A lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper is the true and distinguishing disposition of the hearts of Christians.Jonathan Edwards
Confronting others is exhausting. But it is even more tiring to avoid conflict. Relational strain will grow like weeds in an untended field. The best way to lead is by addressing problems in a spirit of gentleness and with grace-filled candor. Apply the attitude of a mother to a nursing child. “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul Tripp advocates for a gentle approach as well: “Gentle talk does not come from a person who is angry and looking to settle the score. It comes from the person who is speaking not because of what he wants from you but what he wants for you.”
On the table, “Four Ways to Speak to Others,” the vertical axis measures the level of relational connectivity with the person(s) you are leading. The horizontal axis measures the intentionality in your interactions. The vertical axis goes from intimacy at the top to indifference at the bottom. The horizontal axis goes from passivity on the left to intentionality on the right.
If you are leading a specific project or team, intentionality is high while intimacy can be low. If you are attending a company social event, intentionality usually is low but intimacy is higher. Let’s explore the four ways to speak to others: compliance, critique, control, and grace-filled candor.
Compliance is the mark of an intimate albeit passive interaction. It is the type of interaction that is normal and natural when exchanging pleasantries in social situations among church members, co-workers, and neighbors. In leadership contexts it has limited usefulness. In this quadrant, we experience an elevated level of relational connectivity without candid conversations about another person’s actions, attitudes, character, or competence. As a result, external sources of conflict are glossed over without directly dealing with the root causes or the relational dysfunctions. This can be unhelpful for the leader.
If we aren’t able to move beyond compliance in our relationships, we may have made an idol of approval. Leaders whose interactions lie in this quadrant are most likely motivated by a desire to avoid loneliness or perception of non-inclusivity. They often fear rejection and, therefore, rarely confront or point out inadequacies in others. This leader values the other person and sacrifices honesty to maintain a relationship or at least an appearance of one. They do not risk that relationship by pushing for more productive outcomes. It is foolish for a leader only to have agreeable friends. It is sad that some marriages operate in this quadrant.
Critique characterizes the interactions of the person who interacts with another without pursuing or possessing a personal relationship (they are indifferent) and without real intentionality (they are passive). This is the congregant who criticizes the sermon but rarely prays for the pastor. Critical thinking is necessary for an effective leader as they look for better ways and strategies to accomplish a goal. However, a leader also needs to seek the best interests of those they are leading. Critique is when leaders walk over people instead of walking alongside them. Constructive criticism is only helpful if it involves a personal relationship and an agreed-upon goal of both parties. Followers who remain in this quadrant may get frustrated, angry, or discouraged. Leaders who operate in this quadrant will drive people away.
The corrective is to get to know the other person at a deeper level. If we do not have a personal relationship with someone, we will never really be able to lead them. Once we know another person and are praying with them and for them, it is difficult to criticize their actions and words. Insecure leaders tend to critique others. They fear being intimate and vulnerable. The Pharisees—the self-righteous leaders in Jesus’s time on earth—embody this critique mode.
Control characterizes the interactions of the leader who speaks to others to demand they get things done. They fail to focus on a meaningful relationship with those they are leading. My family makes fun of me when I try to order from an outside menu at a drive-through. I like to look at people, smile, and politely ask them to fulfill my order. I rarely attempt drive-through ordering because I don’t hear them or they don’t hear me. I tried it once when I was alone, and I still failed despite the absence of their impending and sure mocking of my failure in this basic skill. I couldn’t get my order across. I don’t like to yell directives at people. I parked and walked in and the workers were talking about me! I left them a big tip. Some leaders are drive-through leaders who yell commands at others and demand they get it just right. It never works for long. This type of leader gets angry and lashes out with harsh words or physical actions and then walks away from the wreckage they create. They commonly belittle others and attack them when they are most vulnerable.
People are willing to get things done if there is a set goal or intentionality is high. But they will not continue being led by an aloof leader or one who has made an idol of power and control. This type of leader is motivated by success and fears failure. Therefore, they push, manipulate, threaten, and sometimes attempt to motivate others with prestige, position, or payroll. These leaders are more interested in their success than in the development of others.
The corrective is to lead with humility and teamwork, rather than by threats and demands. To develop leadership skills in others, this leader needs to draw people out by asking questions about the best course of action.
The passive-aggressive person lives in the critique and control quadrants. Merriam-Webster defines “passive-aggressive” as displaying behavior characterized by negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way. Passive-aggression is an emotionally abusive behavior because the leader does not directly deal with the person’s problem, inadequacy, or failure. This type of leader, instead of communicating honestly when disappointed, may allow their feelings to fester over time. They shut off emotionally healthy responses, and wrongly try to keep the upper hand by always making others wonder what they are thinking.
Candor characterizes the grace-filled interactions of the wise leader. It is the ideal quadrant from which to communicate to those you lead. Candor is truthful frankness directly addressed with another person. A grace-filled posture occurs when you extend kindness and love, even if a person’s actions do not justify it. A gospel-shaped leader speaks kindly to others in a safe environment and explains how their actions adversely affect others.
The goal of grace-filled candor is to find a solution to the conflict while deepening relationships with others. I am sad to say that this kind of candor is not typical, and that is precisely why gospel-shaped leaders stand out from other leaders. Being grace-filled isn’t waving a white flag and surrendering. It is speaking forthrightly about the problem without attacking the other person and then, if possible, collaborating with that person for a resolution. Of course, those we are leading do not always respond positively, and we may have to persevere with grace.
Grace-filled candor requires having an intimate relationship with the other person. Leaders must not avoid this vulnerable space. They are intentional in their focus and objectives, yet lead others with a shepherd’s staff rather than an electric cattle prod. Loving leaders can speak with candor because those they are leading are aware of this love for their best interests. Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and beckons others to follow him (John 10). The apostle Paul implies that grace-filled candor (speaking the truth in love) results in a healthy, mutually benefiting organization:
Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.Ephesians 4:15–16 NLT, emphasis added
Excerpted from The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning on Jesus to Shepherd His People © 2021 by Scott Thomas. Used with permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning On Jesus to Shepherd His People
Through many years of ministry experience, Thomas has seen the importance of the “soft skills” of leadership—empathy, kindness, and listening—and how not developing those skills negatively impacts churches. Understanding and applying the gospel will bring transformation.