Creative Leadership

The Difference Between Executive and Legislative Leadership

Business leadership is often quite different from non-profit leadership. Author Jim Collins (Good to Great) calls it the difference between “executive” and “legislative” leadership. In a business – particularly a privately owned company – the chief executive drives the train. He or she makes the decisions, and at least from an authoritative point of view those decisions are the bottom line.

But in most non-profits – particularly in a church or ministry setting, leadership involves building coalitions, assembling tea ms, and bi-lateral cooperation. It’s important to realize the difference. I grew up as a pastor’s son in a small church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I watched from the front row as my father had to deal with the Elder board, church committees, deacons, and other influential members in order to make decisions happen. He became an expert at building coalitions and “working the room.”

Today – particularly in independent churches and ministries, I often see more executive style leadership, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a non-profit founded by a single person with a clear, unified vision, a board usually exists, but it’s often little more than an advisory group – especially when the ministry is built around the testimony or calling of a particular person. Sometimes this happens when the organization begins as a small “mom and pop” ministry, and over the years grows into a national outreach.

I do believe that a visionary leader of a church or ministry shouldn’t be held back by an obstinate board or disgruntled church members. If God has chosen this person in a leadership role, I’ll usually default to their decisions. Especially when accountability measures are in place, I’m often comfortable giving them wider latitude in church or ministry leadership.

But I’ve also seen that latitude horribly abused by egotistical leaders who live lives dramatically different from those they lead – or just as often, participate in moral compromise under the auspices of “prophetic vision.” They get a bit too used to the power, prestige, and financial incentives of national ministry leadership, and use their position as ruler more than leader. Some of course have caused great damage to the faith, through moral, financial, or leadership abuse.

While these examples are fairly obvious, there is a more hidden type where the leader doesn’t allow questions or other points of view. This can be just as damaging.

The key is understanding that in most ministry situations, we can’t simply copy leadership from a business perspective. When legislative leadership is required, we need to understand the difference and act accordingly. Granted, many leadership experts will say that part of being true leaders is understanding the difference and responding appropriately, and with that, I would agree.

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One Comment

  1. Right on Phil,

    You’re on target.  But in the absence of a defined organizational structure, where management systems are valued and respected, the consensus building devolves into a system of bureaucratic political trade offs.  That political wrangling, or dealing in leadership trades and favors, will weaken any non-profit by blocking change and slowing vitally needed rapid response to emerging market opportunities.

    The key is to delegate authority, and executive decision making, to the lowest practical level while reserving the political trades of legislative leadership to the highest level and for the greater policy determination issues. 

    Political or legistlative leadership is a poor forum for most general operational matters of non-profit management. 

    Confusing executive leadership with legislative leadership will demoralize and paralyze any business or ministry.  And few real leaders will long serve where these lines are blurred.

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