Throwback Thursday: How Competent Are You? (The Three Legs of Trust)

This article first appeared as a Leader’s Insight in Leadership Weekly, October 16, 2006.

Leader’s Insight: How Competent Are You?

I once worked at a church with a guy named Peter. Peter was an amazing communicator and vision-caster. When he spoke, I was motivated to dig deep to give my time, talents, and treasures for the mission. But as I did so and worked more closely with Peter, I learned that this gifted visionary was not a gifted administrator or implementer by any stretch of the imagination.

Over time, I noticed a pattern among those in his sphere of influence: one of initial excitement and enlistment, followed by frustration and eventually disenchantment at the lack of follow-through. People who left his ministry spoke of Peter not being trustworthy, even though he appeared to be a man who sought God’s heart.

In earlier columns, I’ve suggested that trust in a leader rests on three legs: character, competence, and communication. Inner character is the cornerstone of this trust and must be uncompromised, while communication is a more subtle ingredient of credibility. In between these two rests competence.

I will define competence as “skills for the tasks required.” Notice that this is a qualified definition. Ministry leadership requires many skills, depending on a nearly infinite combination of factors that make up your particular situation at a given time. Because these “tasks required” are constantly changing, the definition of “competence” must also vary to reflect what is needed in that situation.

Yet for some reason, we expect our ministry leaders to be omni-competent. We preach about the diversity of gifts within the body, yet expect our pastors and leaders, including ourselves, to have all of them.

A quick perusal of church job-search web sites reveals positions which ask for leaders more perfect than Jesus: “The ideal candidate will be a visionary leader who can also develop and implement strategies to fulfill this vision, all while caring personally for every member of the congregation. Gifts required include leadership, preaching/teaching, pastoral care, team-building, and administration.” Such expectations are not only unrealistic, they are unbiblical.

Some leaders are great entrepreneurs, good at starting new programs, ministries, and churches. Others are skilled at transitioning an organization. Still others lead best at ground level instead of at 30,000 feet. Competence is not regulated by an on/off switch where you either have it or you don’t. Gifts, abilities, personality, and background: all of these combine to defy a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership skill.

Even some of our more celebrated evangelical “success stories” have their limitations. Bill Hybels will be the first to admit that he is at times severely mercy-challenged; Rick Warren is a tremendous visionary, but relies on his colleagues to take care of implementing that vision.

The key to earning leadership trust as it relates to competence is recognizing what are the “tasks required” in a particular setting, and then recognizing whether you are skilled for those tasks. If you are, then do them; if not, find someone who can.

In his book, The Next Generation Leader, Andy Stanley writes: “Only do what only you can do.” Simple words, yet profound, and admittedly sometimes much easier said than done, especially at a small church. As the spouse of a solo pastor, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to operate from a strengths-based philosophy in a smaller congregation.

But there is no use pretending that you are good at everything. Those under the influence of your leadership will discover the truth sooner rather than later. Leadership trust is gained by how well you manage your strengths and weaknesses, and by how honest you are about them, no matter what size your ministry.

In the example above, Peter seemed to be a person of good character, and he was an unquestionably gifted communicator. The problem with Peter was that he resolutely insisted that he was a skilled administrator and could keep multiple plates spinning at once; all while he was surrounded by shards of broken glass and the sounds of crashing dinnerware. His lack of self-awareness undermined trust in his leadership and came dangerously close to becoming a character flaw.

Lack of skill in a particular ministry or leadership area is not a sign of poor character; however, failure to recognize or admit that weakness might be. There is a fine line between being unskilled (lack of competence) and being unteachable (lack of character).

Do you truly know your weakest skill areas? Do you listen when others tell you what they are? And, most importantly, do you take steps to deal with them, or do you find yourself making excuses for them? Leaders with strong character will seek accountability and input, and will then seek to manage (not necessarily improve) areas of weakness.

One of the key tasks of a leader is to accurately define reality, both in the organization, and in his/her own life. A true understanding of competence, the skills for the tasks required, is foundational to trust in your leadership.

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