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Lessons in Leadership from the Political Process

People went to the polls last Tuesday, an election day starting the one-year countdown in a presidential campaign that seems already to have gone on forever.

Contenders for their party’s nomination are, in addition to staging media events, attempting to build coalitions of voters in each primary state.

Such coalition building often involves “retail politics:” personal appearances and small group conversations at local grassroots events.

Over the last month or so, I’ve watched with interest as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has worked to put in place a network of reliable supporters among Republican members of the House of Representatives.

That work has involved intense negotiations in which he received and also gave concessions in order to fashion what he views as a viable “majority within the majority,” which he believes will enable him to lead the Republican-controlled House as its speaker.

The political process intrigues me for many reasons, not the least of which is its instructive relevance, perhaps surprising to some readers, to leadership in church.

Some of what the political process teaches church leaders comes by way of negative example; we learn what not to do, especially in our use of the powers of speech and in relation to those whose views don’t line up with our own.

Obviously, the words of Paul (the Apostle, not the speaker) tell us that we have a responsibility to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

At the very least, this means that our goals in communication will be to clarify and honor the truth and to respect and encourage the people to whom we speak, even those who are on a different side of a particular issue from us.

What’s more, Jesus’ insistence that we should be “peacemakers” means that we need to resist the temptation to turn people who disagree with us into adversaries.

Even if some people insist on being “against” us as people, rather than simply differing with us on ideas, we are called to “love our ‘enemies'” and to seek, where possible, reconciliation with them.

There are also positive lessons for church leaders to learn from the political process, from both campaigning and governing.

The main such lesson has to do with a recognition of how important it is to build coalitions and networks.

The ability to construct “governing majorities” in emotionally intelligent and resolutely nonmanipulative ways is a skill that church leaders need.

To be effective at fashioning coalitions and networks, it must be clear to everyone that the overarching purpose is to serve the common good and the Kingdom of God, not anyone’s ego or pet agenda.

It’s also necessary that, in the building of coalitions, we are genuinely open to the changes our ideas might undergo as the people with whom we work share their valuable wisdom and unique perspectives.

Most leaders are familiar with Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.”

Phrases from the book have made their way into the common leadership lexicon: Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats, the power of the flywheel (about momentum), and Level 5 Leadership (combining professional will and personal humility), among others. It’s a helpful book.

Even more useful to me has been his lesser-known booklet called “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” By “social sectors,” he means “non-business” organizations, like governmental entities, nonprofit agencies and religious communities.

Collins makes an observation that highlights something church leaders can learn from political leaders, which is “getting things done within a diffuse power structure.”

“The complex governance and diffuse power structures common in non-businesses lead me to hypothesize that there are two types of leadership skill: executive and legislative,” he asserts.

“In executive leadership the individual leader has enough concentrated power to simply make the right decisions,” Collins explains. “In legislative leadership, on the other hand, no individual leader – not even the nominal chief executive – has enough structural power to make the most important decisions by himself or herself. Legislative leadership relies more upon persuasion, political currency and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.”

Building a coalition is not the same thing as seeking a consensus. While a consensus is valuable and good when we can attain it, sometimes the price of consensus is the sacrifice of the best thing for the organization.

Church leaders need a passionate and compelling commitment to what is best for the church, and they practice patient, determined, humble and thoughtful persuasion until what is best becomes clear to most of the people whom they serve.

Collins says, “True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.” We lead without positional power but with significant personal influence.

Used wisely and lovingly, it is better than mere power because it enables people to grow, not merely to comply.

Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, From the Intersection.