“Healthy leaders” is a relatively new term in the realm of leader development. Keith Yoder of Teaching the Word Ministries was one of its early definers and a man who literally wrote the book on the subject, Healthy Leaders (1998). During a recent interview, I asked Keith to share a bit of his background, what has changed in leader development, what he has learned, and challenges he has faced during his long career as a leader. His answers express a clear and continuing need for attention to clear identity and clear direction as cornerstones of healthy leadership.
Getting Started with Healthy Leadership
Beginning with his experience in his local congregation, Keith was exposed to leadership issues early in life. Since the age of 16, every organization he was involved in invited him into a position of leadership. As a student and young adult, he felt that something was out of order at the local level and began to think about and seek resources on healthy leadership. In short, he felt a calling on his heart to be a resource to pastors.
At that time, however, there were limited materials pertaining to healthy leadership. Keith loved psychology and wanted to go deeper into the inner workings and motivations of leadership. In addition to absorbing the secondary literature on the subject, he gained much of his knowledge through actual personal experience.
Changes in Leadership Culture
One of the major changes that has taken place since the beginning of his career, and that Keith helped to bring about, is a movement away from simply relying on following a set of principles in order to foster healthy leadership. Instead, as Keith stresses, leaders must have a clear sense of identity – and therefore a clear sense of direction – in order to be effective.
Leaders often try to apply principles mechanistically without knowing who they are in God’s design, an understanding which grows from an intimate relationship with the Father. For example, they might attend a high-powered leadership conference and come back discouraged because they cannot be like the dynamic workshop speaker. If they understand their own gifting, however, they will realize that success does not just mean emulating a particular leader or implementing his or her principles.
Keith also shared a few major ways that he counsels leaders now that he might not have in decades past. Twenty years ago, for example, Keith said that he did not realize that good leaders and good followers shared two things: they both think critically about the mission of the organization and how to improve it, and they are both active in moving the organization in its mission.
He explained, “When leaders are approaching leadership as ‘I motivate these people, I get them to do what they should be doing,’ that misses the whole relational investment and ownership of also thinking critically and being open to the followers’ critical thinking about where we are going. It’s not one dimensional. [It’s not] ‘I am a great leader, so everything is going to be fine.’”
Something else Keith feels called to is to empower and cultivate women to the full capacity of their leadership. What he has seen is the Lord leading him not just to help women be empowered in their leadership, but how men and women can partner together effectively in leadership for Kingdom purposes.
What has unfolded in the leadership literature over the past two decades is that there is a trend toward recommending certain ways to exercise leadership that is more relational, more collaborative, and those are the very things that are more natural to women in their leadership.
Keith believes the whole leadership culture is gradually taking on more of the strengths that women bring to leadership. He stated, “I’m not advocating the feminization of leadership, but rather the partnership, which goes back to God’s original design, let them rule; let male and female rule. I am working on a book on this, going back to the original design, and how that works with men and women in leadership today. I wouldn’t have known that 20 years ago.”
A good discussion about change over time in a healthy organization will inevitably have to consider the issue of succession. Having guided several organizations through the process, as well as going through the process currently, Keith explains that the key elements to succession are maintaining continuity and confidence.
It is important that the founding or long-term leader introduces and clarifies the values of the organization but also inculcates those values in the new leadership, ideally within an overlapping period of time whereby the confidence can be transferred from the founder (or long-term leader that people know) to the new leaders. Then it is critical that the long-term leader genuinely release control and turn things over, either in a progressive way or on a predetermined date.
Typically, there will be some kind of an adjustment crisis that arises when it is not being carried out the way the original leader would have done it. If so, there is often a temptation to step back in and fix it, which either seriously delays or sabotages the transition, diminishing the value of the new leadership.
Succession within the family is a common form of leadership transition that can be a positive thing, but it must be considered carefully. A key question that a primary leader must ask is if his planned successor has the right gifting, capacity, and competency to continue the organization’s mission successfully. This becomes even more important during the often difficult transition from the second to the third generation. Keith advises that a good slogan to adopt is, “It’s not about our generation. It’s about the next generation.” It encourages leaders to move their thinking away from what is going to happen to them and more towards what kind of legacy they can leave for others to inherit and grow.
Serving as a leader for over 50 years has included numerous challenges, and Keith shared some of his most memorable ones. One generally challenging area includes investing deeply in individual leaders and staking his personal reputation on their success. An example would be trying to help an organization get out of debt, knowing it could succeed if they followed the plan, and wanting them to succeed so badly that it felt like it was his debt that needed to be overcome.
Another leadership challenge for Keith that surely has broad applicability to others has been making tough decisions alone while having a more “process and group participation” oriented gifting. Although it is difficult in the short-term to feel like everything hinges on what you say in the next few minutes, the decisiveness can pay off as it allows the organization to heal and come back to order.
In one particularly poignant anecdote, Keith spoke of a situation where he was called in to help an organization headed by a longtime colleague and supporter. After assessing everything, he reached the conclusion that his friend needed to resign. Because of their relationship, the friend accepted the counsel and later confided that if it had been anyone else, he would not have listened.
Changes in Teaching Style
Keith also shared that he has changed personally during his career, especially by being more directive in order to complement his more innate listening and collaborative traits. However, that directive impulse is channeled into what Keith calls “presence-based leadership,” which helps two or more people to hear Christ speaking in the midst of a conversation and submitting to the wisdom they discern in His presence. In making a decision, then, people are relying on Christ to direct their discernment.
As a biblical basis for this process, Keith demonstrated that it is rooted in Joshua 5:13-15, in which Joshua surveys the walls of Jericho and meets a man with a sword in his hand. Joshua, having a warlike mentality, says, “Are you for us or against us?” The man replies, “No, I come to you as the captain of the Lord’s host.” Joshua then hits the dirt in humility and asks, “What does my Lord have for His servant to do?”
Keith explained, “So the first question is one of whose side you are on. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The second question is, ‘What is the Lord saying?’ And that second question is the one we need to answer. So it’s not about my ego or your ego. It’s ‘what is the mind of the Lord?’ That is also based on Matthew 16 and 18 where Jesus introduces the word ‘church,’ which is basically a gathering of people to make a decision. So we are just about to complete a book on how to do presence-based leadership and discernment. So that’s been a big change and development over the years and to me is the best way for healthy leaders to make healthy decisions for healthy organizations.”
Regarding the current generation of emerging leaders, Keith is encouraged by its willingness to partner with the experienced generation. This was often not the case within the Baby Boomer generation. The increased willingness to partner between generations has resulted in a clearer identity among emerging leaders who have the potential to make an impact – with integral character – through their mission and vision within their sphere of influence.
Keith reinforces the key message that a healthy leader has a clear identity and clear direction. While leader development and leaders like him have changed over the decades, this message remains foundational to any leadership mission.