Serving in a number churches over the years, I found the common practice of most church leaders was to surround themselves with like-minded people. Often ministers would subtly craft their eldership and leadership teams with their protégés, placing in positions of influence those who not only saw things their way, but faithfully towed-the-line. What resulted was a monochrome leadership that allowed no room for debate, discussion and disagreement. This form of leadership structure could not stomach dissenting ideas or envision radical change. Such leadership teams ultimately reflected the lack of security of the head ministry, leaving the church members wondering why it was so hard to bring change to their church and the leaders wondering why they are unable to effectively deal with most crises when they came along.
A wonderfully different form of leadership is illustrated in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The leader Lincoln is far from a bumbling political novice that happens to stubble into the presidency as the myth suggests. The portrait of Lincoln that Goodwin lays out is of an extremely shrewd politician who not only knew the system but also knew how to work the system. Never willing to leave things to chance, he was forever proactive, moving his career ever forward to achieve his goals. The qualities and experiences of Lincoln provide important lessons for a strong and diverse understanding of leadership that is able to deal creatively in the worst crisis.
The major thrust of this book is Lincoln’s relationship with the three rivals that fought for nomination in the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. These three men—William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates—were far better known across the country than Lincoln; each man had a long political careers in their home states and in Washington D.C.; and each felt that they were most deserving of the presidency. Through the political battles that lead up to the nomination, and in the resulting hardship for these three men when Lincoln snatched the nomination, we see Lincoln’s tireless efforts to mend bridges and to sooth egos. There was found in Lincoln no sense of gloating over his victory over these great men; instead, he saw in them men of great intelligence and ability (though often differing on political and social issues), whose genius could (and would) benefit his efforts to maintain the Union. “Though Lincoln desired success as fiercely as any of his rivals, he did not allow his quest for office to consume the kindness and openheartedness with which he treated supporters and rivals alike…”[i]
This willingness to keep close to his rivals reflected the character of Abraham Lincoln. In contrast to these three rivals, we find a leader with an extremely different outlook on himself and a vastly different way of treating others. What is most evident is Lincoln’s lack of ego. As the other candidates approached the nomination, each felt that they were most deserving of the honor. Each acted as if it was already theirs. Because of their blinding egos, each failed in the last days to perform important actions that could have gained them the nomination (i.e. Seward leaving the country for eight months as Lincoln toured the Northeastern states; Chase passing up a prestigious speaking opportunity; and Bates’ unwillingness to pacify the border states). Each in their turn also sought to comprise their positions, further causing them to lose a great deal of support in certain sectors. Their certainty of, and their belief that they deserved the nomination, blinded them to actions that could have gained them the presidency. Lincoln never assumed that he would be nominated. His humility, and the consistency of his political positions, drove him to continuous action and created a following that brought him victory.
Lincoln also demonstrated humble and magnanimous leadership, recognizing the strengths of others and seeing the value of including dissenting views within a leadership team. “Lincoln was not afraid of opposing viewpoints. Indeed, he sought them out.”[ii] The ability to win enemies and rivals required humility and an extra measure of kindness. The value of gathering a team of strong, independently minded leaders is seen most clearly in their handling the worst crisis ever faced in American history.
Here is where so many church leaders fail: As today’s church confronts the major challenges today, because the leadership team is made up of like-minded or single-focused people (made in the likeness of the head pastor), they have little to draw on. It is no wonder that in our ever changing, pluralistic world, the church seems so little able to adapt or to speak effectively. A leadership team made up of diverse and divergent elements, instead of a lock-step organization under a dictatorial leader, will have multiple responses, allowing for creative solutions to deal with a constantly changing culture. With a leadership team coming from many life experiences and backgrounds, and even theological perspectives, will provide insights and understanding far beyond what even the most gifted and intelligent leader can provide. But in order to form a team of divergent and strong voices requires a leader of great personal character that can befriend and work along with those who don’t always see eye to eye, and is humble enough to see their strengths and the value they would bring to the greater work of the kingdom. If the church today is in crisis, then maybe Lincoln’s humble and magnanimous leadership lessons is what we need to effectively deal with our ever changing and challenging world.
John F. Woodward