hard timesAs it turns out Barbara Kellerman’s recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America may prove to be encouraging to leaders, especially pastors. Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns lecturer in leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, makes the case that in this second decade of the twenty-first century, leadership is increasingly difficult for those in positions of authority and responsibility. Leadership in America has always been challenging. The divisions and anti-authoritarian fervor that fueled the American Revolution continue to surface in anti-establishment causes, including the Occupy movement and the populist Tea Party that has at times successfully paralyzed political leaders.

Hard Times, she writes, “is a checklist of what you need to know about context if you want to lead in the United States of America” (1). She admits that these are to some degree global trends, intensified in America where culture makes it even more difficult for leaders everywhere. By “context”, she means the framework within which work gets done. Even though she has written extensively on leadership, Kellerman contends that the leadership development industry has been too leader-centric “at the expense of followers and at the expense of the context within which both necessarily are situated” (2).

Her checklist of things that make leadership more difficult now is particularly relevant to faith communities as well as the rest of society. For instance, a pastor may wonder why attendance is declining while the congregation is doing all the right things. Hard Times suggests that it is important to understand the larger context: church attendance and denominational loyalty are in decline everywhere. Churches are not growing as they did a decade ago. Pastors may look too narrowly within themselves and their congregations when aspirations and plans don’t produce intended results. Since jobs are disappearing and wages declining for middle class Americans, there may be many reasons why congregational giving and attendance are down, or at least not growing as they once did.

Russ Long, a Nazarene pastor in Bel Air, Maryland, wrote that he was taught that everything rises and falls on leadership. “It sounds good, but the other side of the coin is that when outcomes fall short, leaders assume that it is the result of poor leadership. Kellerman's reminder of the power of context is critical. She confirms my suspicions that things have indeed changed since I entered the ministry forty years ago."

A few quotes on Kellerman’s checklist that directly affect pastors and churches:

  • Religion – “Leaders in religion specifically have been deprived of . . . some of the moral authority previously associated with clergy” (39).
  • Economics – “Increasing income inequality . . . the top 1 percent of income earners took home 93 percent of the growth in income, . . . with middle class households having lower incomes (adjusted for inflation) than they did a decade ago” (67).
  • Institutions – “Fully 69 percent of Americans believed that we are in a leadership crisis" and "organized religion has suffered some of the same setbacks” (65).
  • Organizations – “The voice of people, ordinary people, has never been louder or more ubiquitous” (92).
  • Media – “The new media environment is threatening to leaders” (140).
  • Culture – “Our leaders are being denigrated as never before—in person, in the blogosphere” (140).
  • Trends – “Nuclear families—married couples with children under age eighteen—now account for only about 20 percent of households.” “More than half of American adults are single, and roughly one in seven lives by him- or herself” (248).
  • Technology – “Leaders in the second decade of the twenty-first century are by and large disadvantaged by having been born before the information revolution.” “Technology is far outpacing managers’ ability to use it to their business advantage” (121).

Pastors have always been on call 24/7. But now, they and leaders everywhere live “on demand” lives, some receiving hundreds of emails, plus Facebook and Twitter messages, a day. In his recent book, The End of Absence, Michael Harris writes about leaders who check their email more than fifty times a day to stay in constant contact with followers, friends, and adversaries.

The rise of social media in the past decade is the biggest game-changer for leaders. Kellerman warns that however threatening or difficult it is to understand and use effectively, leaders and their organizations cannot afford to ignore it. Yet in spite of the challenges presented in Hard Times, there is good news here for pastors. Understanding these signposts provides the contextual expertise needed to explain, predict, and even influence outcomes in any particular situation. At a personal level this may prevent pastors blaming themselves or assuming sole responsibility when things are not going as hoped or expected. And they should not be surprised or unduly distressed when challenged by naysayers or adversaries in this contentious environment.

Leadership development, Kellerman believes, is focused too heavily on self-awareness and self-management. As essential as these are, she advises that contextual or environmental awareness is just as important, which brings to mind a sailing application. My boat is the immediate or proximate context. Before setting sail, I look at everything  on board to be sure it’s in good working condition—the sails, the radio, the engine, the rigging, lifejackets, emergency flares, and such—so I don't have to worry about the boat once I am underway. I must know how to sail the boat under any conditions. When I have others aboard, I tell them enough to assure them that I know how to sail. When I leave the dock, the external context takes my attention. The wind, the waves and currents, depth of the water, and other boats all have a bearing on my course. I am alert, constantly looking around 360 degrees to be sure of my bearings and to avoid obstacles or accidents.

Kellerman suggests that leaders have not paid enough attention to the external environment. They spend too much time on the how-tos of leadership, on the internal workings of an organization, and not enough on the setting in which they find themselves. To succeed, leaders need to know how to navigate in their environment, always prepared for the unexpected. The setting, or external context, is always unpredictable, with influences over which they have no control. It is then that those with responsibility need to “think like a leader.”

For pastors, the leadership lesson of Hard Times is that recognizing what is going on outside the church is just as important as knowing how to manage what goes on inside.

TOM NEES was formerly the director of the USA/ Canada Mission/Evangelism Department for the Church of the Nazarene, and now serves as president of Leading to Serve (www.leadingtoserve. com), an organization dedicated to leadership and mentor training.