Teams need leadership (not just a “leader”)!


Teams need more than a “leader”!

Last week Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church released a Leadership Training video titled “Does God Really Want a Team to Have a Senior Leader?” (to view it you may need to create an account, if you don’t already have one). Of course, I checked it out.  As I listened, my thoughts were mixed.

I’ve wanted to write about team leadership for a while (and I laid my cards on the table at least a little bit here), so Mark’s training video provided a good kick-in-the-pants to actually do it.  So, I will offer several posts on team leadership, starting with a basic response to Mark’s message, and then fleshing out a functional perspective rather than positional perspective on team leadership. I know I will ruffle some feathers, but I want to help you think deeply about leadership, and not simply swallow what has been spoon-fed to you for years.

Mark basically argued that (by the way, don’t just take my word for it – listen here):

  1. Every team should have a point leader, a first among equals.
  2. Not having an agreed-upon senior leader is a disaster waiting to happen.
  3. He can’t believe this issue of the need for an identified leader on each team (or in a community) is still debated, often in the name of community and equality.
  4. First among equals leadership is consistent through Scripture, with exemplars including God in the trinity, fathers in the family, Jesus with the disciples, Peter among the disciples, and James among the church leaders in Jerusalem.
  5. Our world needs change.  Leadership, not community, provides the answers to a broken world.
  6. People arguing against this view of set leadership want to be the leader, but do not have the necessary authority, credibility, or innate spiritual gifts to do so.  In other words, one wants to be the leader but knows s/he can’t qualify, so creates a theology of leadership that falsely empowers him/her to exercise authority God doesn’t intend.  Here, it seems, Mark equates having authority with being a leader.

I agree with Mark on several issues: God is into leaders.  God is a leader, Jesus is a leader, and the church has been generously led for millennia, starting with guys like Peter and James and Paul all the way to guys like Driscoll, Furtick, Chandler, Loritts, Noble, Piper, Stanley, etc.  Leadership is absolutely necessary in the church.  No doubt.  I’m not a get-rid-of-all-the-leaders kind of guy.

However, there is a world of difference between being deemed the “leader” and actually exercising leadership.   In fact, my favorite quote in Mark’s entire lesson was “Leaders need to lead.”  But it was slipped in a long discourse on why set leaders are so necessary.  And I think that arguing for functional leadership is awfully important, and, as far as I’m aware, I don’t think I want to be the “leader” in any church.

Here’s why I think it matters: Arguing that teams really need set leaders – people who are distinguished as first among equals – simply puts the focus in the wrong place.  I fear that lots of folks will listen to that post, and go back to their teams stating, in essence, “See, I told you so.  Even Pastor Mark says there has to be a designated leader… and now that I’m the designated leader, listen up, here’s how things are going to go now.”  But, when it comes to teams, that kind of posture and attitude absolutely kills teamwork.

Now, followers not respecting/following someone in a set leadership role is a big issue warring against the church actually working well together and functioning as the healthy body of Christ.   But, just as caustic are these issues:

  1. Average folks (followers, not set leaders) who hold back and don’t use the personal power, authority, and influence God has entrusted to them to make a difference, while they wait for the designated “leader” to act.
  2. “Leaders” who lord their “authority” over their followers and squelch the contributions (and the spirits) of those “under” them.
  3. Leaders who think they are actually leading because the position they hold is at the top (or near the top) of the organizational chart in the policy manual.
  4. “Want-to-be-leaders” so enamored with being called a “leader” that they will do just about anything (like start their own ministry, church, or organization) to be able to get that coveted position.

I simply want to offer an alternative perspective to the conversation, highlighting the really positive benefits that can come by focusing on leadership (behavior that leads) rather than set leaders (positions of leadership). You might say, “Ryan, isn’t this all semantics?  What’s the big deal?”  There’s a world of difference, as I show in the table below:

When we think of team leadership as something that is done by established leaders: When we think of team leadership as influence toward goals:
The leader comes first; the leader’s behavior comes second. Behavior that leads comes first; identifying a leader comes second.
“Leaders” lead; followers follow. Anyone can lead; “leaders” aren’t the only ones who can lead.
Everything the “leader” does is seen as leadership. Only behavior that leads is called leadership.
One doesn’t have to lead to be called a leader. One is identified as a leader as s/he leads.
Being in a leadership position = having God-given authority. God-given authority is recognized as the fruit of one’s leadership.
People covet leadership positions.  The mindset goes like this: “First I’ll get the position, then I’ll lead.” People lead.  Then, those people who lead are asked to assume leadership positions.
The church has a lot of people in positions of leadership (because they’ve started their own churches, ministries, clubs, etc.) who have never successfully led much of anything, and who don’t have the character, credibility, or competence to hold positions of leadership in the church (as described in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1). The church is full of people who do not associate being a leader with holding a position, but rather see leadership as positively influencing others toward God’s vision for the local community of believers.
Leadership is constrained to those in leadership positions.  Thus, the church has many fewer leaders than it could. Leadership is opened to all those who lead. Thus, the church has many more leaders.

Of course, you see my argument here:  Teams in the church need good leadership more than they need to identify set leaders. That’s because anyone can lead.

Now, I know I need to address this question biblically and empirically, and I’ll take that up in the rest of the posts in this series, in which I will:

  • Unpack a functional approach to team leadership;
  • Identify what social psychologists call the “leadership attribution error”;
  • Explain the characteristics of great team leadership;
  • Highlight what seem to be the most addressed issues of leadership in Scripture; and
  • Explain why I’m sad that Mark Driscoll can’t believe there’s a debate on this issue.

I hope you’ll stick with me through the next few weeks as I unpack team leadership, both biblically and empirically.  To subscribe and get the posts delivered directly to your email, simply sign-up here.

What do you think?  What is gained or lost by focusing on set leaders rather than leadership?




  1. Jared Barnett June 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    I think what is lost with a focus on set leaders is the mind-set among the team or group to be proactive to influence, voice opinion, generate ideas, among plenty of other things. It can lead to a lackadaisical team environment to where perhaps the leader rides on the high of others apathy and dependence on his/her leadership. My question though is with a functional perspective, who does make the final call? I can see sub-surface motivations to become competitive in beating others out, being that “leadership is open to those who lead.” I recently took Dr. Buzzell’s course on Leadership and learned a great deal on biblical servant-leadership, and like Driscoll & yourself agree, leaders are those who lead! However, who, after team work, ideation, etc. makes the final decision on the team, group, or organizations route?

    • Ryan Hartwig June 4, 2012 at 4:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks for writing Jared. Good stuff. Difficulty with making decisions is often lobbied by folks as a reason why there must be leaders on teams. On most teams I’ve been on, though, people other than the leader make decisions all the time, and they do just fine in doing so. Sometimes the whole team comes together and makes a decision by consensus or majority rule. Other times, the team agrees that one person in the room is best equipped to make the decision (for example, a tech-savvy person makes the final selection regarding a adoption of a new technology)? And sometimes, a designated leader (let’s face it, most teams have designated leaders) makes the decision. Teams are actually quite capable of figuring out good ways to make decisions, with or without a formal leader. When all the members offer their best, challenge one another, and are committed to the team’s common purpose, much of that perceived jockeying for position gets worked out.

      The problem, I see, though, is that so many “leaders” have to remind those “under” them that they have the authority to make decisions. Whenever you see a “leader” have to remind his “team” that he is the leader, I’d encourage you to consider his quality as a functional leader. You see, real leaders are willingly followed. Real leaders don’t coerce people to follow them by asserting their organizational position. Instead, real leaders do what they do with excellence, possess character worthy of following, cast compelling vision about things that matter, invite others to meaningfully participate in accomplishing that vision, and sometimes, but not always make enterprise- or team-wide decisions themselves. They simply lead, and others gladly, willingly, and joyfully follow them. That — not position, status, or place in the org chart — is what makes them leaders.

      In other words, on teams with real leaders, the leaders often make decisions, and no one has any problem with it. The other team members are thrilled that someone is truly leading them.

      Feel free to push back. I enjoy the conversation!

      – Ryan

  2. Tim June 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    I will do some pushing back for Jared’s sake (feel free to shut me down, Jared, if this isn’t where you are going with this). While in normal situations these discussions and group decisions are helpful, what about in the extreme situations? When “crisis management” is around? there’s no time to “decide a leader” or anything of the sort. The time for action is immediately, if there’s no emergent leader who “do what they do with excellence, possess character worthy of following, cast compelling vision” and so forth, who will take charge? It seems like there needs to be some sort of structure in place for such situations where democratic processes have no time.

    • Ryan Hartwig June 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm - Reply

      Good thoughts! I agree that there is sometimes no time for a democratic process. Thus, teams should decide ahead of time what to do in such situations. That might include establishing a point person to manage crises or to make decisions in a pinch. My hunch is that the team will identify a true leader in the group to act appropriately in those situations.

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