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Building A Leadership Team: Trust

In his book The Advantage Patrick Lencioni talks about the need of trust within a leadership team. It is a very special kind of trust which he calls vulnerability-based trust.

The first time that I read through his book I felt like jumping out of my seat with excitement because for me vulnerability-based trust was exactly what churches needed to develop.

Using Lencioni’s own words, I’m going to try to share with you a little of what got me so excited and then what let me down.


Vulnerability-based trust defined

The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call vulnerability-based trust. This is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent, honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” “Your idea is better than mine,” “I wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,” and even, “I’m sorry.” p. 27

Where should people be willing to be more vulnerable than on a church leadership team? The Bible teaches that we are all sinners, that we all fall far short of God’s perfection, that we are all fallible. As a group of forgiven, finite sinners shouldn’t we be willing to be vulnerable?

Lencioni goes on to describe the impact of vulnerability-based trust:

At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team. While this can be a little threatening and uncomfortable at first, ultimately it becomes liberating for people who are tired of spending time and energy overthinking their actions and managing interpersonal politics.  p. 27, 28


Vulnerability-based trust at work

Lencioni goes on to explain that conflict is an important element in an atmosphere of trust. Once people have agreed to be vulnerable, there develops a setting in which people are free to disagree but it has to be the right kind of conflict.

Of course, the kind of conflict I’m referring to here is not the nasty kind that centers around people or personalities. Rather, it is what I call productive ideological conflict, the willingness to disagree, even passionately when necessary, around important issues and decisions that must be made. But it only happens when there is trust. . . When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer. It is not only okay but desirable. Conflict without trust, however, is politics, an attempt to manipulate others in order to win an argument regardless of the truth.  p. 38

Too often leaders want to get their own way rather than discover what is best for the church. When conflict is “nothing more than the pursuit of truth” great things can come out of it. When conflict is the result of politics, churches suffer.


Vulnerability-based trust & accountability

Even well-intentioned members of a team need to be held accountable if a team is going to stick to its decisions and accomplish its goals. In some cases, people will deviate from a plan or a decision knowingly, tempted to do something that is in their individual best interest but not that of the team. In other cases, people will stray without realizing it, getting distracted or caught up in the pushes and pulls of daily work. In either case, it’s the job of the team to call those people out and keep them in line.  p. 54

Even Lencioni acknowledges that accountability is hard. It is never easy to confront someone with their mistakes or their failures. It is, however, absolutely essential for Christian living in any setting but especially in a leadership team. Only God is perfect. Only God is all-knowing. Only God is completely holy. Only God is without sin.

The rest of us need accountability in our lives. We need people who are willing to take the risk and confront us with those things that we are doing wrong. To the degree that we have no one holding us accountable we are weakened as Christian leaders.


The big letdown.

The more that I read The Advantage the more excited I became. I could imagine a church in which there was real trust and openness on the leadership team. I pictured what it would be like to be a leader in a setting in which I could be totally honest and others would be honest with me.

I pictured a setting in which productive conflict could happen because the egos were checked at the door and the people were focused only on the good of the church. I wondered what it would be like to be able to express the concerns and questions that I had without the other people in the room taking it personally because they knew that I was only concerned about the good of the church.

I wondered what it would be like to be part of a group that wouldn’t let me get away with failures because they cared too much about me and about the church to let things slide.

Then I read the following paragraph.

Nowhere does this tendency toward artificial harmony show itself more than in mission-driven nonprofit organizations, most notably churches. People who work in those organizations tend to have a misguided idea that they cannot be frustrated or disagreeable with one another. What they’re doing is confusing being nice with being kind.  p. 44

I read that section over several times hoping that somehow the words would miraculously disappear.

The kind of leadership that Lencioni describes should work most effectively in a church setting and yet churches are the most difficult group with which he works. The group that should most openly acknowledge that they aren’t perfect turns out to be the very group that Lencioni says is most resistant. I think that the first step for all of us in church leadership is to acknowledge that we still have a ways to go before we become the leaders that God wants us to be.

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