The Secret to Easing Leadership Pressure: Becoming a Chief Learning Officer


Feeling overwhelmed by leadership pressure? Find out how adopting a Chief Learning Officer mindset can transform stress into influence.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024, at 2:00 PM EST

When I interviewed my friend Tensley Almand for my book, Big Shoes To Fill, he was beginning his new role as Atlanta Mission CEO. Tensley worked with me as a campus lead pastor within North Point Ministries. He led Decatur City Church while I led Woodstock City Church. 

We are similar in that we are natural entrepreneurs and enjoy building things (like churches and organizations). When Tensley announced his leadership transition, I was excited for him. And I was excited to see how he planned to lead a new organization as an outsider. 

Under Pressure

Pressure is part of leadership. There’s no way around it. 

Actually, pressure is a good thing. If there were no pressure, there’d be no need for leadership. Decisions, change, and progress all create pressure, and these are the things that make leadership necessary. 

When I talked with Tensley, he seemed oddly relaxed about the role. He’d only been there a month, and while there was pressure, he didn’t seem to feel the pressure. I wondered if his new organization was so laid back that it was pressure-free. 

Of course, that is ridiculous. No organization of substance is without pressure, and no leadership role is without pressure. When I thought about the pressures of Tensley’s new role, a few came to mind. Things like: 

  • Atlanta Mission has an annual operating budget of over $20 million and a sizable endowment to steward. 
  • Tensley inherited 180+ staff members over 3 locations plus a corporate office and seven direct reports. 
  • Tensley entered Atlanta Mission from outside the organization. 
  • Tensley replaced the 13-year veteran CEO who was beloved. 
  • There are always expectations for the new leader to lead well. After all, they were selected after an extensive interview process. 
  • The majority of the Atlanta Mission staff didn’t have a vote in hiring Tensley. He was announced and showed up. 
  • Some changes were probably necessary, but leading change as the new leader feels impossible. 

That’s just the beginning. 

Yet Tensley wasn’t feeling the full squeeze of the pressure. 

He had a trick that we can all use. 

One Secret to Release the Pressure

Tensley mentioned in our interview that he accepted a new title for his first several months. Rather than be the CEO, he wanted to be the CLO, Chief Learning Officer. 

I loved that, but words alone don’t mean much. To act as the CLO, Tensley spent time learning everything he could about the organization he was now tasked to lead. Of course, Tensley asked great questions during his interview process and researched Atlanta Mission before accepting the role, but as we all know, most of what we need to learn can’t be learned from the outside. 

Tensley did so many things well as the new leader, but his desire to learn might be the pressure release we all need and can mimic. He Tensley went well beyond asking a few probing questions. He experienced the organization, including the customer journey. 

Specifically, Tensley spent time experiencing everything a care recipient (customer) experiences at Atlanta Mission. From the website to the intake interview process to receiving care. He experienced it all a few times to ensure he understood exactly how people were experiencing Atlanta Mission. This is brilliant. 

Brilliant not just because of how much he learned but because of what it showed the rest of the staff. 

Tensley was under pressure as the new leader. There were decisions to make changes to initiate. Being seen as a learner and a leader released a lot of external pressure.

You gain influence and trust when those following you know you’re committed to learning and leading. 

That’s the secret. Leadership is about influence, and influence requires trust. How can you expedite these as a new leader? How can you continually grow these as a seasoned leader? 

Keep learning in public. There’s not as much pressure when you focus on learning AND let everyone know you are focused on learning. 

How Much Learning Are You Doing AND Displaying?

When was the last time you experienced your organization as a customer, not the leader? It’s challenging to be the undercover boss, but it’s critical to find a way to experience things from outside of your role. 

As a lead pastor, I would “attend” a service from time to time. Rather than arriving at 7:00 am, I’d show up and leave with our regular attendees. Sitting in the traffic, experiencing our parking team, and walking through the hallways during peak moments helped me understand how it felt to attend our church. 

Additionally, I volunteered in our church from time to time. Working in the parking lot or serving in our preschool ministry helped me see how we were serving our attendees and how our attendees were experiencing us. 

We can all be a CLO. The trick is to make this a leadership lifestyle more than a whim. 

Here are some additional tips that may help get your public learning started: 

  1. Read and study leadership, then teach what you’re learning to the team. 
  2. Experience pieces of your organization from the seat of your staff, volunteers, and customers/attendees/clients. 
  3. Seek out a mentor or leadership coach. 
  4. Ask other people to lead learning labs or “lunch and learns” for your team. And attend them!
  5. Bring in leaders from outside your organization to teach what they are learning. 
  6. Use staff meetings for learning experiences. 
  7. Remain honest and vulnerable with your team. Admit what you don’t know and what you’re trying to learn about, and apologize when you get a decision wrong. 
  8. Communicate to your team when you make a mistake and what you learned from it. 

Leaders are learners. That mantra isn’t just a pithy statement. Learning grows leaders, but it grows trust and influence when done in public. 

If you want to take some of the pressure off, elevate your learning to the public space of your organization. You’ll be amazed by the response. 

Leading With You,