Leading by Not Leading Part Deux

Church in my city - Imgur

Today’s story is about leading by not leading. When we think about leadership, we often think of a person at the head of the organization, persuading and influencing others to follow, yet sometimes it is more effective to let the followers lead.

The other night my father told me about a meeting he went to a few months ago of all of the parishioners of St. John’s by the Lake (or St. John’s by the Fairway as we affectionately call it, as it is next door to the local golf course.  The photo above is not a photo of St. John’s by the Lake, I just loved the sign). Recently, after heated debate, the governing body of the church (the synod), decided that each parish could decide whether or not to conduct marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. Many people representing local parishes at the synod spoke strongly against the idea of celebrating gay and lesbian marriages in the church.

When St. John’s by the Lake priest returned to his home parish, he called a meeting of the parish community. Keep in mind that the members of this church are typically wealthy, conservative and older. After a lively debate, the community voted 85% in favour of conducting marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. What was most interesting, is while the parish priest had a personal position on this issue, he stepped back from a formal leadership role and let the community make its own decision. He led by not leading.

Whether or not you agree with lesbian and gay marriages isn’t the point here – although I believe that the decision of St. John’s by the Lake is on the right side of history you have a right you your opinion. (Just don’t comment on the issue of gay marriage on this blog… that’s not what this post is about, and I won’t publish it).  The point is that sometimes leaders need to step back and let the followers make key decisions. Otherwise, you may lose them as followers. It’s not to say that there aren’t times when you need to force followers to make difficult changes, but often they will fail if the followers aren’t ready for them.  Thus, sometimes, leading by not leading is the only way to go.

4 replies »

  1. I agree with your statement though I have a bit of a problem in the context in which you present it.

    Upper management, in this case, has a policy & procedure manual which covers this area of concern. Instead of taking responsibility for following or changing the policy/procedure they abdicate their leadership responsibilities and force their followers to make the decision without guidance of any kind.

    Middle management then steps back in the same fashion and refuses to stand up for his views abdicating his leadership responsibilities to his followers.

    We now have the tail deciding how to wag the dog. Since there are many tails (linked organization bodies) that are now making the decision, any difference in the followers decisions will only weaken the organization leading to upper managements inability to lead in the future.

    There are many ways to lead without leading, this is not one of them. If management hasn’t got the balls to stick with the vision or call for change then they need to be replaced before there is no longer an organization to lead.

    In my opinion anyways……..,

  2. Hi Colleen,
    I won’t comment on the particular instance you describe. I will just say that I find it a little ironic in that what you’re calling leading by not leading’ is what I call leadership. It goes right to the heart of what you and I see so differently. The fact that you see anything other than explicit directing of others as ‘not leading’ is a little concerning as it is pretty old-fashioned and arguably not a very effective form of leadership except perhaps in times of crisis. We all need to embrace an understanding of leadership that includes choosing from an array of leadership roles (listening being one) based on an assessment of which role would be most helpful in a given instance. If you watch Captain Picard – a universally recognized leader – he often lets his team do the talking and disagreeing/persuading, etc. while he listens and asks questions. This is the heart of good leadership – playing that facilitative role that enables good discussion leading to good decisions!

  3. Hi Annemarie, nice to see you back. As usual, you hit the nail on the head with respect to the idea that leadership is only about “being the leader”, but includes an array of leadership roles depending upon the situation. That was the whole point of the post. The title was meant to juxtapose the the idea that leadership can occur even when it doesn’t fit the old-school idea of leadership (hence, leading by not leading).

    That said, the definition of leadership (at least according to the academics who study it), is that a leader is someone who influences members of a group or organization to achieve a joint goal. The key word is influence. So leadership is about the effective use of influence. How you influence others really depends on the situation. And we’re back to the beginning.

    Hope to see you soon.


  4. True – it all comes down to influence. And I have to admit I am far more interested in how you leverage influence when you don’t have authority than when you do … how do you get someone to listen and pay attention to you when they don’t have to? As always, I enjoy our backing and forth on these issues.


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