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Before They Fell: Success & Arrogance

“How The Mighty Fall” is small research project by Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” (one of the most influential business, leadership books in the last decade). The decline of economy that was fueled by failure from the companies Collin’s profiled in “Good to Great” as successful companies. Following many of their collapses, Collins underwent this project that examines the stages of decline in institutions and companies that fell during the recent recession. I find both “Good to Great” and “How The Mighty Fall” to be significant leadership works for pastors because their is so much correlation between the role of leading a company and calling of leading a church.  Specifically, “How The Mighty Fall” is important work because it addressees failing leadership with the hope of providing markers for those straying from good practice. The hope is that in seeing the markers, we can right the ship. In this series of blogs I am going to go through the five different stages of decline outlined in “How The Mighty Fall”. My hope is to highlight  the characteristics of declining leadership in companies and voice what I’ve taken away as a pastor and minister.

The First Stage of Decline: “Hubris Born Of Success”

Factor #1 – Success leads to a feelings of entitlement & arrogance. Its quite interesting to observe this: to fall you have to rise at some point. In companies that fall, there is something starts out successful and right. They’ve started something that has worked and worked well. Collins says the first factor in declining leadership is that “success is viewed as deserved”. Leaders begin to feel like they’ve worked hard enough and done the right things to be successful. This belief provides a foundation for assuming that if they continue to work hard and do the same things, their success will continue. We have to choose how we define success as pastors. Pastors most often define success using the strengths of their individual ministries. If their church is large in numbers, their attendance numbers become the barometer for their success.  If they have a lot of baptismal candidates, they use baptisms as their gauge of success.  If small group ministry is their strength, then it becomes the number of small groups or people involved. If their people are hungry for discipleship and engage in worship, then the spiritual depth of their congregation becomes the determining factor for success. Success in ministry is quite simple: obedience. If Jesus is truly writing our story, then all we have to be is obedient and He will write His story the way He wants through our ministry. Be radically obedient, and Jesus will do what Jesus wants. When we lock ourselves into a definition of success and feel like we’re reaching it, it’s awfully easy to misplace the origins of our success. It’s not found in our practice; success is found in Jesus.

Factor #2 – Leaders get distracted by non-essential opportunities, adventures, or threats. In “Good to Great” Collins uses the imagery of a flywheel to describe the way momentum has worked in organizations. A flywheel is a simple machine that has enough eternal momentum to perpetually turn itself with little outside force being applied.  A flywheel has to be turned until it “catches”. Collin’s says that momentum is achieved in an organization by having clear goal and spending your resources working towards that goal. Eventually, sustained effort toward a clear goal will cause momentum to “catch”. Collins research indicates that during the first stage of decline, leaders are distracted from what he calls the “primary flywheel”. They turn to side projects that either address great opportunity or deal with prevalent threats. As their attention is redirected, the resources that resulted in their success are redirected.  This neglect doesn’t reveal itself immediately, but has harmful consequences later. In ministry, its easy to get distracted. It’s easy to forget where success came from. It’s easy to forget the “primary flywheel”. As a pastor, your primary flywheel is Jesus. If your ultimate pursuit becomes an attendance total, another campus, or even just a better presentation … and not Jesus … you’ve simply missed it.  Missing this will have grave consequences in your walk with Him and your church.

Factor #3 – “What” replaces “why”. Collins’ research reveals an interesting change in rhetoric during the first stage of decline: instead of focusing on why what they are doing is successful, leaders begin to focus on what their doing that’s successful. The change in focus causes the leaders to lose understanding over their practice and fall into routines of behaviors that eventually out date themselves. As a leader in a church, it is all too easy to focus on the mechanism of ministry. Their are models after models after models to examine and copy. If you simply focus on the “what”, you will begin to forget the “why”. This leads to empty programing and meaningless events. There’s nothing that turns a seeking world off more than a church that claims answers, but has nothing to show for it’s claims.

Factor #4 – A decline in a learning culture. Collin’s research indicates that declining leadership moves from “learning” leaders to “knowing” leaders. Collins points out that “knowing” leaders have two significant risk factors: 1. they become dogmatic about their specific practices or theories and 2. they overreach – trying to apply a larger scale to the principles that they have locked themselves in to. Collins tells the story of a Brazilian team of investors that bought a discount retail chain in South America.  They had sought interviews with CEOs of retail chains in North America for advice in running their new company.  They were refused by everyone except Sam Walton, the founder and former CEO of Walmart. After spending a few days with Walton and being bombarded by his questions, the Brazilian team finally realized that Walton viewed their meeting as an opportunity to learn from them, not the other way around. God, Himself, is infinite. Eternity will not be enough for God to fully disclose Himself to us. If we ever come to a place as pastors and ministers that we think we have “figured it out”, then we have surely missed it. An infinite Jesus should provoke infinite adoration and pursuit.

Factor #5 – Discounting the role of grace in success. Leaders entering decline fail to recognize the role that grace (Collins uses the word “luck”) played in their success.  They begin to connect their success to a particular practice or to the superior nature of their product or leadership. Collins found correlations in interviews with CEOs that showed that successful leaders seemed to always be aware of the role of grace in their success. They never took the credit or gave the credit to institution.  They more often than not used the phrase: “We were very lucky.” In ministry, its easy to blame away the failures and take credit for the successes. When you take your eyes off of Jesus and forget that He is the one that makes our ministries effective, it’s easy to find the cause in something else. Just the simple fact that we can proclaim the gospel of Jesus is gracious. The gospel being applied to people lives, then, is grace upon grace. Recognize that or run the risk of thinking it all starts and ends with you.

Conclusion The frightening thing about the first stage of decline (according to Collins) is how subtle it is. In this stage, there are small shifts in attention that have huge consequence in the long-term. While I live with the sobering reality that my calling is to be faithful and obedient in communicating the most sacred of messages, the gospel of Jesus, it’s my sincere prayer that I (and you, for that matter) never become so arrogant to think that success is my responsibility. Success is Jesus (and that’s quite sobering & humbling).

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