Many years ago, I learned a lesson about leadership that has shaped how I lead ever since. I was attending at the local First Baptist Church’s Sunday evening contemporary service and it was one of my first experiences in leading adults in worship. I worked closely with the family pastor, Steve Davis, who, at the time, was also the leader of the service.

One particular week, Steve approached me before the service started and challenged me to change how I led worship that evening. “Open your eyes more and look at the people.” While that wasn’t his exact challenge, it captures the essence of it. You see, my approach to leading worship was to focus on my worship of God, typically with eyes closed, and if others followed, great! If not, well, their loss. Steve encouraged me to consider a different way, one that involved me opening my eyes so I could see whether people were following me or not. It was revolutionary and disheartening. I didn’t like what I saw, a sea of disengaged faces mouthing words with little passion or conviction. But this simple change developed my leadership in major ways. I started to grasp an important leadership principle: you have to meet people where they are before you can lead them where they need to go.

Meeting people where they are requires us as leaders to first take a few proactive steps.

  1. Check your assumptions.
    Vince Antonucci, pastor of Verve Church in Las Vegas, NV, was recently a guest on a podcast I’m involved with called the Strategic Ministry Solutions podcast. As we talked about the challenges and opportunities of ministry in Vegas, Vince made the comment that pastors and service planners should check their assumptions regarding the people who will be attending their weekly gathering. He pointed out how often we make the critical mistake that people know more than they know. For example, instead of saying something like “Paul said in Ephesians 3:20…” we should explain who Paul was and what Ephesians is. The same concept applies to the grander spectrum of leadership. Don’t assume people understand what you’re talking about. Take the time to explain it simply and extra time to ensure they get what you’re saying.
  2. Understand their context.
    Ask yourself this question: Do I know who this person is or where they are coming from? As leaders, we can often be guilty of approaching people with our own agenda, rather than discovering what’s in the best interest for them. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Caring for those we lead involves looking for common ground so we can build relational equity. We look for the obstacles preventing us from developing a connection and then contemplate how to remove them. In the podcast interview, Vince shared one of their top goals is to uncross people’s arms. In other words, they look for common ground to build upon.
  3. Practice active listening.
    Experts in the personal coaching field describe 3 levels of listening. The goal for every coach is to learn how to activate level 3 listening skills. Personal-Coaching-Information.com describes each level.

    • Level 1 or ‘Internal listening’ – your focus is on yourself and your own thoughts, rather than the speaker, so you can develop your own opinions and make decisions.
    • Level 2 or ‘Listening to understand’ – your focus is on the speaker’s words, tone of voice, and body language to develop a real understanding of where they are coming from.
    • Level 3 or ‘Global listening’ – your focus is on the speaker and picking up on more than what is being said by engaging your intuition to “listen” to everything available, including emotion and body language, to know what questions to ask next.

Each level of active listening allows us to not only gauge where the person is and where they need to go, but also how to help guide them in getting there. Obviously this is challenging in a corporate setting, such as my earlier example, but a good majority of our leadership energy will be given to one-on-one or small group settings anyway.

Leadership can be incredibly rewarding and equally challenging. I have found when I neglect to meet people where they are, it makes leading a chore and can drain me of any enjoyment whatsoever. But when I strive to find common ground, to meet people where they are, the rewards are more than I could ever imagine because I get a front-row seat to see life change take place.

Kevin Bradford is the Sunday Experience Director for Ridge Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also co-hosts the Strategic Ministry Solutions podcast, an insanely practical podcast to help you lead with strategy and purpose. Connect with him on Twitter at @kevinpbradford.

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