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A Leadership Autopsy

A Leadership Autopsy
  • Name
    Dan Reiland
"I didn’t see that coming.  Everything seemed fine at first, well, for awhile, then seemingly out of nowhere we were in conflict and in a few months he was off staff. It didn’t go well at all, it was like a death on staff!”
This is a familiar phone call from pastors, where they tell me about a staff breakdown that went bad. We all understand that not every staff situation works out perfectly no matter how hard we try; but to be blindsided and end in heartache is unnecessary. The following is a 4-step “autopsy” of sorts to help dissect, analyze and learn how this happens, so you might prevent it before it occurs next time.

Were expectations clear?

A breakdown on staff (or relational breakdown of any kind) most often begins with unclear expectations. Unclear expectations turn into unmet expectations every time. Sometimes this is a result of a vague or sloppy job description. It can also result from a lack of accountability and measurement of accomplishment. Whatever the cause, it’s important to fight for clear expectations up front. Keep them fresh. Review and agree upon them at least once a year. At 12Stone, we review expectations three times a year as part of our MAP process. A relational breakdown of any kind most often begins with unclear expectations.

Was communication honest?

It’s a good thing to be kind and loving. However, when Godly virtues potentially erode candid communication, (because we lack honesty), it’s no longer truly kind and loving, and you may be headed for difficulty. It’s just like in marriage, or any relationship, when you are not completely truthful it’s impossible to know and agree on anything from expectations to overall goals and dreams. In the work environment, this includes whether or not performance is up to par. When being kind and loving begins to erode candid communication, you are headed for trouble.

Were you aligned and headed in the same direction?

(You can begin to see how these questions are connected and build on each other.) I’ve had the privilege as a pastor to marry many young couples over the years. They always start off enthusiastic and headed in the same direction. Then inevitably “life hits” and depending on what they want from life, and how they mature through difficulties, two possibilities occur: Either they become stronger and closer, or begin to head in different directions. It’s always heartbreaking when the couple tells me they just want different things in life. This happens with church staff leaders and key volunteer leaders as well. Now, there is obviously a difference between a marriage and a staff relationship. Sometimes God moves a person to another church and that’s OK! I’m talking about the situations where the problem was unseen, filled with tension and didn’t end well. The point is that for a staff relationship to work, you must both always be headed in the same direction, and wanting the same things. For a staff relationship to work, both must always be headed in the same direction.

Was this person able to accomplish the job?

When expectations aren’t clear, communication isn’t honest, and you aren’t headed in the same direction, this will always affect performance. It’s important to ask these two questions:
  1. Can the person do the job?
  2. Will the person do the job?
“Can they” is about competence. “Will they” is about attitude. The person may be able to do the job, but that doesn’t mean they will. The person may be willing to do the job, but that doesn’t mean they can. It’s impossible to answer those two questions unless you have clear expectations, good communication and you are headed in the same direction. Ideally, you would want to invest in leadership development and equipping to help them succeed. But that effort is in vain if they are not headed in the same direction or more bluntly, don’t really want the job. I’ve seen this happen countless times in many churches and inevitably relationships begin to deteriorate, and without attention, it ends poorly. Without clear expectations, it’s impossible to assess if someone was accomplishing their job. It’s impossible to cover all the possible variables and nuances in a single post, but the above 4 questions will help you keep an eye on your critically important paid (and volunteer) staff relationships and prevent the necessity of an “autopsy” (What went wrong?) conversation.