The Limits of a One-Man Show

“John, we have a problem.”

As a leader, you get used to hearing those words. Challenges are a daily part of leadership. However, when this time when I heard them, I felt my stomach drop. I was young and had just left the church in Hillham, my first position as a leader. I had moved to a new opportunity, in part because I believed that Hillham was in great shape to continue its growth and work.

Now, one of my most trusted friends from the church was on the phone, telling me things weren’t as rosy as they seemed. I immediately asked what was wrong.

“We’ve fallen off,” my friend said. “Attendance is down, and so is morale. John, what’s gone wrong?”

I didn’t know how to answer him then. And that question stayed with me for six months. I puzzled over it, dreamed about it, and turned it over and over in my mind until I finally realized what had indeed gone wrong:

Me.

Last week, I shared with you five lessons I learned when just starting out. Those were principles learned from victories; this week, I want to share some principles that came out of failure. After all, it wouldn’t do for the author of Failing Forward to not own up to his mistakes!

It was devastating to learn that the three years Margaret and I invested in Hillham had withered so quickly. For as much as I was able to accomplish as a one-man show in Hillham, the truth is my failure to multiply myself as a leader hurt the church. Because I didn’t develop others, the church fell back into a state similar to what it had been before my arrival.

So where did I go wrong? After a lot of wrestling, I realized that I’d failed to see the limits of a one-man show.

The Limit of Vision

Margaret and I worked hard to build the church in Hillham. She was in charge of youth, serving the community, special projects, and hospitality. I was in charge of preaching, visiting members, recruiting new attenders, developing programs, and handling problems. We had a vision for what the church could be, and we worked hard to make it happen. The people loved it, got excited about it, and shared in the labor.

But while I partnered with the people in the work, I never transferred the vision to them. It was my vision, not our vision. And that’s not an uncommon problem for leaders to have. As leaders, we get so caught up in what we can see, what we think should be, that we sometimes fail to bring others into the process. When leaders don’t invite others to share the vision and make it their own, that vision is automatically tethered to the leader.

That means wherever the leader goes, the vision follows. If the leader makes a major mistake, or self-destructs, or—as in my case—moves on to another opportunity, the vision remains attached to him or her. It is imperative for leaders to share the vision with the people if the vision is going to survive and remain after they leave.

The Limit of Influence

While I was in Hillham, my old Volkswagen Beetle was an ever-present sight on the dusty farm roads. Any time someone saw it, they knew Pastor John was out trying to bring more people into the church. As time went by, the church began to grow. People would come just to see what we were up to. Leaders from other churches would call me to ask what we were doing right. I was working hard and developing influence within the community, and for three years it worked perfectly.

And then I left the community and took my influence with me.

Much like vision, your influence as a leader is tethered to you unless you share it. Had I selected even one person to mentor or develop during my time at Hillham, their influence would’ve remained when I left.

Where I really missed the boat was in not developing at least one other leader who would go on to develop other leaders! Talk about limiting yourself! I like to say, if one is good, four is better—and that’s true with leaders. Why add one or two when you can multiply by three or four? Influence is at its best when it is multiplied.

The Limit of Momentum

By now you’ve picked up on my theme, but I want to touch on one more area where the limits of a one-man show really make a difference—momentum. In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I write about how “momentum is a leader’s best friend.” That is absolutely true. During the years that I was at Hillham, our momentum was amazing. After starting with only three people in church on my first Sunday, we quickly reached more than 300 people in attendance.

But when we left for our next opportunity, the momentum soon died. What we had worked so hard to build faded in a matter of months, because we hadn’t developed people to continue carrying the momentum for us.

 

Fortunately for me—and for Hillham—none of these lessons was fatal. Hillham gradually found their own rhythm again. And the lessons I learned helped me develop one of my core beliefs about leadership: leaders must develop other leaders…who develop other leaders. That principle of multiplication drives me every day to continue growing myself and growing leaders around me, because I want my legacy to be one of leadership development. I want to develop strong leaders who carry the vision, the influence and the momentum. And I’m especially excited about our newest initiative to transform leaders who transform nations that transform our world.

And I’m grateful for all the lessons I learned from Hillham – both the wins and the losses. I started as a one-man show, but through Hillham, I learned the importance of not remaining one.

If you’re still a one-man or one-woman show, I encourage you to learn from my experiences. By developing people who become leaders, who then eventually develop other leaders, you’ll create and sustain dynamic growth, influence, and momentum in your organization. And you and your people will be better for it.

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