(Mighty Mouse and Leadership)
Interviewing prospective staff for our regional Navigators team was always a collaborative process. As was our custom, the team met prior to the interview to discuss the questions we would ask the applicant. We identified the usual ones: “What are your strengths?” “Tell us about your past ministries,” and “What is your ideal working situation?” One question, though, jumped out from all the rest.
“If you could describe yourself as a cartoon character, which character would you choose and why?” was Dean’s question. We all laughed at first, dismissing the question as an attempt to bring some humor to a serious experience.
But then I took a second look. How would I answer this question? I asked myself. (Seriously, I did ask myself — and the job applicant — this question! Never let a good question go unanswered.)
Who was my cartoon character? My mind jumped to Mighty Mouse, a 1960s cartoon hero that I watched as a kid. Mighty Mouse was a cross between Superman and Micky Mouse. This tiny mouse had big ears, a cape, and tights that covered a muscular little frame. His triumphant cry to action was “Here I come to save the day!”
Mighty Mouse could vanquish any villain, lift any vehicle, and fly like an eagle. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to be as powerful as this mini-super hero.
For years my unconscious picture of leadership was found in Mighty Mouse. Leadership meant that “Here I come to save the day!” Leaders should be capable of solving any problem, motivating any crowd, and taking action in any situation. A summer with some college students changed my leadership picture.
I faced the biggest challenge of my young Navigator career when I directed a summer program in Columbus, Ohio. We gathered sixty college students to live in a fraternity and sorority house for two months of work, Bible study, and discipleship. I was above my pay grade managing all the drama that comes with two houses of nineteen-to-twenty-one year olds. I realized that my “super powers” could not save the day. But . . . a staff team could.
Our team believed that the Lord had brought us together to lead this program. There was a synergy, confidence, and commitment that I had never experienced before. I had the director title, but the summer program didn’t rise or fall on my leadership. The team was the leader.
Each staff person contributed wisdom I didn’t possess, related to students in ways I could not, and dealt with crises beyond my experience. We co-labored — collaborated — and the program was better for it. My inner cry of leadership changed from “Here I come to save the day!” to “Here we come to save the day!”
I realized that I didn’t have to be the omnicompetent leader — the Mighty Mouse who could do everything. I could mix my leadership gifting with the competencies and personalities of other leaders. We were better together than apart; we worked together to save the day. Our collective wisdom shaped our decisions. Collaborative leadership is the key to bringing people together to break new ground.
There are a variety of leadership styles and practices that serve specific needs. Collaborative leadership is one of many styles and is most appropriate when one or more of these conditions are present:
- A big challenge is encountered. Big challenges can’t be solved by one leader. The wisdom of many is needed.
- A new approach is required. Collaboration brings a creative power to develop new ideas, approaches, and practices.
- Nothing is working. Collaborative leadership recognizes that when current business or ministry forms (approaches, resources, tools) aren’t working, we must wisely create new ones.
- Ownership is needed. Collaboration believes that the greater the participation, the greater the ownership. Local ownership happens when people work together.
Collaboration is biblical. “From one cover of the Bible to the other, the Creator of the universe works as a team, “ write Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird. This thread of collaboration is woven into the biblical narratives.
The “team” of the trinity worked together in creating humankind in “our image” (Genesis 1:26). This same trinity was present at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10-11). The Trinity commissions us to make disciples (Matthew 28:19) and brings about our salvation (Ephesians 4:4-6, 17). The Bible presents the Trinitarian nature of God as a model of teamwork.
Collaboration marked the ministry of the Apostle Paul. We often picture Paul as the rugged individualist who moved forward with determination and faith without regard to whether others joined him. The biblical record shows something different. In nearly every place that Paul is mentioned in Acts, he’s accompanied by people (see Acts 13:2-14:23; Acts 16:6,11, 25; Acts 18:1-4). He called them “fellow workers” implying equal ownership or partnership (Romans 16:3, 7, 9, 12, ESV). Paul was a team player.
How would I define collaborative leadership. Here’s my simple definition: Collaborative leadership is the art of helping people work together to accomplish a commonly owned goal or vision in a way that promotes equal ownership and equal contribution.”
Want to know more about collaborative leadership? The Ways of the Leader describes the marks of a collaborative leader and provides a simple game plan for leading in collaborative ways. If you want to test your commitment to collaboration, check out the Collaboration Audit on my website (alongsider.com) under ministry resources. Feel free to download and discover your current practice of collaboration.
Don’t practice Mighty Mouse leadership — assuming that “Here I come to save the day.” Collaboration changes this cry to “Here we come to save the day!” The Ways of the Leader will show you how.
This blog was adapted from Bill’s up-coming book: The Ways of the Leader: Four Practices to Bring People Together and Break New Ground. It will be released October 17.