I enjoy reading about and observing effective leaders. Great leaders have a notable common attribute—they are learners. They have a passion for digesting new concepts. Lifelong learning is their mantra. Harry Piland was the epitome of a spiritual leader and lifelong learner. Dr. Piland, retired Director of the Sunday School Division at LifeWay, passed away in 2001. The following are a few tips I learned from Harry’s leadership.
Effective leaders learn by reading. Even in his early seventies, Harry was a prolific reader. He was always asking his friends what they were reading and he soaked up everything he could get his hands on. If you mentioned a book he had not read, Harry would buy it that week and devour it. I quickly learned that if Harry thought a book was worth the read, I wouldn’t regret the purchase.
Effective leaders read a variety of books. They find leadership principles in the Bible, novels, biographies, magazines, and sociology books. What have you read recently? What did you learn about yourself, about ministry, about people, about leadership? Break out of your mold. Pick up a book from a genre you normally don’t read. In addition to Christian magazines, read business pieces such as Fast Company or Fortune to understand how businesses are dealing with technology and management issues.
Effective leaders learn from others. When I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with Harry, I tried to squeeze the wisdom out of this great leader by asking questions and soliciting advice on leadership issues. Not long into our conversations, I realized Harry had changed the direction of the questions and I was the one being quizzed. Harry loved to hear fresh ideas ministers were using to reach people and grow churches.
When Harry attended a professional conference, he was not out in the hallways networking with his buddies. He was in a workshop, taking notes, absorbing every word. This man who had led thousands of Sunday School and leadership conferences always had a positive comment about the conferences he attended and an encouraging word to give the presenter.
In Proverbs 15:22 we read, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Who do you listen to and learn from? Who do you turn to when you need guidance? Develop a long list of people you can call on for advice and counsel. Ask them to serve on your personal board of advisors. Develop friendships with a variety of leaders–business leaders, community and government leaders, ministers from other denominations, ministers in situations similar to yours, leaders in technology, and leaders of schools and other non-profit organizations. Surround yourself with good people and you’ll grow.
Effective leaders learn by leading. You are most ready to learn when you are in the middle of a leadership problem. Seminaries are sometimes criticized because they do not prepare ministers to lead. While you may learn basic information in a classroom environment, the best education happens on the job. Discussing case studies and role-playing how to deal with angry church members are helpful techniques, but your education kicks in when you are confronted with an emotionally distraught church leader after a business meeting. Every so often an alumnus will call and ask if I could send information about an issue he or she is dealing with in ministry. The alumnus remembers we discussed the topic in class, but at the time it didn’t seem important. The truth is, the alumnus wasn’t ready to learn before, when sitting in a classroom. Now, he or she is all ears, actively seeking answers and paying close attention.
We are more motivated to learn when the learning has immediate application. Teenagers are usually not interested in attending classes on parenting. But give them a few years, a marriage, and a toddler who needs potty training and suddenly they are interested in parenting skills.
What skills do you need in your current leadership position? What goals do you have for the coming year? Write your own personal development plan to guide your efforts at learning while leading. Find out what conferences are available to help improve your leadership skills. It has been reported that information is changing so rapidly that the half-life of your seminary degree is three to four years. This means if you want to be an effective minister in this rapidly changing world, you will need to continually retool and constantly work to enhance your skills.
Effective leaders learn by failure. A vice-president in a major corporation walked into the CEO’s office and submitted a letter of resignation. The VP had made a recent decision that had cost the company a very large amount of money, and he was sure his boss would not want him to stay. The CEO read the letter in his presence and then tore it up. The bewildered executive asked, “Why aren’t you accepting my resignation? I just cost the company over a million dollars.” The CEO replied, “I can’t afford to fire you. I’ve got too much invested in your education.” This CEO knew that all of us fail. The question is, “What did you learn from your failures?”
Ineffective leaders attempt to deal with failure by deflecting the blame. By defending their decisions or blaming the results on someone else, or by excusing the results because of circumstances, they refuse to be accountable for their failure. Effective leaders take responsibility for their actions and decisions. They evaluate how they can improve their skills so they don’t make the same mistake twice.
Where have you failed recently? What did you learn from your mistakes? How could you have handled the situation differently? Did you discuss the problem with someone else in order to evaluate your mistakes? What relationships have been bruised? Record these leadership lessons in a journal.
Effective leaders learn by serving. Harry reminded me that leadership is service. It’s amazing what you learn by serving in other non-profit or professional organizations. How do other organizations enlist volunteers? How do they motivate the troops? How do they respond to crisis or criticism? How do they communicate to their constituents?
Harry enjoyed serving others. He didn’t have to have a title or a position to find ways to help others. His agenda was to love those around him. I miss this eternally optimistic servant leader. Thanks, Harry, for serving as a wonderful example of an effective leader.