The below is Lesson 2 from our Leadership Lessons series.
LESSON TWO: It’s dangerous to succeed.
KEY QUESTION: How can we make success less risky while keeping success as a priority?
Not surprisingly, John Maxwell was (and is still) correct.
Many things can take down your church or company, but none may be sneakier than success.
It’s incredible, really. The one thing we want to be (successful) is the one thing that can create our downfall.
You see it all the time. Perhaps you have lived through this a few times. The stories are all relatively similar. The pathway goes like this: hard work produces great success. That success gives way to entitlement and then arrogance. Finally, arrogance causes leaders and organizations to relax in their hubris of success. The world around us is still changing, but the organization is not. After all, look at how much money we have. Look at how many people are attending. Look at our online engagement.
The dangers of success are present in both the ministry and the marketplace. For now, let’s look at church success. Or at least how churches tend to define success.
The most obvious church success measurement is attendance. In my 15 years of church leadership, it would be impossible to count the number of times other church leaders have asked me, “Whacha runn’n?” I guess the slang for “How many people are attending (or watching in today’s world)?” feels less icky.
Attendance is but one success metric. I bet you’ve got a dashboard full of measurements:
- Small group participation
- Sunday School engagement
- Volunteer participation and retention
- Online viewership
- Online engagement
The above list is incomplete but makes the point. There are multitudes of metrics that allow us to evaluate our success. More, they enable us to call ourselves “successful.” And this is where we get into trouble.
Desiring success creates hunger. Being successful can birth entitlement.
Luckily, you can see the onset of successful danger.
Here are the seven deadly sins of organizational success:
1. A “good news” focus
Organizations in danger of failing from success tend to overemphasize and celebrate good news while excusing the bad news. I bet you’ve seen this before. “I know we’ve only baptized five people this year, but…” There’s always a “good reason” for the bad news. And there’s always some good news on which to focus instead. Excusing negative metric trends is a red flag.
2. Mounds of red tape
Decision-making, idea evaluation, and empirical “proof” are increasingly complicated and time-consuming in successful (and now bureaucratic) organizations. Every idea requires multitudes of meetings and discussions. Everyone in leadership (and non-leadership) feels entitled to weigh in, and the leadership requires official requests to try anything. The red tape makes trying something new nearly not worth it. After all, we’re successful, and we don’t want that to change.
3. The previous generation (or founders) make all the leadership decisions
An evolving world demands strategic innovations and risks. When the previous generation or founding leaders dominate the organizational decisions, the end is near. Generational diversity at the decision-making table keeps the organization from allowing previous success to limit future potential. Since I mentioned it, ALL diversity helps the decision-making table.
If you are an organization where the founders still serve as leaders, please don’t add younger leaders to a side (or kids) table and fool yourself. If the next generation isn’t actively making decisions, the organization is in danger.
One more thing: If ONE leader still makes all the decisions, even in successful situations, danger is lurking around the corner.
4. Unnecessary risk aversion
Pay attention if you’d like to try something different and the “organization” resists. To be clear, some risks are too risky (hence the name). There are times a potential risk has not been thoroughly evaluated. That’s fair. However, successful organizations tend to see ideas and experiments through a lens of fear, not facts. New means change and change feels threatening. I promise you the organization began by taking a risk, but everybody and everything becomes more risk-averse with age and success.
5. Doubling-down on what and how, not why
“Why we do it” is why you started, but success tends to interject more of “what we do” and “how we do it.” When the “what” and “how” overwhelm the original “why,” red flags should fly. Success causes leaders to double-down on what generated the success. Unfortunately, maintaining the what and how keeps the organization tied to the past in an ever-changing world.
6. Maintaining order at almost any cost
Believe me; there is a cost. Success requires order, and order brings management, forming the organization. In the beginning, there was no “organization.” You had some sense of order, but that was to ensure bills were paid and more comprehensive policies were followed. Your growth required order which created the organization. You know what organizations do, right? They maintain order. Maintenance alone isn’t a red flag, but a dedication to maintaining current methods, strategies, and structures are.
In the beginning, every dollar mattered. I remember asking our church administrator to send me the weekly giving numbers as soon as possible each Sunday. As we grew and became more successful, I stopped asking for weekly reports. Monthly P&Ls replaced weekly (or at times daily) financial checkups. Fiscal success can produce financial entitlement and arrogance. Money gets easier to spend. Pricetags become less concerning. Costs are never relative, but financial success makes expenses easier to ignore.
I hope you are massively successful. Success is good, but left unchecked, the very thing we desire can become the same thing that destroys.
So, how can we still pursue success while avoiding the dangers of success?
That is the question, right?
Left unchecked, success is hazardous to our organizational health. If done with intentionality, success can birth grander success.
Here are my suggestions to repent from the sins of success:
1. Rather than a “good news” focus, ensure your reality is presented realistically
Refuse to make excuses when any metric is off-target. This is the power of trend analysis. It’s certainly possible that a blip on a metric has a valid excuse. What doesn’t have excuses are trends. Trends are aggregate realities. You can’t easily excuse away trends. Great leaders look at all metrics, including trends, and when a trend shows lousy news, great leaders acknowledge the reality and begin evaluating solutions.
2. Create your version of R&D to remove the mounds of red tape
All successful companies have Research & Development departments for a reason. While you as a church might not have the resources to create a separate department to test ideas, you can find ways to research and test hypotheses.
Learning from others is a beautiful method of research. Look at what other churches are doing, but don’t stop there. Learn from different industries and leaders, too. (I wrote more about this here.)
Next, remove all the red tape of testing ideas by creating simple pathways to experiment.
3. Make all decision-making tables diverse
Diversity of age, race, and gender add tremendous value to organization decisions and, in our discussion, innovation and risk-taking. You are missing critical perspectives if everyone around the decision table looks like you. So find good thinkers hungry for the next round of progress and place them at the most vital decision tables. Then, listen to them. And finally, follow their lead.
I don’t mean this to sound so negative, but the founders and previous generation tend to romanticize what was, keeping the entire organization tied to that past. This is incredibly dangerous, especially when the organization has experienced past success.
4. Turn unnecessary risk aversion into well-planned experiment evaluation
To encourage experimentation, create a simple pathway for calculated risk-taking without the red tape. Perhaps you should give one staff member authority over new ideas, allowing them to say “yes” to new experiments. Maybe you could begin calling all new ideas “experiments.” Experiments are just that. The word alone connotes some amount of expected failure. And allow for honest evaluation. When people know that a failed experiment has no long-term personal consequences, you unleash people to create.
Here is one specific idea: When I was leading Woodstock City Church, I began asking a risk-related question in our staff meetings – “What have we failed at recently?” The first time I asked, nobody answered. But, over time, as I continued to ask, answers began to come. This one question subtly shifted our perspective on experimentation.
5. Always come back to “why,” no matter how long you’ve been executing your current “what” and “how.”
Decide now never to say “This is how we do it here” again. The reason you created your model and strategy is still valid, even if your model and strategy are now outdated. The “reason” is your why. Keep it out front by consistently repeating your mission, vision, and values in every meeting. Any underachieving model or strategy becomes more easily replaceable when your team remains focused on the mission, vision, and values.
6. Reengage leadership innovation into your over-managed organization
There is a difference between leadership and management. The longer an organization exists, the more management takes over. After all, orchestrating what was previously created is an important job. Think of it in the form of a question: How much of your time is allocated to innovation? What percentage of your team was hired to execute what existed before they were hired? The larger the number, the more dangerous the success.
It’s time to reallocate (or even hire) people to think, not just do. It’s time to engage leadership innovation back into the organization.
I don’t mean this as a sales plug, but it’s worth mentioning. Many churches and businesses hire outside consultants and coaches, as it’s the most cost-effective method (at least initially) to reengage the work of leadership (innovation, problem-solving, and strategic execution).
7. Get back to some stewardship basics
When an organization begins to get loose with money, the end is near. Great organizations (especially churches and similar non-profits) understand the value of resources. In a church, every dollar was given to you by someone who trusts you will use it well. At Woodstock City Church, I regularly reminded our team of this reality, saying, “If you don’t feel comfortable explaining an expense to a person who gives to our church, you should reconsider the expense.”
Similarly, be sure to share and explain your financial statements to your staff each month. The more they understand how money comes in and out, the more they will consider spending it wisely.
Last thing: Start asking better stewardship questions, such as “Will we receive a good return on this expense?” and “Is there another way to accomplish something similar for less money without damaging the experience?”
Success is always dangerous. So is a lack of success. The secret to longevity is building systems to spot the red flags of success and incorporating intentional green flags to create future success.
How can I help?
Partnering with ministry and marketplace leaders from innovation through implementation is why I created Transformation Solutions. I’m dedicating my time to helping leaders like you discover potential problems, design strategic solutions, and deliver the preferable future.
Go right now to mytransformationsolutions.com and sign up for a free, 15-minute conversation to decide if working together works for you.