Not long ago I hugged my kids goodbye, stepped onto an airplane and into a faraway hotel to participate in five days of leadership training.
It didn’t start there.
Nine months earlier, I was invited to apply to a year-long leadership development opportunity. Not long after, I was selected from a pool of applicants to participate. Before arriving I worked for two months to complete a number of thought-provoking assignments.
I was excited.
It began with an engaging mixer. Then a presenter stood up and reminded us that we were “leaders of leaders,” that many had applied, but few had been chosen. It was after those opening remarks that it happened; a lecture broke out. Followed by another. And then another.
They weren’t bad lectures as far as lectures go; presenters were passionate, prepared, and had good slides. Many had been teaching this material for over a decade. As “leaders of leaders” we were given full color notebooks for us to complete with missing words that proved our attentiveness.
They lectured and we listened.
There was no opportunity to discuss what we thought about the presentation. There was no space to share other effective ways we led others. No one asked whether we could see ourselves doing it the way they were teaching.
The message was clear. Listen. Fill in the blanks. And be grateful for what we are giving you. Here, leaders of leaders need to learn this, appreciate it, and use it moving forward.
I was surprised (and frustrated). But I shouldn’t have been.
American culture is full of carefully crafted rhetoric that rarely matches reality. I was too quick to believe that we would be treated like leaders of leaders. We weren’t. How the training was delivered revealed the truth about who the leaders believed we were. Sure, they called us “leaders of leaders,” but they didn’t relate to us that way. Instead, we were treated as people who needed to be taught how to lead. We had a problem to be solved. And they knew how to solve it. They knew what we needed (even if we didn’t). In other words, they were the experts and we were the consumers.
In our culture of consumerism this model of people development is repeated every day. It happens in churches and companies. It’s the dance of consumerism.
Remember school dances growing up? Two groups of people who ostensibly need the other to participate. In consumerism the two groups are experts and consumers. Experts need consumers to need what they have, after all, if everyone has it mastered then there’s little need for an expert? Conversely, consumers need experts in order to learn, because if learning and growth are available apart from experts then it makes them responsible for their own development.
To be clear though, the problem I experienced wasn’t about the roles of experts and consumers. The problem was the rhetoric didn’t match the roles that the experts expected the “leaders of leaders” to play. The problem was the medium (expert-consumer) didn’t match the message (leaders with leaders). We are so used to rhetoric mismatching reality that most don’t even notice.
If most don’t mind then why does it matter?
It matters because as sociologist Marshall McLuan famously said, “The medium is the message.”
It matters because in a consumeristic culture when our ways match our words it stands out. This is true whether it’s disciple making, church leadership, or parenting. How you do something speaks more loudly than what you say or do. And because we reap what we sow.
Matching the medium to the message helps leaders maintain perspective. When the how matters it changes everything. Consumeristic roles are unacceptable when you are trying to make leaders or disciples. Instead of teaching them as vessels to be filled with the right information, try to ignite a fire within them.
Matching the medium to the message promotes deep trust and transformation. When the how matters then leaders must consider the experience of the participant. Will your plan effectively help the participant with their felt needs or does it just help your organization solve a problem?
Matching the medium to the message results in healthy cultures. Growing a “matched” culture isn’t easy. Leaders must intentionally fight against drifting back to consumeristic roles which are way easier. It’s worth the effort though. “Matched” cultures are powerful. People thrive in atmospheres where they can believe the words of affirmation and correction. Such an environment makes both more potent.
None of this is easy, but it is doable. And it can start now.
Imagine the confidence emerging leaders would have if we engaged them as leaders.
Imagine the growth in elders and others if we expected them to be in the Word, to disciple others, to reach the lost.
Imagine the buy-in from ministry amateurs if we trusted them to do significant ministry and then cared enough to provide honest feedback.
This post by Justin Gravitt first appeared here. Used with permission.