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Collaborative Leadership

Even on the narrow way, there is room for people walking side by side.

The most efficient way to lead, if you want to be completely pragmatic about it, is via dictatorship. A system in which one person makes all the autonomous decisions is, at least for a while, the most efficient, the least messy.

But power corrupts, and ultimately, while decisions get made and orders are carried out, those decisions are often bad ones. Great execution of a bad decision is still, well, a mess. Dictatorship, even benevolent dictatorship, is neither healthy nor biblical.

One of the greatest gifts women bring to leadership within the church body is our social conditioning toward collaboration. The difference between "do it this way!" and "What if we did it this way?" is subtle but important. One of our greatest ways to influence the church is by modeling collaborative leadership, which is what all believers—men and women—are called to in the New Testament.

A caveat: leadership that builds consensus and collaboration does not necessarily come naturally to anyone, male or female. We are all human beings and therefore, at least a little selfish. We all need to improve our skills in collaborative leadership.

Two New Testament "keywords" point clearly toward collaboration and cooperation. This style of leadership does not compromise authority, but reflects the beautiful mutual submission that the Bible calls us to live in (see Ephesians 5:21, for example).

Jesus told his disciples: " So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other" (John 13:34).

The word translated "each other" in this pivotal verse is allelon. Also translated "one another," this Greek word appears 100 times in the New Testament. We find it scattered in the epistles, coupled with exhortations regarding what we should do: pray for, love, serve, comfort, encourage…each other. For example: "Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other" (Romans 12:10). It's also in verses that remind us what we should not do: judge, speak unkindly, lie. For example: "So let's stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall" (Romans 14:13).

The word allelon expresses the mutuality and community that is an inextricable part of our faith. Christianity is a one-another faith, and as leaders, we are to model that orientation toward others (even if we lead in a secular setting).

A collaborative leader remembers that the goal is both accomplishing the task and building the strength of the team. She has to have a "one another" mindset. The New Testament church was not led by a single leader or "senior pastor" but took a team approach (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). We would do well, whether we lead in ministry or the marketplace, to study the allelon verses and put them into practice: love one another, be kind to one another, don't judge one another. (Trinity Baptist in Sikestron, Missouri, has created a list of all 100 New Testament uses of allelon on its website here.)

In his book Getting Naked (Jossey-Bass, 2010), leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni talks about the importance of "vulnerable leadership," which means transparency about your flaws (and so much more). This can happen if you have a "one another" mindset with the team you lead.

A second keyword that points us toward collaborative leadership is the word used to describe the Holy Spirit: parakletos. English words like parallel and paralegal spring from the same root. Para means alongside or next to. Parakletos is the God who comes alongside.

Just before he died, Jesus told his followers, "But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don't, the Advocate won't come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you" (John 16:7).

This curious Greek noun, parakletos, is also translated "Counselor," "Comforter," or "Helper." Why so many different words? The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) notes, "A precise translation of parakletos is difficult to determine. The underlying sense of the term is that of ‘one who stands alongside another in order to offer encouragement, comfort'…the designations ‘Advocate' and ‘Counselor,' while accurate, are not comprehensive. No one English term expresses the full semantic range of parakletos."

The Bible also clearly says that when we trust Jesus and have a relationship with him, the Holy Spirit does indeed come alongside us, lives within us. So we, as believers, are filled with come-alongsideness. It is a call to collaboration.

What does collaborative leadership look like? Rather than marching at the head of the line, or leading like a dictator, we come beside people. We ask questions, then listen well, encourage, strengthen. We don't do people's work for them, but we do coach and encourage them.

Collaborative leaders come alongside people. They ask questions and really listen. They truly believe that the people on their team might have a solution to a problem that they hadn't thought of. They come alongside those they lead, both to help them and to be helped by them, to speak but also to listen, to teach but also to learn.

Collaboration is not the same as delegation—where the team leader tells each person what to do. Rather, a collaborative leader listens and actually expects the people she leads to solve problems and move forward together.

Nancy Ortberg, founding partner of Teamworx2, a business and leadership consulting firm, discussed what she calls "non-linear leadership" in a recent interview:

"I think that often leaders come to work thinking about the wrong things. From a teamwork perspective, your number one job every day is to ask, ‘What is the quality of your team and how can I support it?' I'm constantly thinking about the people on my team, how they work together, what they need, what obstacles are in their way. How can I help develop them as leaders?"

She adds: "Vulnerability takes the team to a whole different level of trust. When you work with a vulnerable leader, you feel as if there's a reason for you being around that circle. You're not just executing their vision. The vision is collaborative."

Keri Wyatt Kent is a freelance writer, a speaker, and author of nine books, including Deeper into the Word: Reflections on 100 Old Testament Words. She's led small groups, Bible studies, and service teams at Willow Creek Community Church for more than 20 years. Connect with her at www.keriwyattkent.com or on twitter at @keriwyattkent.

March15, 2012 at 10:18 AM

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