A Leader’s Toolbox: First Who, Then What

Here we are.

This is the fifth and last post in this series I titled A Leader’s Toolbox. Leadership is about becoming whether helping others take the next step in their journeys or bettering one’s self. There is something important to be said about the reflective work it takes to connect practice to theory (and theory to practice again). This reflective process takes us into action and turns our theories into tools. 

We leadership is about becoming, then the ultimate goal is to strive for betterment. Jim Collins is leadership author and researcher who captures this essence in his book Good to Great. Collins’ main idea in chapter three is that good-to-great leaders, or what he calls level 5 leaders, are acutely aware that having the right people precedes having the right strategy. He cleverly calls this a first who, then what principle.

For Collins, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world in your quest for becoming. It is not just a matter of placing the right people who will take and execute a premeditated strategy. Rather, the right people are the ones who, with rigorous work ethic and an heightened level of insight, will help create new adaptive strategies to steer an organization.

A level 5 individual does not blindly acquiesce to authority and is a strong leader in her own right, so driven and talented that she builds her arena into one of the best in the world. Therefore, any good-to-great leader or organization will learn to ask “who” questions before thinking of “what” decisions. They will understand that vision, strategy, structure and tactics are the results of the right people thinking collectively.

The first who, then what principle is extremely important for churches and other faith-based organizations. Churches are historically hierarchical structures that rely heavily on senior figures for direction and strategy. The senior figure is typically seen as the communicator of God’s Word, the one who is able to interpret and utter divine purpose to the rest of the congregation. He easily becomes a sage on a stage, or as the Collins puts it, the genius with a thousand helpers.

Tragically, some of the most hierarchical structures are in mainline denominations who happen to be experiencing the deepest crisis in American ecclesiology. Due to decades of member disassociation, mainline denominations have become highly regulatory organizations. Most have implemented a highly reactive leadership style devoting most of their resources to solve the biggest problems.

Jim Collins’ findings implies that mainline denominations must rethink their current modus operandi of a first what, then who principle. This principle is extremely limited when dealing with foundational and adaptive circumstances, such as the ones in the North American religious context. To borrow language from Heifetz and Linsky, mainline denominations facing crises are attempting to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.

The first who, then what principle focuses primarily on top tier management teams from medium to large corporations. Collins’ narratives of success are largely based on quantifiable units. Numbers, growth charts and other metrics become of the uttermost importance. My insight into Collins’ first who, then what drifts away from these performative ideals. Not all of Collins’ insights can be easily appropriated by the church. His idea that adaptive organizations must be rigorous and willing to kick out the weak is simply not translatable to a kingdom of God dynamic.

What I believe is translatable is that Collins calls our attention to be placed on the subject and not on the object of mission. People are important in the process of adaptive change. Thus, a first who, then what mentality will seek to restore church members as active subjects who are called to be participants in the mission of God. To do so, the focus must turn to leading the church to become an interpretive community.

I see this happening in four different movements. First, restore the Biblical truth that the laity are also subjects in God’s mission and not just the object of our ministry. This may entail reshaping some of our structural ecclesiologies and church polity. Second, create a space where people are encouraged to tell their stories in order to engage in a collective hermeneutic process of discernment. Third, allow people to create a shared vision of the future. Leaders become mere facilitators of discovery as people’s stories begin to find meaning in God’s metastory.

Finally, borrow Collins concept of the “right person” and discern who may ultimately have the innate capabilities to bring about adaptive changes through new practices and experiments. By following these movements, the leader helps to change a church’s DNA into a triple helix structure of relational, interpretive and implemental practices.

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