Platforms, pipelines, and leading from the second, third or fiftieth chair

An auditorium kind of like the one where our church used to meet.

I have a love-hate relationship with the leadership genre. Whether it’s conferences, books or podcasts, I really struggle with them. Sometimes it’s a book or speaker offers poor advice. I remember a book I read encouraging you to let your colleagues take the heat by asking questions of a volatile boss. Worse, though, is when we assume we’re already following the principles and advice. That we’re nailing everything.

Late last week, I was hanging out at the Pipeline conference in Downtown Nashville. My colleagues in LifeWay Leadership crushed it. They had a great mix of speakers who challenged leaders to actually think differently about leadership. From what I saw, few were leaving thinking they were nailing it. But they weren’t deflated or defeated, either. Instead, I saw a bunch of people who were processing, working through points of conviction, and thinking through their next steps.

The big question about leadership development

Will Mancini posed the challenge this way: “Are you building a platform or a pipeline?” That is, are those who are church leaders intentionally equipping the saints to do ministry, or are they content to just do it themselves? I suspect it’s a tough question for many in those positions answer. In fact, it’s probably challenging to even to point to examples of people who are doing it well.

But what I do know is there are a lot who are trying to figure it out.

The trick with leadership development in any context is it’s about investing in other people. And that means it’s something that is both formal and informal. It also means it’s not something only for the seniormost leaders to engage with. It’s for the person who would sit in the second, third, or even fiftieth chair, too.

What your investment looks like when you’re not in the “first chair”

Although the stakes are different, if you’re in that spot, all of us have a part to play. And when you don’t have positional authority, the encouragement is to practice cross-functional leadership. Which means collaborating with people.

Which means everyone who ever worked on a “group project” is dying inside right now.

But bear with me for a minute. I’ve lived in that space for a long time. I worked at a ministry for many years where, positionally, I couldn’t simply say do this or that. I had to learn to work well with others to get the right things done. And a lot of the time, that meant having to let go of what I thought was best in order to do what’s right for right now. But as I’ve done this, I’ve found that I was given more freedom to experiment, to put my ideas out on the table and (gradually) bring them to life.

But the thing is, my biggest reward wasn’t getting the relational capital to get my way when I needed to (because that doesn’t really exist anyway). What’s helpful for those of us living in that “cross-functional”/”leading by influence” space is to recognize how it shapes our character. This type of leadership requires us to (slowly) learn patience. To not assume our ideas are always the best. To think of the needs of others ahead of our own.

It even means sometimes having to do things we don’t really want to do because they’re the right things to do for the moment.

In other words, we, too, are not building our own platforms—we’re a conduit. We get to live values we want to see in ourselves and in others. We can’t guarantee that everyone will follow the same example. People don’t change quickly, after all. (And if we have any doubt of that, we just need to look in a mirror.) But inevitably some will. And even if that first one that changes is us, that’s enough.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

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