The Flywheel of Leadership
Since his book Good to Great was published in 2001, the application of Jim Collin’s study on organizational success has extended beyond the business world. Through his research on companies that have excelled in their mission, a number of distinct dynamics emerged. The remarkable by-product of the study was how relevant those dynamics are to the health of Church.
I know that it may seem tiresome to keep returning to the same source for several years. I’ve used Good to Great as a reference in the Leadership Connections before. But, over the last few months I’ve found another of Jim Collin’s dynamics to be a helpful illustration as I’ve been consulting with Churches who are struggling to find a way to create traction for their Leadership Development efforts.
The dynamic is that of “The Flywheel.”1 Beginning with a quote from Igor Stravinsky that “Revolution means turning the wheel,” Collins paints a vivid picture of a:
huge and heavy flywheel – a massive disk mounted horizontally on an axle … Imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete on entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster … a second rotation … Keep pushing in a consistent direction … three turns … four … it builds momentum … eleven … twelve … moving faster with each turn … twenty … fifty … a hundred.
Then, at some point – breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in … hurling the flywheel forward … its own weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster … each turn of the flywheel builds upon the work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort … the huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum. … What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast? … was it the first push, the second, the hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction.
The conclusion: “Good to great comes about by a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel – that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”
As I carry that image to heart, it has helped me understand the forces and spiritual physics at work in healthy churches – especially those related to Leadership Development. During the first year as the Director of the Fellowship Centre for Leadership Development, I had a chance to finally map out a process of leadership development. Having been a pastor for 25 years, I had a general awareness of the process, but, like most pastors, didn’t have the time to reflect deeply into the dynamics. As a result, the path I cut for new leaders was generally effective, but still rather fuzzy. Having the chance to look deeply into the matter allowed me not only to clarify the process but also identify “handles” that would turn Leadership Development into a flywheel of momentum in the church.
The process that I mapped was one simply expressed in the Bible. Ephesians 4 “to prepare God’s people [and by that, I have to believe it to be all of God’s people] for works of service”2 … and that the expression of their service is a natural outcome of having “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”3[iii] Viewing it through Ephesians, Leadership Development isn’t a niche activity for just a select few. It’s the destiny of every mature believer. In essence, that thought led to a definition that a Biblical Leader is one who: is aware of their God-given personality, reliant upon their God-given resources, willingly accepting their God-given mission, to influence a group of God-chosen people, toward God’s purposes. With that definition at heart, the process that I mapped ran through each of the time honored “steps” toward spiritual maturity recognized by even the earliest Churches: conversion, spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation, and vocational formation.4
That said (and forgive the repetition) I have this imaginative picture in my mind of the process as a Flywheel with handles readily available to start the spin. It’s my experience that healthy churches keep spinning the wheel every time they celebrate a baptism, or new membership, or add new leaders. Making a “big deal” of the progress people make in their spiritual growth becomes a repetitive message that sets the congregation “humming.”
However, I have also experienced a struggle in these healthy churches to equate this momentum toward spiritual growth with leadership development. People know that they are growing in their faith and engaging in a life of service and ministry but somehow don’t see it as journey toward leadership. It’s as if the term “leadership” is assigned to only a small, elite cadre of mystically “called” people (think “priesthood”).
As I’ve pondered the problem with a couple of pastors, the image of the Flywheel returns to mind. Looking at it carefully, it’s missing a very large and important handle. Oh, the handles of baptism and membership and leadership recognition are quite fine, and spinning them consistently once, twice, fifty and a hundred times helps. But the one handle that makes for a “breakthrough” is the one that is specifically known for Leadership Discovery.
I know it sounds like an advertisement, but this image came to mind after talking with a pastor who had used the “Heart for Ministry” materials we had produced five years ago. The first time, four people joined him in the study in response to his challenge for them to “take their service to another level.” Together, they studied through the 12 sessions, defining what leadership is, describing their understanding of what it means to be “called” by God, discovering their gifts and leadership styles, and ultimately writing up their “life purpose” as a declaration of their next step toward a mature ministry.
There was something about the experience that captured their attention, but even more created a sense of curiosity in others. The pastor decided to do it again, this time with a few more people. At this stage, I’m not sure how many times the course has been offered, but it has become an annual event and appears to have become a flywheel of momentum in the church as people are purposefully and intentionally taking on “leadership” at higher levels. I suppose that it’s no mistake that the pastor has now been asking about the Ministry Assessment Process. He’s got a few people no longer curious about what God has got in store for their future. They are now making a move. And, in the terms of the Flywheel – that’s a Breakthrough.