Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

God vs Collins

Written by: on September 14, 2019

Click to play

Allow me to apologise. What follows is hastily put together. It lacks references, bibliography and may be slightly incoherent. I am leaving the country in a matter of hours and I am so excited I’m currently performing La Macarena while typing. It is not a visual symphony. I, however, do not care.

In the beginning. God: “It was good”. Collins: “Meh. It could have been great”.

Over the last decade, Collins writings have been at the heart of many leadership courses I have attended and also been the inspiration for many of many structured and details oriented colleagues. Built to Last was the first book Collins book I read, and like many leadership books at the time, none forecast the looming Global Financial Crisis and the devastation that would occur to many of the companies whose CEO’s, CFO’s and other acronymic leaders were influenced by Collins initial work, and then Good to Great. A book that sold in overwhelming number worldwide.

I have participated in details exegesis and hermeneutic application of Good to Great, and its social services iteration, in two denominations. Both times I have come out wondering about its efficacy in church contexts. I determined that one’s ecclesiology would drive the answer.

I can not speak for other organisations, including social service, because churches are complex communities of faith who often have trouble determining what their contextual purpose is and whether it is even justly appropriate to determine who will be in and who will not be when it comes to leadership.

In saying this, it may appear to be a denial of leaderships general common sense. However, over the years I have watched church leaders read Good to Great and then observed them interpreting the material in such a way that they believe the book is patting them on the back because it describes how they already operate. It is called the Barnum effect. It is the result of an operational principle being so vague it can be interpreted as a positive affirmation by almost anybody because the specific contextual practice of the principle is not laid out. Assessing the appointment of the best people can only be determined by the employer. I have yet to meet a pastor who claims to have been terrible at appointing the right people – when observably they have. For me, this was the weakness of the material. Indeed, it offers sound general principles, but they are open to broad interpretation, and to some extent, abuse; notably, “First who, then what”.

From a research perspective, there is one missing element in the book’s claims; namely, counterexamples. As one colleague pointed out a few years ago, Collins looked at what great companies had in common, but did not appear to look for companies that had the same qualities, but were not great, or even mediocre. I have not been able to look deeply this week, but a quick romp through Google has revealed that many of Collin’s top companies failed, and of those still operating few have performed in a great way. I guess it is a reminder that luck (read “Tipping Point”) and internal and external forces outside a companies control can have devastating consequences. In churches, it can be the discovery of one child abuser – greatness evaporates in a moment.

The seven basics:

  1. Level 5 Leadership: humility and resolve
  2. First who, then what: selectivity and flexibility
  3. Confront the brutal facts: realism and optimism
  4. The Hedgehog Concept: simplicity and purpose:
  5. Culture of Discipline: discipline and measurement
  6. Technology Accelerator: purposeful technology
  7. The Flywheel: Continuous Improvement

These are all good things to ponder, and they have been well-pondered over the years. The one that stands out in my context is, “confront the brutal facts: realism and optimism”. Because Christianity is rarely celebrated in New Zealand, and the church is in decline, facing the truth while remaining hopeful is perhaps one of the key practices of discipleship. Our sanctity is revealed most clearly when, in the hardest of times, we do not lose hope. Habukkuk 2:3 is a constant reminder in my own leadership role.

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time;

it speaks of the end

and will not prove false.

Though it linger, wait for it;

it will certainly come

and will not delay.”

Moreover, the principle I struggled with most was, “first who, then what”. On first blush, it makes sense, but I have observed it in action, and it is often used unjustly. The whole idea of the ‘right ‘ people on the bus runs counter to everything Jesus did. Take a good look at Jesus’ disciples. In Luke 5, people tear the roof of a house to get a person to Jesus; a sick person, an unclean person, a disposable person. Certainly not the right person. I am probably a little harsh, but the more time goes on, the more I am aware that Christian leadership is premised on an upside-down ethic that limits our behaviour and realigns our understanding of success. It reminds us that when God says we are created just right when our true selves experience God’s being, we need to be careful when we start aiming for greatness because I am just not sure in whose image that greatness is made.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

15 responses to “God vs Collins”

  1. Thank you Digby, though you were in a hurry, you’ve highlighted very important aspects of Christian leadership that run counter to some of Collins principles. Key of this is First who…then what which I also find contrary to the way Jesus selected his disciples, choosing the lowly and unschooled and empowering them to accomplish His purposes. Jesus was also clear on His vision and direction before calling his disciples.

  2. Hey Digby. Thanks for your post. You know I love discussing things with you because we come from literally different worlds. Hahahaha!

    You said The Who First.. Then What principle “runs counter to everything Jesus did.” Could you give me a quick and rough survey of the kinds of people picked?

    I agree that Christian leadership is, or at least ought to be based on a more ‘upside-down ethic’ as you said. So wouldn’t it follow that most Christian organizations choose the wrong “who” to be on the bus to begin with? And that’s why some organizations fail?

    On a current leadership assessment program none of members Jesus picked as disciples would get picked in today organizations. They were simple fishermen, some of them just in it for what they can get out of it. And yet Jesus chose them. So it’s not the the fault of the criteria. It’s just that leaders don’t know who to pick the right “Whos.”

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Harry, the question of how to choose the right people is the itch in every church leaders mind. There are so many dynamics at play. A mega church may get away with employing on skill, talent and qualification, and they can equally measure value on those criteria. Smaller churches may value those same skills, but they add relationality, personality, and adaptability to the list. Leaders of smaller churches are also aware that congregational perception regarding a persons employment can be more powerful than the facts: Jesus never employed people, he just called them so far as we can tell. There was no quid pro quo, just a mission and faith. And it’s that line of faithful following and working with who God places in your hand, that gives me pause around Collins material. With you, I don’t think the criteria are a problem, their just to vague to work with for ministry/mission related contexts, so we can pretty much decide how we are going to interpret the material case by case. However, in saying that, there is always of thread of simple truth in the principles offered, so I will continue to add them to my bag of leadership thinking, tricks and helps.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Digby, you speak from years of experience and it is greatly appreciated. Dispelling some myths Collins always seemed to me to be creating more. There are always lessons to be gleaned from any thread of truth, but I am in full agreement with your overview.

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks for the animation entertainment. Your post has already got off to a great start! You are a wise and experienced pastor, you are also articulate in presenting your passion for the church along with your critical scholarship skills. Your closing argument is stellar, “we need to be careful when we start aiming for greatness because I am just not sure in whose image that greatness is made.” Drop the mic, have a safe trip, see you in London!

  5. Jenn Burnett says:

    Do you think Jesus had the right people on the bus with Judas? And did Jesus get anyone off the bus? I’m fairly certain that Jesus didn’t go with a who then what order. I suppose I’m just with you on the suspicion of the books incompleteness for the church. Enjoy your touring!

    • Joe Castillo says:

      I was thinking of what you said about if Jesus had the right people on the bus. People get off my bus by themself I don’t normally have to push them out.

      • Digby Wilkinson says:

        They get off our bus too, but we provide plenty of exits. Thus is more like a convertible. My problem is that I’m rather keen get of myself – on occasion. I’m interested to know whether you do exit interviews for every person? We do and it’s both revealing and painful. Every person is of worth so every person needs to be blessed on their way, not in theory, but in practice.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Yep, definitely with Judas. If you think of the disciples are being the best and worst parts of our individual lives, there’s a Judas lurking there some place. Mine appears all too regularly. In many regards all the male disciples betrayed Jesus in the end. Most shot through, kept quiet and hoped they wouldn’t meet the same messy end. Judas got the ball rolling, but Jesus knew it was coming. This in our leadership who have Judas a little closer to the surface, are still in need of direction, grace, prayer etc. Anyhow, how do any of us know whether there is a Judas in our midst, until they appear. We can demand loyalty as much as we like, but it’s little more than a delusion. In the cross we see the worst weakness and the most profound strength of God. We’re called to take up that same cross, but I’d rather it was latter aspect of the cross than the former – hence Judas voice is never far away. In the story of suffering, Judas is indeed a key voice. It’s worth remembering that he suffered to. Evil is like that – it tempts and then accuses.

  6. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby- this is brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think of this often in my church experience. I want gifted, talented people around me, sure. But I struggle with how this has played out over the last 18 years in church leadership. I think your point on exit interviews and ALWAYS honoring people as they exit no matter how difficult it is to do that is wise. I’ve never regretted honoring someone who left (even when it was tough) but we have regretted the opposite.

  7. Karen Rouggly says:

    Despite your best efforts, you always seem to write things that are engaging and people seek out – so good job! 🙂

    I’m intrigued by your thoughts. While I am not employed in a church, and I recognize that, I do realize that we’ve had people on our bus that should have never been on the bus to begin with. It’s such a tough conundrum because as we’re driving, I’m watching other people (who were rightly on the bus) fleeing the bus because of one or two toxic people. How do we handle that? I’m challenged because we know that Jesus allowed Judas to stay on the bus, even though he knew what toxicity was coming, but he also told people that were trying to join the bus that they couldn’t (The rich man getting into heaven). So as a leader, what do you do when you realize that for the health of others around you – someone has to go? In the business world, they’re fired. What about in the Church?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hello from Singapore. I’m melting in the heat.
      All your questions are good questions but my first query would be whether they are about leadership of management. Behavioural issues tend not to be about compliance with a vision or a model. In Collins terms I guess even the right people can behave badly. That stuff is easy to attend to because it’s about social practice. NZ has rigorous protections for employees so firing people is rarely an option except for major illegal misdemeanors. There’s a long disciplinary process that looks to education or re-education before dismissal. At the heart of those problems is either avoidance of conflict with the individual or simply wanting to get rid of of them for other reasons. Also, organisations dispose of people regularly and then cease all ongoing contact. That’s a tragedy in the church. Even if you follow Jesus mandate in Matt 18 the cycle of discipline only ever leads back to treating people like Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners – he ate with them. For a church, that’s the concrete difference and can be a significant the victim when utilising secular growth business models. It ain’t easy.

  8. John Muhanji says:

    Thank you, Digby, for your great post. You are always raising up something new in your write-ups. As much as we are coming from different cultural background, you dig more into the writer and enabling many of us who were reading the book for the first time to discover a few things about the writer and what is written. I also like your constructive criticism of the Collins on a professional touch. As much as you were in a harry you managed to bring out something we can chew. Thank Digby. see you in your homeland next week.

  9. Sean Dean says:

    Digby, it seems the first who, then what principle is ripe for misinterpretation. Mostly it could be used as a form of cronyism that allows the leader to only select those who fit within his social circle or would be useful to promote himself. They are in a way the right people. In terms of Jesus there are two ways of seeing it. The right people were probably the best students of the torah, which means choosing the men he chose was choosing the wrong people. But there is an equally good argument that the disciples he chose were the right people, because they were the ones able to move the movement forward. Either way I understand your point and I think it’s a good one to bring to light.

Leave a Reply