowd, basking in their collective, comfortable agreement.

Finally there is the fear of letting go. This may seem counter intuitive as innovative leadership is about holding on, seeing it through, delivering on your plans. For every leader there is an end point to their ministry role. Even the most innovative leader at the cutting edge needs to let go at some point. Growth and development of ministry requires different people at different times. The wise, insightful & innovative leader needs to be able to pick when their season of leadership is completed and to hand over to the next leader. To fail to let go actually creates a blockage of growth, development and innovation. While some may believe that letting go would be a relief, the opposite is true. If you have successfully led a ministry, it begins to define who you are. It is a label you wear and a place to belong. To let go of a leadership role entails, by definition, the taking up of another role, the call to be innovative again, to start something new or change another organisation. What every leader is asking is whether they will be successful again. What if this new endeavour fails? What if everyone forgets my past innovative successes and only remembers how the new endeavour failed?

For many organisations and ministries the next step of innovation is for the current leader to let go and allow for a new stage of growth, innovation and change to occur. Leaders desperate to hold on can ruin the ministry and take what was an innovative and cutting edge ministry and morph it into a ministry representing a past era and existing only to bolster the leader’s ego. It’s a recipe for disaster resulting in painful ministry outcomes.

There are two great truths about innovation. Firstly, everyone recognises that it is vital but secondly, precious few people actually lead with and through innovation. It is not enough to believe in the concept. We need to be prayerful, seek God’s wisdom and creativity, and then step out with Godly faith to make true innovation happen.