by Justin Dela Cruz
“We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure ... not gonna’ lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.” This line was made famous in the movie Apollo 13, when NASA flight director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, led the mission control team through edge-of-your-seat moments to bring the damaged spacecraft home safely. This phrase captures the spirit and mindset of recent generations of Americans known for their success, accomplishment, being on top, and for never admitting failure. We see this exemplified in politicians, celebrities, coworkers, and family members. The unspoken code was “Failure is not an option.”
But that has changed. A WIRED cover article reflects the shift in thinking: “FAIL! Screw ups, disasters, misfires, flops: Why losing big can be a winning strategy.” 1 The current generation embraces failure. A Google search of the word fail reveals that society has popularized failure. The twitter hashtag #FAIL has generated enormous response.
The word fail is a meme used in everyday talk and writing. Some Christian leaders are beginning to champion the role of failure in leadership and life. John Maxwell2 and Mark Batterson3 talk about failing forward and learning to embrace failure by growing through it.
Although some Christian leaders are embracing failure, the Christian community still generally approaches failure as taboo. Many pastors and denominational leaders fear failure by looking down on it, attempting to cover it up, and view it in only a negative light. Most often leaders demonstrate this by painting a better picture of their life and ministry than what exists. Some leaders tend to steer away from failure by overlooking, glossing over, ignoring, and making things look as best as they can. But when this happens, authenticity is at stake. And authenticity is not something we should sacrifice. In this article, I identify FAIL behaviors to avoid — common actions that leaders practice which ultimately lead to the undesired state of “authenticity FAIL.”
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus’ bold words addressed the authenticity FAIL of His day — hypocrisy. Authenticity is an honest reflection of the outside and inside, the good and bad, the wins and struggles. Authentic leaders choose a life of integrity. They are not only honest in relationship with others but most important, they are honest and true to themselves. Authentic leadership is being genuine through and through.
Authentic leadership is not an option in our culture today — it is a must. Bill George warns that, “Leading in the 21st century is vastly different from leading in the 20th century. People in organizations (and churches) have changed dramatically — to the point where they will no longer tolerate or be motivated by the command and control leaders of the 20th century. Nor will they be impressed by charismatic leaders who say one thing and do another. … People in organizations today seek authentic leaders whom they can trust”4
Peter’s exhortation to the Early Church remains relevant today, “Rid yourselves of all … hypocrisy” (1 Peter 2:1). Instead we need to be leaders who are committed to the truth — whatever that truth may be. We should not sugar coat, pretend, embellish, or hide.
In their bestselling resource, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner identify honesty as the No. 1 leadership characteristic. Through 25-plus years of research and surveys, “it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship.”5
Without authenticity in leadership, we will remain weakened and have no sustained effectiveness. However, if we do embrace authenticity — failures and all — our potential — the church’s potential — is unlimited. This is because authenticity is foundational. It is the starting place of any strategic church. Strategic leadership advocates Aubrey Malphurs6 and Will Mancini7 both agree that a clear authentic understanding of who you are and where you are at, whether personally or organizationally, is the best starting place for implementing strategy. They explain the most important question in navigation is “Where am I?” Without knowing where you are, you cannot know how to get to where you want to go. Authenticity answers this question.
Peter Drucker suggests the “mirror test.” Leaders need to make sure the person they see in the mirror in the morning is the kind of person they want to be. Is the person you are on the inside the same as the person that others see? Does your church’s reputation match up with a true description of what is really taking place? Personally and organizationally, authenticity is necessary.
If authentic leadership is so important, why do Christian leaders so often fail at it? In our personal lives, we find it difficult to confess our sins and admit our weaknesses. We pretend our marriages are always healthy and our parenting skills are above par. We paste on a smile that covers our inner questions, struggles, and shortcomings. In our church ministry contexts, we pad the numbers, only talk about strengths, and ignore struggling areas. We focus on celebrating the opening of one church while three others close. We constantly repeat a success story, but fail to address the church that is stuck in plateau, decline, or ineffectiveness.
Before we are overcome with pessimism, I understand there are many great, wonderful, and noteworthy people and churches. There are wins to celebrate, stories to share, and grace to be thankful for. But that is just one side of the story — a side that gets told more often than the other one. This is because authenticity has many enemies. Insecurity and comparison are common hindrances to authenticity. Many pastors feel as though they are not good enough. This is usually linked with the amount of unrealistic expectations that people place on them. When pastors compare and compete they often live in defeat because it breeds pride and jealousy. If we use others as our measuring stick, we either come out looking better — and end up prideful — or come up short and become jealous. Too often we seem like the wizard of Oz, the timid man behind the curtain. We pull levers and blow smoke only in an attempt to look better and bigger than we really are.
Authenticity FAIL happens in Christian leadership today because of FAIL behaviors. Knowing about them will help you to navigate away from them, and instead practice healthy authenticity in your leadership. Here are some FAIL behaviors:
Leaders who fake reality damage their authenticity by not facing current realities. Faking reality means not naming the elephant in the room, not addressing the sacred cows, and not discussing the undiscussables.8 Reputation, fear, pride, and lack of courage are some motivations for faking reality. Ignorance, both intentional and unintentional, will also lead to the real issues not being resolved. Even peacekeeping can lead to not dealing with reality in an attempt to appease everyone. Some leaders would rather look the other way instead of dealing with the situations in which they find themselves.
This shows up personally and in ministry when someone is in denial about the state of their marriage, health, finances, or when pastors and leaders fail to address damaging issues, relational conflict, power struggles, spiritual health, dying programs and ministries, etc. We fake reality when we leave struggling areas untouched while we spotlight and applaud stronger areas. This lopsided approach is tempting because Christians tend to believe all parts of their life and ministry should be healthy, growing, and problem-free.
This is not the picture Scripture paints. Jesus warned, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). In our lives we will face difficulties. Our churches and strategies will not always work well. We will face opposition, criticism, droughts, setbacks, and mistakes. In Good to Great, Jim Collins’ research shows that all good to great companies come to grips with their reality. He explains, “You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.”9 If you fake reality, either by ignoring current reality or making up your own reality, you jeopardize your credibility, leadership potential, and ability to be trusted. How you handle your realities will affect greatly your capacity for authenticity.
Another FAIL behavior is avoiding transparency. Leaders who do this create barriers between themselves and those they lead. This happens through hiding, keeping secrets, obscuring things, and having hidden agendas. Instead of relating in an open, clear manner, people who avoid transparency seem like a clouded or darkly tinted window. Sadly, lack of transparency leads to little or no accountability, resulting in moral, ethical, and biblical failure. The media has provided plenty of examples of people who have experienced authenticity FAIL because of their lack of transparency.
In our society and culture today, transparency is practically necessary.10 We can search almost anything, including financial records, online. In a form of radical transparency, companies are sharing secrets, blogging about upcoming products, and admitting failures.11 To the millennial generation, transparency is everything. Social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, have provided an avenue for people to wear their heart on their sleeve. Plenty of websites, books, and videos have been dedicated to confessions. Throughout Scripture, Christians are instructed to share their lives together in a transparent way — struggles, sins, wins, stories, memories, and encouragement.
Beyond simply showing outward emotion, transparency is telling the truth in a way that people can verify. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek are a great example of a transparent organization. They assessed the state of their ministry effectiveness in REVEAL12 and shared their unfavorable results openly with their church and the world. When we practice transparency, we create buy-in from those involved and we help people understand why we made certain decisions. In the lives of pastors and leaders, transparency helps level the playing field, allowing people to relate in a better way.
Even if a leader or organization faces reality and is transparent about it, they can still risk their authenticity if they ignore improvement. This third FAIL behavior is the easiest to do because it happens naturally. Over time, people and organizations fall into routine and their focus shifts to upkeep and maintaining what already exists. Churches that ignore improvement like to play it safe — taking little risk, and will eventually plateau, deteriorate, and become irrelevant. In today’s information overloaded and open source society, leaders can fall into the trap of learning and gaining knowledge without application.
In his study of six recently derailed CEOs, Tim Irwin points out that a lack of openness to feedback contributed greatly to the leaders’ collapse.13 Seeking out, listening to, and learning from honest feedback is crucial to taking steps to improve. As everything around us changes at a rapid pace, churches must continually evaluate and assess. This is foundational to incorporating strategic improvement. Pastors must also improve on their capabilities and leadership development. Thankfully we have the Scriptures to teach us and the Holy Spirit to guide us along this journey.
Last, leaders and churches harm their authenticity when they continually lose heart. This takes the form of demoralization, negativity, quitting, giving up, burning out, and feeling overwhelmed. Losing heart results in a change of character and a hindrance to capabilities. It is a contagious spirit that harms churches when there is a lack of strategy, initiative, and results. Collins’ “good to great” companies held a common attitude. “It didn’t matter how bleak the situation or how stultifying the mediocrity, they all maintained unwavering faith that they could not just survive, but prevail as a great company.”14
Sometimes we feel the harvest is too plentiful and the workers are too few; the questions are too many and the answers too few; the calling too big and ourselves too small. But God is greater. When we are confident of our position in Christ, there is freedom to be authentic.
We develop authenticity by not practicing the FAIL behaviors. Instead, we can smile, press on, and serve another day — authentically. Because Jesus reminds us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Justin Dela Cruz, Farmingdale, New Jersey, is a master degree student at Valley Forge Christian College.
1. Wired Magazine. Issue 18-1. January 2010. http://www.wired.com/magazine/18-01/. Accessed 02/03/2011.
2. John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
3. Mark Batterson, “Failing Forward” inEnrichment journal 14, no. 4 (2009): 50–55.
4. Bill George, Finding Your True North: A Personal Guide (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), xx.
5. James M., Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 32.
6. Aubrey Malphurs, Advanced Strategic Planning: A New Model for Church and Ministry Leaders, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005).
7. Will Mancini, Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
8. Stephen M.R. Covey, and Rebecca R. Merrill, The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York City: Free Press, 2008), 185.
9. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2001), 70.
10. John Baldoni, Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 29.
11. Wired Magazine. Issue 15-4. March 2007. Get Naked and Rule the World http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.04/. Accessed 02/03/2011.
12. http://www.revealnow.com. Accessed 02/03/2011.
13. Tim Irwin, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 173.
14. Collins, 87.