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Thinking and acting strategically

April 24, 2017 | by Mike Bonem

If you ask a second chair leader what he or she “does,” you may hear a long list of tasks. These include managing and developing staff, creating systems for more effective ministry, and working with leadership teams, along with a variety of special projects. But if you ask about their greatest contribution to the organization, and give them a minute to reflect, their answer will typically point to their ability to think and act strategically.

Effective second chair leaders operate with a time horizon that is longer than today. They are making decisions based on the bigger picture. They are looking ahead, trying to prepare for the future and anticipate obstacles that could impede the organization’s progress.

If you are not a born strategist, this description may be too vague or philosophical. You may know that someone on your leadership team needs to think and act strategically, but you are looking for a more concrete understanding of how to do this. Let me offer four phrases to paint that picture.

Thinking strategically means adding value throughout the organization. This is what separates the second chair leader from other roles that are more narrowly focused on a specific area of ministry. Strategic thinking asks the question, “How can we best make progress toward our God-given vision?” To effectively answer this question, you must consider the bigger picture that spans the entire church or ministry and that looks over the next several months or even years. “Adding value throughout” is a mindset, not a specific job title. Even someone who has functional responsibility for an individual department can have organization-wide impact by thinking strategically.

When second chair leaders are thinking strategically, they act as leaders, notmanagers. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus coined this often-repeated distinction, explaining “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right things” (Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge).  A manager, in this framework, tends to stay within the boundaries and follow established procedures. Leaders, on the other hand, will challenge those boundaries and procedures if they believe that there is a better way to accomplish the mission. Leaders are not content with the status quo. But effective leaders don’t make change just for the sake of shaking things up. They do so with the long-term mission in mind. An organization needs both, and second chairs often must function as managers, but strategic thinking calls for them to wear a leader’s hat at least some of the time.

This kind of thinking requires a second chair to spend time above the weeds and below the clouds. Most second chair leaders spend at least part of their time working on detailed, short-term issues. But if all of your time is spent in these “weeds,” it’s impossible to be strategic. It is equally unproductive to spend all of your time “in the clouds,” thinking about the highest level of vision. This may happen because it’s where a visionary leader likes to live or because a leadership team has developed a habit of pontificating but not making practical decisions. High level vision is important, but you can’t be effective if you stay in the clouds.

The space between clouds and weeds is the realm of strategy. A church may have a vision to be the resource of choice for families in its community. But what kind of family or need do they have in mind? What specific programs will they offer? Will they partner with other churches or agencies? These are the kinds of strategic questions that must be answered to move toward the vision. They should not be confused with “weedy,” tactical questions such as space requirements for one of the programs or job descriptions for the person leading the ministry.

That leads to the final phrase: giving feet to the vision. One of the hallmarks of second chairs that think strategically is that their churches and ministries are not stagnant. They are moving toward a vision with intentionality. They are setting priorities and allocating resources based on their understanding of how they can best achieve the vision.

Having “too many chiefs” can cause problems in any organization, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that suffered from being too strategic. Thinking and acting strategically is an opportunity for second chair leaders to thrive, and for their churches or ministries to soar.

Excerpt from Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge), by Mike Bonem (Abingdon Press 2016).

Photo source: istock

Mike Bonem

Mike Bonem is an author, consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father. He loves to help ministries and their leaders reach their God-given potential through strategic planning, organizational design, and coaching. Mike’s books include Thriving in the Second Chair, In Pursuit of Great and Godly Leadership and Leading from the Second Chair. He has spoken across the country and internationally on topics related to ministry leadership and congregational effectiveness. Mike has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a breadth of experience in ministry and business, including 11 years as an executive pastor, consulting with Fortune 100 companies, and leading a start-up business. 

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