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Front, back or middle? Three leadership stances

By Chris Gambill

From what position should you lead? The front, middle, or back? Each of these leadership stances uses different skills, addresses different needs, and reflects different goals and assumptions. The Bible provides examples of all three approaches. Congregational leaders need to master all three and, more importantly, learn when to use which one.

Leading from the front

In most common leadership models the task is accomplished by putting the leader literally out front, center stage. That means whatever happens—good or bad—ultimately depends on the leader’s actions. The leader does more speaking than listening. When leading from the front, the organization’s progress depends heavily on the agency of the leader, not the followers. The flip side of this is also true. The success or failure of the organization is also credited to the leader. This leadership stance assumes that followers either cannot or will not act unless the leader is out front leading the way.

Leading from the front is sometimes necessary and is often the best position for a leader. At particular times a leader needs to get out front and point the way to a new destination. It took Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and individual prophets to call the Hebrew people back to faithfulness. More than once Jesus took the front position of leadership. When confronted by the scribes and Pharisees about his authority or the conduct of his ministry, Jesus didn’t defer or pass the questions on to others to deal with. When he needed to show God’s righteous anger against those defiling the temple by conducting commerce and profiting from other’s worship and devotion, he went himself and turned over the tables and drove out the moneychangers.

When the leadership task is mobilizing, giving information, demonstrating, modeling, or navigating a crisis, there is often no good alternative for a leader except to be out front.

Leading from the middle

Of the three, leading from the middle may be the hardest to conceptualize. Perhaps the best way to describe it is with an example. Nehemiah felt God’s call to rebuild Jerusalem. Having secured permission to do so, he said to the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem . . .” A little later the people responded to him saying, “Let us start building!” They key word here is us. Nehemiah didn’t try to rebuild it himself. Neither did he simply assign it to others and remain King Artaxerxes’ cupbearer. Instead, he went with them and together they did the hard work.

Leading from the middle acknowledges the important role for the designated leader to fulfill, but in some situations it’s best carried out alongside others—neither in front nor in back. I often joke that I’ve spent many hours of my years in ministry inside dirty trashcans cleaning them out. That’s not typically pastoral work for which you receive post-graduate training. However, I learned early on that if I was going to ask others to give their time and energy to doing the “dirty work” of ministry, I needed to be willing to do it myself. I wanted to be, and to be seen as, a fellow laborer in the kingdom, not a detached supervisor. Leading from the middle is especially appropriate when the leader needs to have ongoing input, and can’t or shouldn’t just leave it to others. It’s also a powerful way to build relationships. I learned I could have a lot of significant pastoral conversations while mopping a floor or cleaning trashcans with a fellow believer.

Jesus used this leadership stance often. Almost every time Jesus preached or taught he was in the company of one or more his disciples. In many situations, you get the clear impression that everybody—Jesus and all twelve of them—were pitching in trying to manage the crowds and the situation in the most helpful way. When it came time for some “down and dirty” ministry, Jesus himself jumped up, strapped on a towel and began washing dirty feet. I suspect that from then on there were plenty of others eager to join him in doing the same when needed.

Leading from the back

Despite the common perception that great leadership happens by being in the front, sometimes the best leadership position is in the back. Leading from the back puts the leader in a subsidiary position to others. When his disciples came to him and told him there were lots of hungry people and no food to feed them, Jesus decided to lead from the back. He didn’t provide the food or even tell them where to find it. He simply said, “you give them something to eat.” And they did! Jesus didn’t carry a basket, distribute the food, or collect the leftovers. He trusted and empowered his disciples to deal with the problem. While he was obviously instrumental in making the miracle happen, I believe he purposefully chose to lead from the back.

Though leaders may enjoy being in the spotlight, leading from the back moves them from center stage to back stage. Sometimes it’s important to ensure that others take center stage—at the right time delivering the right lines. Instead of directly telling or directing, the leader becomes the supportive, empowering force behind others who exercise various leadership roles. Instead of traveling himself to every little town and village, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two and empowered them to deliver the good news and carry out the work of the Kingdom.

Leading from the back works from different assumptions and may have different goals. Believing that others can do leadership work, it empowers, trains, encourages and builds the confidence of others. It represents a longer view of leadership. It’s not just what the appointed leader can do now, but how the work can extend far beyond the leaders or the particular moment in time.

Leading from the back also assumes that both the problem to be solved and the most viable solution belong to and come from the followers—not the leader. It’s built upon a theological principle that collectively, God’s people can know and act upon God’s will more faithfully than an individual (“two are better than one,” though there can be exceptions to this; read the book of Exodus or any of the prophets, for example). Leading from the back reflects a different attitude toward leadership itself: the task of leadership is not just to exercise the gifts of the leader, but to also hold in tension the goal of developing the leadership capacities of others.

There is a right time and place to exercise all three leadership positions. Recognizing that there are three and thinking about the context and what needs to be accomplished can help a leader pick the right stance at the right time. Timing matters in leadership. So does your position. Choose it well.

Chris Gambill is director of the Center for Congregational Health, in the FaithHealth division of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The Center strengthens congregations through consulting, leadership coaching and intentional interim ministry.

 

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