Deleadered: Reflections on the Removal or Reassignment of Leaders in Mission Organizations

by Dave Broucek

Nine principles for creating more healthy leadership transitions.

Have you ever removed someone from a leadership position? Have you been removed from a position of leadership? The experience of being “deleadered” is not uncommon in mission circles. (I’ve borrowed the term “deleader” from Dr. Brent Lindquist, president of LinkCare Center in Fresno, California. In a personal email he wrote, “There is not a lot out there regarding helping leaders transition when they have been deleadered, nor about helping leaders get more sensitive.” I find the term useful because it can refer to removing persons from a leadership role and reassigning them elsewhere, as well as to terminating a person’s employment.) In a workshop at the CrossGlobal Link 2009 annual conference, more than two-thirds of the leaders acknowledged having removed someone or having been removed themselves. Whether you are the subject or object of the deleadering action, the experience can be difficult and painful…not to mention fraught with danger. The potential for collateral damage to the organization in the form of decreased loyalty and commitment, hard feelings, and severed relationships is high in these situations. My own spirit was dampened when I sat in the office of a friend who had been removed from the senior leadership team of a major mission organization. His words, “I’m so demotivated and demoralized,” tore my heart.

Can our experience of this aspect of the leadership journey be improved? I think it can, although the process is not easy. As Max DePree often says in workshops, even the most enlightened forms of leadership involve “meddling around in the lives of others” (Banks and Ledbetter 2004, 122). The purpose of this column is to explore what enlightened “meddling” looks like. Based upon observation, biblical principles, in-depth conversations, reading leadership literature, and personal reflection, I would suggest nine principles for creating more healthy leadership transitions.

1. Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Be honest and loving. When we combine these two qualities, we imitate Jesus who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Remember that grace (χαρις) in the New Testament, in addition to its theological significance, signifies what our English word “graciousness” does—pleasant, courteous speech and behavior. Here’s a suggested sample of themes to address in lovingly honest communication:

• I appreciate you for your godly character and your dedication to the Lord.
• I admire your gifting and experience.
• I love and respect you. I want you to know this.
• I value the gifts and qualities I see in you. [Name them.]
• I also want to tell you that I have come to the conviction that I need to change this role in a way that draws on a somewhat different gift-mix. [Perhaps, name the new gift-mix.] • I would like to reassign you to another role which will significantly bless the organization and further our cause. [Describe.]
• I realize that this is a big change that will affect not only you, but many others.
• Let’s talk about this.

If, rather than giving leaders other responsibilities, you are actually dismissing them, you still need to treat them with dignity and truthfulness. Tell them the reasons. Anyone who is terminated deserves to be told why. The person who truthfully says, “What troubles me is that I don’t know why I was let go,” has a legitimate complaint.

2. Try to understand the other. It’s called empathy. Persons who are “deleadered” suffer loss. Think with me. Put yourself in their shoes. What do they lose? Here are some intangible and tangible benefits the former leader no longer enjoys:

• access to information
• ability to influence
• decision-making authority
• respect
• resources
• relationships,
• in the worst case scenario, employment

No wonder removal from a leadership position is so disorienting. One way to become more sensitive is to think about those times in your life when you have experienced rejection or exclusion.

3. Try to give the one who deleadered you the benefit of the doubt. Do your best to trust him or her. Leaders are in place by God’s providence. Although I have seen some badly managed leadership transitions, my default belief is that leaders in mission organizations who make leadership changes are selfless individuals who are motivated by a sincere desire to advance the cause of the kingdom through their organizations. They experience pain when they make decisions that they know will hurt others. Their motives are sincere. They have thoroughly analyzed the needs of the organization and the placement of the team members and have exercised their best judgment. As one of my mentors advised me, a major question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the underlying motivation of the leader who made this decision?” If you can honestly answer that the leader understands the organization’s purpose and is committed to doing whatever is necessary for that purpose to be fulfilled—and at the same time desires for all personnel to be lovingly treated in the process (even if imperfectly carried out)—then even if you cannot fully agree with the action taken, you can come to terms more easily with the consequences and move on from your hurt and/or disappointment.

4. Provide member care for the person who is deleadered. If at all possible, give him or her advanced notice; don’t surprise him or her with the change. A severance package is appropriate if his or her employment is terminated. So also are outplacement services. Not least is spiritual counseling to help the individual understand how to cooperate with God in this process. As an example of what one mission agency does, see “Landing on Your Feet: Assisting International Workers When They Return Home” (Robert 2009). Dennis Robert describes how his mission agency uses the Clifton-Gallup “Strengths Finder,” Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, and other instruments to help missionaries who have been terminated to understand their strengths. They help missionaries understand how their skills can be transferred to the marketplace. They help them write a professional resume. And if counseling is needed, the agency sees that it is provided. Would that more of us took such good care of our members when we terminate them!

5. If you’ve been deleadered, use the occasion for self-examination. Self-examination is hard! According to Eugene Peterson, “The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory” (Stubbs Peterson 1996, entry for July 21). Yet educators Richard Ackerman and Pat Maslin-Ostrowski tell us that the question, “Why am I wounded?” can lead to personal and professional growth. The question encourages the leader to get acquainted with what is going on within and to become open to all elements of the leadership experience. Tackling this question is a lifelong process, not some static achievement. The challenge is to be able to stay there in the leadership questions, to inquire further, and to unlock one’s leadership. For instance, what are the parts of myself as a leader that I fail to know or see? What parts of myself can’t I let others see or know? What if all of me showed up?

The answers to these questions are often not apparent until one has been through the emotional experience of being wounded. Of course, self-examination also applies to leaders who do the deleadering. Did your leadership and management behaviors contribute to the problem? They probably did if you did not provide regular formative evaluation along the way. To deleader someone is a summary judgment. To do summative evaluation without formative evaluation is immoral.

6. If you’ve been deleadered, avoid counterproductive behaviors and attitudes. These behaviors are relatively easy to identify. I’ll name five.

Don’t “quit and stay.” That is, don’t mentally and emotionally withdraw from your work and your colleagues, yet remain physically present.

Don’t perpetually view yourself as the “victim.” You must get beyond this imagery.

Don’t perpetually criticize the leaders. This becomes a trial to them and a demotivator to you.

Don’t hold a grudge. As Ron Hutchcraft says, “You don’t hold a grudge—a grudge holds you.”1 As satisfying as it may feel, you are not doing yourself or anyone a favor by holding on to your resentment.

Refuse to envy. Envy is a feeling no one wants to admit, even to oneself. Envy is rooted in two powerful emotions that we try to keep at bay—inferiority and insecurity. The key to freedom is to turn off your compulsion to compare yourself to others and turn on your discovery of the unique person God created you to be.

7. If you’ve been deleadered, accept the benefit of your isolation. Let me recommend a fine resource. Dr. Shelley Trebesch at Fuller Theological Seminary wrote an insightful booklet titled Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader. She suggests four stages common to a leader’s time in the wilderness: stripping, wrestling with God, increased intimacy with God, and looking forward to the future. Whether your deleadering seems justified or not, God can use these circumstances to deepen and mature you so that you are even more effective in the future.

8. All of us need to hold our positions loosely. When we begin to think we “own” our positions, we’re heading for trouble. A better attitude is a willingness to “change seats on the bus” for the good of the cause.2 We don’t own our positions, God does.

9. Leaders whose decisions affect others: don’t be smug. I’ve heard the term “deadwood” applied to some workers. That’s a dehumanizing term. I’ve also heard the phrase “resistant to change” used as a pejorative description. Perhaps you would be “resistant to change” yourself if you were going to suffer from a change someone else introduces. Dr. Jerry B. Harvey, professor of management science at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says the term has become “a scientifically justified and subtly sophisticated approach to blaming the victim.” In all cases, and especially in ones as sensitive as a deleadering, we need to use language that builds and enhances bonds of trust and respect rather than weakens them.

Conclusion
I am convinced that in God’s economy (using “economy” in the original sense of “managing a household”) there is no ultimate contradiction between the good of the individual and the good of the cause. I’ve seen friends thrive in a new setting after being “deleadered” in their former organization. I sometimes compare this situation to a professional athlete who doesn’t hit his stride on one team but excels on a different team. The recipient of an unanticipated and even unwelcome change often recognizes, years later, “God meant it for good.”

That God produces results above and beyond our expectations shouldn’t surprise us. He specializes in bringing good out of pain. His specialty, though, does not give us any excuse to mishandle personnel changes. My hope is that the principles I’ve touched on here will help some to manage the deleadering process less traumatically and more effectively. Others who are more capable, experienced, and wise are urged to develop these principles further.

Endnotes
1. The transcript of Ron Hutchcraft’s radio program dealing with grudges is found here: www.hutchcraft.com/a-word-with-you/your-most-important-relationship/poison-in-your-soul-4716.

2. Jim Collins’ books, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t and Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, made famous the metaphor of getting the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus.

References

Banks, Robert and  Bernice M. Ledbetter. 2004. Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: HarperBusiness.

_______. 2005. Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer. New York: HarperBusiness.

Robert, Dennis. 2009. “Landing on Your Feet: Assisting International Workers When They Return Home.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 45(1): 100-103.

Stubbs Peterson, Janice, ed. 1996. Living the Message: Daily Reflections with Eugene H. Peterson. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.

Trebesch, Shelley. 1997. Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader. Altadena, Calif.: Barnabas Publishers.

….

Dave Broucek serves as international ministry director with South America Mission. Before taking on this responsibility, he served in the Centre for Lifelong Learning at TEAM and before that as a missionary in the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 220-224. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

 


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