The Danger of Being a Unilateral Decision Maker

Several years ago I wrote a book on decision-making in the local church, in which I addressed how to know when to be decisive. Many leaders struggle with discerning when they should make a unilateral decision versus when to pause and listen to the views of other members of the leadership team. The question becomes, “is this a situation that requires me to lead unilaterally, or is it better to  allow others’ perspectives to shape and guide the final outcome?”

There are several things that need to be considered. First, there is often safety in engaging a plurality of leaders. If one key leader makes all the decisions, then the team and congregation will endure the blind-spots and weaknesses of that single decision-maker. Beyond that, a “command and control” leader who makes all the decisions based on his own thinking looks very much like a tyrant.

While there are many times when it is good and proper for a group of believers to follow a key leader, there are other times when the primary leader must listen to the collective wisdom of the group. When a primary leader doesn’t understand this concept, his leadership and those who follow him will suffer.

On the other hand, a primary leader who constantly seeks to understand the “lay of the land” regarding any decision can easily become enslaved to the opinions of others and end up pleasing man instead of God.

When we are insecure and undisciplined in our leadership, we can be so driven by a desire to have people follow our direction that we readily fall into either inappropriate extreme, becoming either a tyrant or a slave. When people don't follow us we complicate the situation by getting angry or bitter toward them. This kind of behavior is petty and childish yet it is exactly what we do.

In a subsequent article we’ll explore what to do when we find ourselves enslaved by other’s opinions and the fear of men. Today, we’ll limit our focus to the unilateral decision-maker.

The unilateral decision-maker  can all too quickly reflect the personality of Balaam in Numbers 22.I've often thought that this episode is a good picture of failed ecclesiastical leadership.

Unilateral leaders can get an "attitude" towards their fellow leaders and/or sheep, just like Balaam exhibited toward his donkey.  Initially, Balaam was carried about by his donkey; similarly, unilateral leaders are typically empowered by their followers, at least at the beginning.  But, at some point it dawns on the followers that a direction desired by the unilateral leader is clearly out of bounds.  Maybe the direction is contrary to God's Word or is in some other way clearly unwise to proceed.  In a sense, God is standing in the leader’s path, hindering the leader’s desires. God is speaking through the voices and actions of his people to redirect the leader onto the path he desires.

Remember, none of us are prophets or apostles.  One mechanism we should employ to understand God’s will is the collective wisdom, insights and perspectives of God’s people.  This is especially true in the context of a local assembly.  Even when followers love their leader and desire to follow, their conscience may prevent them from doing so.  Too often in these circumstances, the unilateral leader gets “ticked off” and, parallel with Balaam’s experience, fails to see the wisdom God is seeking to impart.  

How should you proceed?  First, make it a practice to always listen carefully to the thoughts, opinions, and concerns of others.  Second, whenever possible (we’ll explore in a future article when this is unwise or NOT possible) allow other perspectives to impact your own. Work to modify your plans in light of how God is leading others. Third, as you move forward with your plans, highlight for everyone how God used other people to influence the final outcome; that will encourage others to embrace what God is doing among the team. Fourth, as you go through your decision-making process, endeavor to embrace this prayer: “Please God, save us from becoming a Balaam kind of a leader! Your church needs better…..much better! Praise God our captain, King Jesus already knows exactly where we're at and where we need to go. Let’s follow Him. Thank God for His continued mercy.”