The Three Key Things Leaders Don’t Do

Type “leadership” into the search field and you’ll be overwhelmed with more than a quarter million results! As important as leadership is, it is somewhat frustrating as a leadership researcher to understand how much we know about effective leadership and how we can still miss the mark, myself included.

That was one reason I started Perhaps I could somehow be a small voice moving us as church lay leaders in the right direction. I also wanted to create a website that I would have liked to have had as I was learning the craft of preaching, teaching and leading.

So, it makes sense to address that doing aspect of leadership. With all that we know about what effective leadership is, what are we still doing that hurts our efforts? So, I’ve been spending my research time with a particular focus on poor leadership practices that are still very common, despite the treasure of knowledge on effective practices. This is the other side of the “Five Exemplary Leadership Practices” I wrote about in a series.

There are three things church lay leaders, pastors, ministers, Sunday School teachers and small group leaders commonly still fail to do despite knowing better.

1. We don't really listen.


Oh, we think we’re listening. But many leaders don’t listen to understand, they listen to respond. We know all of the active/empathic listening techniques – eye contact, the 70/30 principle, paraphrasing, etc. – and we practice them well. But we aren’t really listening to understand. Perhaps it is because, most of the time, our jobs require us to speak. So we begin to believe that leading and speaking are synonymous. I had a friend tell me she once went for an appointment for “pastoral” counseling. When I asked her how it went, she rolled her eyes and said, “I came out knowing much more about him than he knows about me.”

Next to issues of trust and integrity, failure to truly listen is the single biggest complaint followers voice about those who lead them. One person said, “My small group leader is an expert at knowing how to look like she’s listening, but she so desperately wants to teach me something, she doesn’t truly hear me.”

Poor listening has a negative impact on critical currencies of leadership such as trust and loyalty.

2. We don't ask for feedback.


It’s one of the scariest and most valuable practices a leader can undertake. Ask people how you’re doing. At my university work, I use an annual 360-degree feedback process where I provide an opportunity for those I lead and key colleagues to provide anonymous feedback on my performance.  I dread it.

(I’d be happy to provide a copy of the instrument if you’ll email me.)

But the truth is, we as leaders simply can’t improve our effectiveness without feedback from those around us, particularly those we lead. Please don’t misunderstand. I would never suggest that you should ask for feedback from everyone. There are too many people who can’t be trusted with that kind of power. But your direct reports and a select group of colleagues should have the opportunity to provide feedback so you can set performance improvement objectives.

Warren Bennis – a long time and well respected leadership writer – notes self-awareness as a powerful leadership weakness. Perhaps the only way to improve it is to ask and listen carefully to feedback.

I was speaking at a conference not too long ago when someone asked me how they could determine how they were doing on this issue. I responded by asking: “What are the last three significant changes you made in your leadership approach that were a direct result of feedback from someone? If you can name those changes quickly, you’re on the right track.

3. We don't affirm with connection.


We know that offering encouragement and praise is important and we do it. But we don’t do it frequently enough, specifically enough, and we don’t tend to connect that affirmation to a sense of greater purpose – the three components of truly powerful praise.

Standard affirmation says: “I’m glad you’re part of the team.”

Connected affirmation says: “The way you unified that prayer team in such a short-time has been critical to our success in reaching our membership goals.”

Standard affirmation says: “Good teaching tonight.”

Connected affirmation says: “We’ve been trying to heighten our folks’ understanding of the Bible’s relevance to contemporary issues. The way you stayed faithful to the text and combined recent demographic research made your message really effective.”

Connected affirmation is frequent – many say at least once a week – it is very specific, and it associates positive behavior with something bigger – mission, vision, a key goal, etc.

Ultimately, affirmation should make a person feel – valuable, needed, safe. It should help ensure future effective performance and it should help a person understand where they fit in your organization in terms of their connection with mission, vision or values.

My suggestion here is that, simply by reversing these three “don’ts” you can make a dramatic improvement in your leadership effectiveness.

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  1. That makes me laugh! You’re the one who teaches ME about leadership!

  2. Convicted me again. Thanks. I think? 😉

  3. Thanks Bill. And thanks for visiting the site. That means a lot.

  4. Bill Willis says:

    Great article


  1. […] In Part 1 of this post series, I wrote about my research into leadership mistakes and, in particular, the three important things leaders tend not to do. […]

  2. […] In Part 1 of this post series, I wrote about my research into leadership mistakes and, in particular, the three important things leaders tend not to do. In parts 2, 3, and 4, I’ll unpack each of those to try to provide more help for church lay leaders, pastors, ministers, Sunday School teachers and small group leaders as we develop our skills. […]