Rob Ketterling: Front-Row Leadership

“God made me aware that simply pointing out problems is a cheap gift.”

It could be that the greatest challenge of leadership is corralling that most unruly and unpredictable of spirits—our own. Leading with integrity begins here, and the greatest challenges that threaten to trip us up and imperil our influence are likewise internal—issues of the heart.

We spoke with six very different leaders, each with diverse backgrounds and experiences but with a shared passion to lead well—and a willingness to be candid—to help us get at leadership’s fundamental question: “How do I lead myself?”

I learned in school that there were leaders in the front of the room and leaders in the back of the room. The leaders in the front were typically under authority. The leaders at the back were frustrated leaders wanting more authority. I sat at the back of the room and criticized.

At the height of my rebellion, I wanted to split the Assemblies of God. That’s where I felt God saying, “So, you want to divide my church?” God made me aware that simply pointing out problems is a cheap gift. Everyone loves to critique the old way of doing things. I finally began to see I was never going to bring about change unless I got to the front row and brought solutions.

There’s a difference between speaking out and speaking up. Speaking out means not good enough. It’s opinion and criticism. Speaking up means understanding the problem and offering solutions. It’s offering help and wisdom.

Every church, organization or business has an environment. We can’t see it, but we can feel it. It’s like barometric pressure on us when a storm is coming. A healthy environment makes it easier for people to breathe and take risks and be OK to fail. A bad environment is closed and critical. The more secure a leader is, the better the environment.

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A good leader must confront problems. That’s a huge battle for a lot of people because they are not good at it. I remember thinking, I don’t have the courage to confront this problem in my church. As soon as I did and solved it, all kinds of people said they saw the problem, too. I asked, “Why didn’t you say something?” Sharp people see the problems and are willing to help solve them, but a good leader has to have the courage to first confront the problem.

We have to stop painting people who disagree with us as enemies. We have to separate the problem from the person and give the benefit of the doubt. We need to learn to lead with a friend’s stance: “I want to make you better and make us better, so I’m bringing this up.”

If you take the posture that you have it all figured out and you are going to issue an edict, leaders will push back. Involve them in the process. Give plenty of room for input and feedback. When they discover some of the things you already know, affirm that. As they give you good new ideas, grab them. The collaborative leader wins. You do that out of relationship, great listening, affirming good ideas and preferring the right thing to who gets the notice.

I’m not going to keep people around me with fences or to-do lists. As a leader, I see myself not as the star, but the coach. It’s been a great posture for me. I’m investing into people so that we can get to greatness and win together. The more I let them flow and grow and thrive, the better leader I am. That means being secure and not feeling threatened.

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Rob Ketterling is the founder and lead pastor of River Valley Church, a multisite church that launched in Minnesota and now spans 10 campuses, and the author of Front Row Leadership: Stop Criticizing and Start Leading (Salubris, 2016).