What do you do when you find yourself in in a leadership position? Read a book. While it does sound counter-intuitive, this book may be the one worth reading. That is what I was thinking as I read Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership . More to the point, I was thinking, “this is the book I have been living” as I turned the pages discovering a map of how to gain experience without having to live out the experience in real-time. In fact, that is the premise of the book: leadership is an art form that takes practice to refine . As Poole points out, leadership cannot be taught in the classroom and can only be gained through the “right experiences” .
Traditionally, leaders would be put into situations of escalating responsibilities. It was assumed that in this process that the leader would be confronted with a variety of experiences that will mature and prepare the leader for positions with great complexity. I happen to work as a pastor in a denomination that takes this approach. Pastors are assigned to small churches, typically in rural settings, that will give the pastor the introductory experiences of building teams, leading meetings, building relationships with donors and hiring staff. After a few years, the pastor will be assigned to a larger church with greater complexity, such as a larger staff and budget. The prior experience will have prepared the pastor to take on this new role, but not exposed the pastor to every situation they may encounter. If the pastor show proficiency, then an opportunity of greater complexity may be offered. This type of approach is the way that pastors are formed as leaders after graduating from their intellectual training in seminary.
I have always found this method frustrating and desired an approach more like an apprenticeship. This is the opportunity I recently gave my associate pastor when I was out on a long trip. He has served faithfully and I know, in the words of Eve Poole, that he is “hungry for the opportunity to show what [he] could do and dying to be let loose on some proper work” . In a serendipitous way, I returned home to learn of a situation in one of our men’s small groups. Feeling disgruntled, they discussed voting to disband their group and dividing up the church funds in their care among the members of the group. This came to the attention of my associate pastor who channeled all his time and emotional energy into uncovering the proper procedures that should be governing the group and the proper IRS use of the funds. He reported this to the president of the group and brought me in the loop when I got back into town. He did a fantastic job and enjoyed a “critical incident” in his leadership, but he then told me, “I’m not sure that I want to be a senior pastor” .
Whether he becomes a senior pastor one day or simply learned a lot about men’s ministry, he gained an experience that he would not have had if I was in town and took the lead on solving this problem. Our experience debriefing the situation was invaluable to his leadership and my drive to help him learn all he can while he serves with me. Poole calls these kind of opportunities “stretch zone thresholds” where we are at our cognitive best while under pressure . These will no doubt build confidence for him to handle situations where he does not feel resourced and I feel more confident about him adjusting to unknown situations in my absence.
The question that everyone who wants to grow as a leader must face is, “How can I gain experience when I’m not the right situation?” Poole’s book seeks to bridge the gap of academic experience and providing “critical incidents” that help leaders learn faster. I know this book will be a go-to to help me refine my leadership.
- Eve Poole, Leadersmithing : Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership (Editorial: London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 61.
- Story used with permission.
- Poole, 39.