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Are You an Organizational Leader or a Shepherd? (10 Easy Ways To Tell)


by Carey Nieuwhof:

So are you an organizational leader, or are you more of a relational leader—a shepherd?

It’s an interesting question, and a highly polarizing one in the church today. Ditto for this blog. Just check out the impassioned comments on this post, where I argue the church today needs more entrepreneurial leaders, not more shepherds.

Why does this matter?

Well, it matters for a few reasons.

First, if a church is ever going to reach more than 200 people in their weekend services, that church will require leaders who are skilled in organizational leadership, not just relational leadership. 85% of all churches never break that barrier. (I’m offering a new course on scaling the 200 barrier this fall. You get on the insider track for that course here.)

Second, many church leaders grow frustrated because they want to reach more people but can’t understand why that proves so difficult.

Third, sometimes congregations expect leaders to behave relationally when what’s required to fulfil the mission is a more organizational style of leadership.

Finally, many leaders get frustrated when they are asked to lead in a way that’s different than their natural style. When an organizational leader tries to lead like a relational leader (and vice versa), frustration erupts.

When an organizational leader tries to lead like a relational leader, frustration erupts.Click To Tweet

Some Clarity

Some of us are organizational leaders, and some are more relational leaders.

You might be able to push your number higher through skill acquisition and hard work, but can a relational leader with a capacity of 100 really lead an organization of 10,000? Probably not. We might be able to double our number (from 200 to 400), but to stretch far beyond it might be too much for most of us. And it might never have been God’s plan for us in the first place.

Before you dismiss this as some kind of corporate leadership idea opposed to faith, think through it.

Moses embraced this kind of distinction between leaders when he reorganized a nation around leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. And, I suppose he was the leader of hundreds of thousands.  You could argue Jesus followed a similar instinct when he organized disciples into groups of 70, 12, 3 and ultimately 1 (Peter).

Your Problem (And Mine)

Your problem (and mine) happens when an relational leader tries to fill the role of an organizational leader. And to a similar extent, when an organizational leader tries to fill a relational role.

The culture we live in raises the tension because:

We assume that bigger is better

The conferences we attend and books we read are written by leaders of large movements and organizations

We’re caught up in constant comparison and feel inadequate if we’re not moving toward the ‘next stage’

Add to that the outward thrust of the mission of the church and many leaders find themselves in a position where they are trying to lead in a way that pushes past their natural number.

You may dream of leading a big organization, but your wiring keeps pulling you back to a small one.

So…what are you? A relational leader or an organizational leader?

Relational Leaders

Here are some characteristics of relational leaders I’ve observed. Relational leaders:

1. Are Fueled By Direct Contact With People

If a day behind the computer screen or in meetings drains you, it might be a sign that you’re a relational leader.

You don’t care who you’re meeting with as long as you’re meeting with someone.

Relational leaders don’t care who they’re meeting with, as long as they’re meeting with someone.Click To Tweet

2. Hate Not Knowing Who’s In The Room

A relational leader feels an innate sense of panic if they don’t know everyone in the room.

They want to find out who’s who, catch up, and make sure they’re ‘known’ by everyone in their organization.

3. Stay Up To Date On The Details In People’s Lives

Because of the desire to know everyone, relational leaders will often want to know all the details at play in people’s lives.

Who got a new job.

Who’s sick and who’s healing.

Who’s in love.

Who got accepted to which college.

Who’s thinking of moving or a new job.

Who’s expecting.

They just want to know. They can’t help it. And they care. Deeply.

4. Think Systems Drain Energy Out Of A Great Community

There’s a world of difference between bureaucracy and systems, but a true relational leader struggles with systems.

They can’t imagine an organization where they don’t know most people, and the idea that ‘systems’ can care for people chafes at their core.

5. Struggle To Develop Other Leaders

Because of a relational leader’s desire to be known and to know others, relational leaders always struggle with developing other leaders.

Some might see other leaders as a threat. But some simply can’t imagine the idea of being in an organization larger than their personal span of care.

For this reason, most relational leaders will never lead an organization larger than 200 people. (I also wrote about this from several other angles in this post on 8 Reasons Why Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark

An exceptionally gifted relational leader might be able to grow an organization or ministry area to 400 or even 500, but after that, they burn out and the span of care breaks down. This isn’t bad; it’s just true. You end up trying to be someone you’re not.

I’d love to hear from some relational leaders on the tension, struggle or blessing you feel from being a relational leader. Leave a comment! As you may have guessed, that’s not my style. I’m wired more as an organizational leader.

Organizational Leaders

By contrast, here is how organizational leaders think and operate. Organizational leaders:

1. Are Fueled By Systems That Help People

An organizational leader doesn’t have to care for people directly; he or she is content that people are being cared for well (by others). They think about how the system or organization can be improved to care for more people.

Again, it is very easy to characterize relational leadership as ‘Christian’ and systems as ‘non-Christian’, but that’s just not true. Read Acts 6 for more on how systems expanded the early church’s capacity to care for more people. No side can claim the moral high ground here. ?

2. Have No Deep Desire To Know Everyone In The Room

An organizational leader realizes by instinct that if the mission is going to grow, it’s going to mean their personal span of care is limited.

They are more excited that people are being reached by the mission than they are energized by knowing the people who are being reached personally. That doesn’t mean they don’t care, it just means they realize that a system that is going to reach hundreds or thousands demands that they not play a personal role in every aspect.

Organizational leaders realize if they need to know, their church won’t grow.

Organizational leaders realize if they need to know, their church won’t grow. Click To Tweet

3. Track Closely With People Within Their Direct Circle

Instead of trying to know a lot of people, an organizational leader will go deep with a few.

Strong organizational leaders will have an excellent relationship with 5-12 people who report to them or to whom they report. They are not people who simply sit behind a keyboard all day, because any great organization (even large ones) are always driven by people and healthy relationships.

Rather than being there for everyone, organizational leaders are there for the hospital visits, life celebrations and every day moments of a few of their closest and highest capacity leaders.

It doesn’t mean they never step outside that span of care to help others, it just means that inner circle of their closest leaders receive 80-95%% of their relational focus.

4. Are Comfortable With The Reality That Systems Are Key To A Growing Community

Organizational leaders have a heart for scale and systems because they believe that effective systems create capacity to care for even more people.

While being ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘decentralized’ sounds more romantic, the truth is the most effective organizations that change the most lives (even for good) are the result of careful systems. The reason the device on which you’re reading this post works (or doesn’t work) is directly dependent on the system that produced it.

Ditto for the quality of your Disney vacation, or the organic food you’re eating for dinner tonight (assuming you didn’t pull it all from your garden today…and even if you did, you would need a minimal system to ensure it didn’t rot and the rabbits didn’t eat it all.)

5. Love Developing Other Leaders

Organizational leaders realize that as the organization grows, they have to develop and release more and more leaders. So they develop and deploy them.

Although in some respect that creates more distance between them and others in the organization (and sometimes that’s sad even for the leader), they understand it’s part of how growing systems work on this side of heaven.

Further more, they find considerable pleasure in watching other people develop their God given gifts and leading areas that they themselves used to lead.

While there can be a tendency to think releasing others to do what you used to do can make you less valuable to your church, ironically it makes you more valuable.

Releasing other leaders to lead doesn’t make you less valuable, it makes you more valuable.Click To Tweet

Anything to Add?

Those are some key difference I see between relational and organizational leaders.

I hope this helps you figure out which you might be and where you might best fit within an organization. At least, I hope it helps you address a tension many of us face when we try to figure out why things aren’t growing as fast as we had maybe hoped (again…not that growth is a goal for every leader…it just is for me and many others given the mission we’re on).

What do you see? Leave a comment!

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