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

Speed of the Leader, Speed of the Team

Written by: on March 10, 2021

Over the course of this semester, I have looked at four US presidents through the lenses of leadership style and emotional intelligence. As I return to Simon Walker’s “The Undefended Leader” trilogy, I decided to continue with the thread of his different leadership strategies by looking at a former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill and the Pacesetting strategy.

Like Franklin Roosevelt (Commanding) and Theodore Roosevelt (Affiliative,) Churchill’s Pacesetting strategy is a primarily “front stage” style. The Pacesetting strategy of leadership “is concerned with creating the confidence, motivation, and means to achieve more. Change, belief, hope, and challenge are the key outcomes. Inconsistencies are no longer tolerated and the status quo and accepted norms are rejected in favour (sic) of opportunity and growth.”[1]

Churchill served at Prime Minister from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. “In total contrast to the humility of (Jimmy) Carter (I will explore Carter’s Serving strategy in another post,) the modesty of Lincoln (see previous post,) or even the humorous warmth of Reagan (see previous post comparing Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,) (Churchill’s) ego was magnificently dominant.”[2] His ambition and energy were legendary, made even more remarkable by the fact that the most memorable parts of career occurred after the age of 65.[3]

Churchill relished the front stage and was a showman. But unlike other charismatic front stage personalities who might have only wanted the spotlight in order to satisfy a personal ego, Churchill seemed to understand the deeper aspects of the role he was playing and he spent intentional time and energy preparing for how he would meet the public.[4] During the challenging years of World War II, Churchill’s blustering confidence helped to keep the anxiety of the people from becoming overwhelming.

Walker writes that Pacesetting “leadership is all about the leader himself; it is his own ego projected onto a social or historical canvas, compelling circumstances around him to conform to his personal will.”[5] Hmmm, where else in more recent history have we seen this story play out?

This very public strategy of leadership has shadow sides. But looking at Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve,” it is clear that a healthy sense of self is necessary for an emotionally healthy leader. He writes, “there certainly is reason to guard against capricious, irrational, autocratic, vainglorious leadership in any form of organized life.”[6] He goes on to write, “it is only when leaders value self that they can prevent it from being eroded by the chronic anxiety of a society in regression.”[7]

The other shadow side to the Pacesetting leadership strategy is entirely about pace and what happens when the leader gets tired. Walker writes of Churchill’s bouts of depression and his difficulty when the spotlight was not on him.[8] Pacesetting leaders are often leaders for a particular moment or movement, so it is necessary for the leader to be intentional about their own energy levels and keeping their “cups” (spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental) filled. Unfortunately, this “back stage” work rarely comes with the attention a Pacesetting leader thrives on.[9]

There are specific times and occasions where the Pacesetting strategy is necessary. In those seasons, under the right leadership, an organization can achieve more than it might have believed possible or overcome an adversity that might have seemed insurmountable. But this leadership often comes at a great personal cost, one that often catches leaders by surprise. As the saying goes, “knowing is half the battle,” but if the pace of the leader is the primary influence on the pace of the team, an emotionally intelligent leader must tend to the inner work as much as they do preparing for their leadership performance.

[1] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 191.

[2] Ibid, 241-2.

[3] Ibid, 242.

[4] Ibid, 243.

[5] Ibid, 245.

[6] Ibid, 174.

[7] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 185.

[8] Walker, 247.

[9] I’ll refer to Jason Swan Clark’s blog series on mental health and faith.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “Speed of the Leader, Speed of the Team”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    I’m compelled by your argument that the backstage work does not garner the attention that the Pacesetter desires. That makes so much sense in the scope of your piece here. While you do well to point to the strengths and pitfalls of the Pacesetter leader, I’m wondering if you know any Pacesetters whose backstage and front stage are integrated. What keeps the Pacesetter healthy?

    • John McLarty says:

      Walker’s example of Churchill pointed out that the Pacesetter strategy is really most effective in a season or through a specific crisis. He notes that when things are going well, a Pacesetter style of leadership is often rejected. (Churchill himself experienced this after WW2.) In some ways, I feel like I’ve had to adopt a Pacesetter strategy for the past year as we’ve navigated through Covid, and it’s been exhausting. I can see, both for my own health and for the health of my church, that we will soon need a calmer tone. The challenge with that will be the pressure we’ll put on ourselves to bring all of the church systems back online as quickly and dynamically as possible in order to inspire and motivate people to re-engage. I’m trying to think more deliberately, but I know the temptations will be there. I read in my biography how Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt had places where they would go for quieter reflection and introspection. In the church, we might call that a time of filling one’s cup. I think that’s a big part of the long-term sustainability of someone who operates primarily from a Pacesetter strategy.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    I so appreciate how you are integrating all these different leaders’ attributes into your posts. I’m wondering in what specific ways are their lives influencing the way you lead? Are there one or two takeaways that you are incorporating into your leadership practices/actions/beliefs?

    • John McLarty says:

      What I’m seeing is how it’s possible, probably even preferred to develop some proficiency with all of these leadership strategies. Our personality types might lead us more naturally to some over others, but there are appropriate occasions for each style. I recognize how I’ve been operating this past year mostly out of a Pacesetting strategy as I’ve tried to keep my congregation together during Covid. And I can better understand why I’m so exhausted and fighting some of the inner battles I’ve been having. I’m trying to think about how to create better balance between the front stage and back stage, as well as with the people I’ve been sent to serve. God’s timing is such a holy mystery that we’d be experiencing this unique leadership challenge at a time when I am intentionally diving deeper into leadership questions. I’m trying to stay open to what God may be trying to teach me!

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Wow! Brilliant blog. I like your analysis of the pace of the leader influencing the pace of the team while still attending to the inner work. I am curious how you see these linked? I wonder how consistent a leader can be without making the deep work a priority. I liken it to trying to hold a beach ball under the water. Though a beach ball is light and easily floats it takes a concentrated effort to keep it under the water. One slip and it pops to the surface. It isn’t easy to keep the ball under the water and enjoy being with your friends or to multitask. Especially since the ball wants to be exposed. So it is with character flaws or cracks in our personal foundations. It is hard to keep those things hidden and set pace for oneself and others unless the deep work is being done.

    • John McLarty says:

      Thanks Greg. Great analogy. I think lots of leaders go and go and go without any thought about how quickly their tanks are draining, then collapse when they hit the wall. No one can do the inner work for us, so an intentional leader is one who is attentive to the gauges and signs of depletion and proactive about refueling in healthy and appropriate ways. I’m still learning how to do this. I often like to drive my truck as far past “E” on the gas gauge as I can. Most of the time, I can still make it to a gas station before running out. Sometimes I’ve miscalculated and gotten stuck.

  4. Dylan Branson says:

    I appreciate the idea of a pacesetting leader, but what happens when the leader’s followers can’t keep up? Does the pacesetter slow things down so they can catch up to the vision? Or do they keep driving forward with the hope or thought that they eventually WILL catch up to them?

    • John McLarty says:

      These are great questions. One part of the Pacesetting strategy is the leader very intentionally getting way out in front so as to reassure people with confidence and hope, “come on in, the water’s fine!” Another part is the trail of destruction and exhaustion a Pacesetting leader often leaves in his wake. This strategy is not sustainable long term. It’s necessary in a particular season. (I’d say this is the mode I’ve been in for the past year.) But outside of a crisis, people will not allow themselves to keep being pushed. Even Churchill suffered a defeat in 1945 after the war was one. The people did not respond to him in the same way as before. They needed a rest.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    What poise Churchill exhibited. I can see that he was a ‘Pacesetter’ and, appreciate that.

    Can there be a way to set the pace from in the midst of the team, rather than out in front?

    The push for spotlight and belief in ‘own-voice’ can be captivating, not only for the individual sweating and creating shadows. I wonder if the undefended and well-differentiated, less anxious leader, might find place encouraging the team to be the voice, to grow the poise that is inspiring the one-out-front?

    Thanks John. Really appreciate the examples and resources you lean on.

    • John McLarty says:

      In Churchill’s case, he was already known and trusted, so his emergence as Prime Minister during the most challenging years of WW2 was definitely something that gave the country hope and confidence. But I definitely think the Pacesetting leader can emerge from within a team when it’s clear that the group is struggling to overcome a challenge and needs someone to rally them. In either case, though, Walker’s description of this strategy suggests that this way of leading is more effective for a short-term and will eventually exhaust the leader and the team if sustained for longer periods. I’ve often heard that leadership is about managing the “temperature.” Knowing when to light a fire to raise the temperature and also knowing when to try to cool things down and lower the temperature. A Pacesetting strategy is usually more closely aligned with a higher temp and a faster pace, which will wear down more quickly if the leader is not attentive to their energy levels as well as the energy of the people they lead. The problem is when the leader’s need for action and the spotlight lead to exhaustion and/or poor leadership just in order to maintain the “high” of having important battles to fight.

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    John, great post, especially as you lay out your extended thought process with the other posts. You mention the great cost to the leader with a given pace…. yes, and the wake behind that leader is often disastrous. However, this wake can often be minimized because those who are damaged by the leadership style often simply fade away or leave. All that remains are those who acquiesce to the leader’s pace.

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