Leadership: Empowerment vs. Excellence

In Christian RealTalk, Leadership by Antwuan Malone

We’ve all had this happen. Our child presents us a drawing they’ve been toiling over for half an hour with a chest full of pride and beaming smile. We grab the sheet of paper from their outstretched hands, and proceed to examine something that looks like nothing we’ve ever seen. And the game begins.

Is it a primitive beast, a small horse, or a ruby slipper? Or, is it just scribble scrabble, an attempt by our young art prodigy at abstract, Picasso-like art? We’re just not sure. So, we widen our eyes, cock our head to the side, smile and say, “Ohhhh, that’s nice!” just before looking up at our kid, smile still in place to ask, “What is it?”

Proudly, our child informs us, with a hint of  “I can’t believe you have to ask” in their voice, what it is we’re looking at. After which we cross our proverbial fingers, pat our kid on the back while telling them how awesome they did. “This looks just like a dinosaur!”

And why do we tell them this? Because, if that child really has passion or raw talent for drawing, he’s only going to get better.  He just needs developing and a little confidence and support. We inherently know that, for our kids, the path to excellence is long, and requires patience, perseverance and coaching.  We understand the path to excellence is achieved through empowerment, not in lieu of empowerment.

The Importance of Excellence

I’m going to take a chance and be honest about Christians. We need to get over ourselves.

I’ve been around the church world for a while, and I’ve heard the repeated emphasis on excellence. It was the buzzword not too long ago (recently overtaken by words like mission and intentional), and, I’m afraid the overemphasis of excellence has led many a church culture to insert plant it as a core element in their working environment. It has become, for many, a non-negotiable in their culture, a standard by which all creative works are judged.

And that’s not all bad. God, the creator of creativity, certainly deserves our best foot forward. The desire for excellence, when properly motivated, is born out of love and reverence for God. It is a desire to give God glory with our first-fruits and not our leftovers. It’s an “Able” offering rather than a “Cain” offering.

But,  as usual, we have a tendency to take good ideals too far.

I, like many, want to pursue the things I do with excellence. I want to be the best I can be, and do the best I can do. But in the end, I must realize that, to God,  my “excellence”  is like my kid’s scribble-scrabble drawing. And God, like a good parent, accepts it and then moves me along the empowerment line toward the next level of “excellence.” In the end, the quality of excellence to God is not in the presentation, but in the heart motive. God is more interested in the development of people, than the quality of products.

The ministry of Jesus exemplifed this.

Jesus accepted the women’s mite. He accepted the inadequate two fish and five loaves, and he took twelve, not-so-excellent men and discipled them to the point where they changed the world forever. He didn’t choose the most talented, gifted, or even ready individuals. He grabbed people he could mold, all the while setting the example that good teams are developed, not bought. Jesus didn’t grow his influence by drafting the top free agents. He wasn’t worried about “winning” as much as he was about ” developing.” For Jesus, excellence took a back seat to empowerment.

Jesus knew that if you’re going to empower people, you may have to lose some excellence. And frankly, he was fine with that. And if I wish to lead like Jesus, I must accept this as well.

All About Us

Pride is the great sin that takes our eyes off of God and firmly plants them in the mirror.

The danger that all creatives must beware is pride. Our work becomes a reflection of ourselves. It moves the needle on the scale of  value. And if we’re not careful, our pursuit of excellence can drown out the voice of God with the clamor of applause and back-patting. What may have began as a pure motive to serve God well can quickly turn into a motive to look good in front of others, and thus serve ourselves well.

The pursuit of excellence, if we’re not careful, can follow a path that flows downhill into a cesspool of self-congratulation, false humility, and a general disregard for people who are less than excellent by our paltry standards. This is the path many a pastor have failed to steer clear of. A path that leaves well-developed talent lingering on the sidelines. A path of self-importance and solitude.

Let’s learn from the Yankees. We don’t need to acquire the best talent. Instead, invest in a farm system. Become a producer of servant leaders, and let empowerment replace excellence as a core value in your work culture. If you do, you’ll get your excellence soon enough… and it’ll probably come with a bonus dose of  loyalty.

Are you a leader? Which do you spend more time developing in your staffs, excellence or empowerment?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.