One of the most illuminating things I ever heard about leading generously involved Johnny Carson. For most of my childhood he was host of The Tonight Show: late nights were Johnny Carson at 10:30 and David Letterman at 11:30. They could not have been more different but were each hilarious in their own way. If you go back and rewatch Johnny Carson, you see pretty quickly that comedically, he is the “straight man.” He’s the one who sets up the other person for the laugh. He had a real gift of making the other person look funny. The other people become the ones who get to make everyone double over with laughter. They make the joke, and Johnny sits off to the side, smiling and laughing.
That might not have been obvious to viewers, but in many ways, it was the secret of Johnny Carson’s success – and it’s one of the secrets of leadership. Johnny Carson could play the straight man and make his guests look good because he understood that every joke on The Tonight Show was comedy on his stage, whether he was the one telling the joke or not. He got credit for the laughs, whether they were his quips or not. By being the host, the comedy was his.
That’s what it is like being a Lead or Senior Pastor. Every joke is our joke, so to speak. We get credit for it, even if we didn’t do it. That means that one of the most important jobs that we can do with our team members is to build them up, both publicly and privately.
I always try, to the best of my ability, to pass along the credit for any “victory” that our staff achieves and shoulder the blame for any “defeat” that we may experience. The reality is that every laugh is “my” laugh: if the church is healthy and doing great ministry, I will get the credit whether I deserve it or not. But it is the team that is the key to the “success” of the church. Building up my team publicly and privately is the only way that teams can truly be successful.
This is important because it shows a few things:
- It shows how important a good team is. It is so important for churches, especially larger staffed churches, to have a healthy leadership team. It is important for a congregation to understand that the church is more than the Lead Pastor or even their favorite staff person. It is the team that makes victories possible. As a leader, when I model that, I really believe it. It would be easy to bask in the success won by the hard work of my staff. But everyone needs to know that ministry is more than just a Lead pastor; it is the team that makes ministry possible.
- It models accountability. In the same way as passing along credit shows the value of the team, taking ownership of failure shows that I don’t consider myself beyond criticism. By taking ownership, I demonstrate that I have my team’s back, and that trying and failing is not the worst thing in the world; it is the only way we get better. I have told my staff many times that “taking a bullet” for the team is sometimes the best way that I can help.
- It creates buy-in. When staff members know that they will get credit for victories and protection from defeats, it creates buy-in trust, not just for the leader, but for the system. This is one of the best and first steps any leader can take.
- It grows leaders. As a leader, when I model this behavior, I help set a culture that will hopefully produce humble and selfless leaders moving forward.
Of course, there is also liability with this model; if taken too far, it can allow those who are underperforming or not living into their potential to continue in that vein, looking better than they are or never being held accountable. For me, it is important to have someone (Staff-Parish Relations Committee and a coach) hold me accountable to ensuring that I don’t allow dysfunction to set in. Another consideration is that it simply takes time to earn the trust of your congregation; in taking ownership of defeats, as a leader, you need goodwill so that you don’t lose the trust of your people.
In Scripture, Barnabas is the perfect model for this. He was already a key leader in the early church; in Acts 4, we see his first selfless act in selling a field and giving the proceeds to the church. Later he takes on Paul as a mentee and then Mark. He defends, encourages, and then steps back, letting them achieve the great victories for the Kingdom that they attain. His selfless leadership helped produce so much of the New Testament and echoes in the life of every Christian in the world today.
In a world that calls us to always get the laugh, as leaders, let’s learn from Johnny. When we play the “straight man” and others get the laugh, we build a culture of a winning team. When we lead in that way, everyone wins, and the kingdom moves forward.
Featured image courtesy bantersnaps on Unsplash.