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Jim Senn is Director, Center for Global Business Leadership at Georgia State University. The following excerpts come from his article of the same name in the January 2007 issue of Executive Leadership Today, published by the Center. I think it is just as relevant today as when it was published. Jim was one of my professors in the GSU EMBA.

Jim Senn has written a powerful article about credibility, how we get it and how we lose it as leaders. Although I have heard the argument, “The Church is not a business,” I find these same principles, though derived here from a business setting, hold just as true of church leaders. We, the laity, live our lives in the culture of business. We see, painfully at times, what good leadership and bad leadership look like. People bring expectations from one area of their lives into others. We laity are like that. These words describe our expectations of church leaders as well as those in our work world.

In his article, Senn asserts:

As important as it is to evaluate executive quality by an ability to present well-articulated visions and to craft and effectively execute high impact strategies, neither comprise the true foundation on which a leader builds great performance. The bedrock of all leadership is credibility.

The essential and most valuable asset of a true leader is the trust that results from having impeccable credibility. Yet, credibility is not a skill that can be acquired through practice, nor is it a capability instilled through mastery of principles and practices. It is a judgment made by others often based on their first-hand experience, perhaps combined with consensus opinion. Therefore, a leader’s credibility cannot be created or constructed. It must be conveyed.

Executives who are judged to have impeccable credibility adhere to the principles of clarity, openness, transparency and truthfulness in their business and personal practices.

When I was leading our company, I used to tell our people, “Where customers are concerned, feelings are facts, perception is reality.” Lay leaders have a perception about what good leadership is, and they know it when they see it. As we are taught in Natural Church Development Coach training, “The leaders of a church are either making it a healthier place, or an unhealthier place.” Nothing ever stays the same. So the question for every church leader is, “Do your people perceive that you model clarity, openness, transparency and truthfulness?”

Clarity

Stakeholders, Senn says, expect leaders to:

Demonstrate that they are keenly aware of the current state of their enterprise while clearly and lucidly defining the direction they intend to take in the future. Stakeholders also… want to be kept apprised of the alternatives chosen for achieving success, supported by convincing evidence that their executives understand the challenges ahead and have the means for overcoming each one. Failing to communicate clearly, vacillating... or shifting directions frequently, or failing to explain how chosen tactics will deliver the desired results can quickly erode a leader’s credibility.

Consistency and competency are the foundations of trust. Building trust is like making a regular investment in a savings account. If we are not investing in the “trust” account, there will be nothing to draw on when things get turbulent. When conflict erupted around transformation in my local church and I was a lightning rod, I knew I could count on many friends in the church to stand with me, and not to listen to misinformation, untruth and rumors about me. They trusted me, and lent me their credibility in a very difficult time.

Further, Senn goes on to say:

The question is no longer, ‘Who has the best strategy?’ The question now is, ‘Who’s going to execute….’

Openness

About this next trait, Senn says, people:

Always seem to work harder for executives they respect--leaders who raise their self-esteem and who strengthen the people around them. Credibility accrues to executives who openly solicit diverse, alternate views and invite criticism while vigorously seeking to gather intelligence from others, all to improve the likelihood of successful initiatives. If they refuse to ‘let their guard down’ by encouraging diverse and alternative views or criticism of proposed strategies and actions, they may become viewed as arrogant and aloof.

I have painfully experienced a lack of openness amongst church pastors that has resulted in exactly the dynamic that Senn describes. Vulnerability is one of the key attributes of leaders. The extent to which we are open with others about where we are gifted, and more importantly, demonstrate clarity about where we are not gifted, the more we can unlock the gifts of others in the church. When we admit we don’t have all the answers, or all the gifts needed, we only affirm what people know already. People can see our shortcomings much better than we can. The problem comes when we are not open about our challenges, and act like we have it all together.

I think we often believe we are not particularly unique or gifted, and assume others have the same skills and insights. When we don’t see leaders doing things we know need doing, we become critical and cynical, because we can see their flaws, and if they don’t acknowledge them, we cannot help. However, when leaders demonstrate openness and vulnerability, it flips a switch in people. All of a sudden, they say, “You know, I could do that; perhaps I could help.” So, being open and vulnerable is key to a healthy body of Christ, where we each exercise our unique gifts for the good of the whole.

In his great little book, “Servant Leader,” Ken Blanchard illustrates the point this way. He tells us we can tell the difference between a servant leader and a self-serving leader by how they take feedback. For the servant leader, it is not about me, it’s about the mission. I want to know anything, however painful, that makes me more effective at accomplishing the mission. The self-serving leader gets defensive when they receive feedback, because they think you don’t want them to be leader anymore. They are leader first, and servant second.

Transparency

Transparency is closely related to integrity, our ability to “walk the talk.” As Senn puts it:

Transparency reflects the visibility of a leader’s thoughts and actions. Employees will always judge whether their leaders actually do what they say they will do.

We always try to “make nice” in the church (except when we’re not). Have you ever had someone try to give you feedback, but in an indirect way? I come away from those conversations wondering what they were really trying to say to me. I appreciate directness, and wish they would just tell me the truth, not some sugarcoated version that leaves me wondering.

Another example is the pastor who preaches about teamwork, but does not know how to empower or delegate, micromanages everything, and changes course at a whim. When the behavior contradicts the words, how do people respond? Or, in the larger picture, what about a church that espouses as doctrine “the Priesthood of all Believers,” yet won’t listen to or empower anyone who is not ordained?

Truthfulness

Concluding, about truthfulness Senn says:

Just as impeccable credibility is the foundation of leadership, truthfulness is the cornerstone of that credibility. Credible leaders follow the simplest practice of all. They tell the truth even in the toughest of circumstances. Moreover, an executive’s ability to lead in the future is rooted in the credibility accrued through their past performance. Once conveyed, the trust that accompanies credibility should be treasured and carefully safeguarded because if lost, it is exceptionally difficult to reacquire.

In your mind, the church may not be a business. However, I have seen the results when pastors do not mind their credibility and do not behave in the way Senn describes. It is not a pretty sight. Church leaders of substance will realize that truth lies in these words, although written for a business audience. Ignore them at your peril.

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