What do you think about when you picture a jazz band? When I picture it, I think of creativity, spontaneity, emotion, and fluidity, but would you ever think it as a model for leadership? When I first heard J.R. Woodward talk about the term “polycentric leadership,” which he coins in his book Creating a Missional Culture, I thought it sounded a tad odd and complex, until he surprisingly related it to something I could understand - a jazz band. In the book, he paints the picture of polycentric leadership as a jazz band having many talented musicians, seamlessly taking the lead at spontaneous points or when needed. At any time, a jazz band might have a lead musician playing melody, rhythm, or harmony. If polycentric leadership were in the dictionary, Merriam-Webster might define it as many leaders circling around a common center. In our context, the center is our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we at Hill City define polycentric leadership, we are led by a collaborating team of saints, mutually equipping one another to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, while honoring one another’s respective spiritual giftings, i.e., Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher (APEST in Ephesians 4). Polycentric leadership encourages organizations to form around the identified APEST leadership team and rotate leadership responsibilities among them.
Typical Corporate Leadership Model
The jazz band or rotational style encourages leading from the fringes rather than from one person at the top of the pyramid. We typically see a hierarchical, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) structured leadership in our workplaces and even in our churches. So often the vision, direction, example, teaching, etc., comes from one person, i.e, the C-suite executive (CEO, CFO, CIO, CTO). The congregational volunteers run around managing and enacting his vision. They look to and lean on the one visionary. The C-suite leader typically doesn’t have any peers, has little accountability, and is on an isolated island at the top of their organization. They sometimes even forget how to follow. There’s a reason for the phrase, “Leadership is lonely.” On the other hand, the polycentric leadership model allows the point leader to relearn how to follow and lean on the skills and creativity of others.
Typical Church Leadership Model
It’s not a coincidence that our church organizations many times look like our business enterprises. We typically study leadership from a business or production based perspective. Often, the quickest and best decision is wanted ASAP with swift action. There isn’t any time for deliberation. After all, time is money, and plus “that’s what she’s paid for.” In the corporate world this works great since everyone is getting compensated to support the decisions of the C-suite.
However, not all church models operate in this business-like manner. On the contrary, those in the Quaker faith worshipfully make decisions as a community, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to discern God’s will, without debate or voting. It takes time, yet everyone is encouraged to listen to God and participate. Once a “coming to unity” has been reached, the whole community moves as one. They save time communicating the decision and convincing people to believe. I deeply respect the desire to hear the voice of God, so I think that there is a balance of the two styles. I believe that polycentric leadership allows for the Quaker style of leadership to be worked out in smaller, focused settings where decisions can be made and communicated through the leaders.
The Jesus Model for Leadership
The more I read about Jesus, I see that he didn’t relish positional power:
“Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.” See Luke 22:25-27
Moreover, he encouraged all to hear what God is saying to them personally and then challenged them to obey. Paul says in his letter to Philippians that Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something to exploit, but he emptied himself and took the form of a servant (some translations read slave), a human, and submitted to the point to death. He seemed to embrace the powerless and powerlessness. He avoided a position of authority and bent his knee to wash the feet of his disciples, talked to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, stopped to heal the sick (even in a busy crowd), and blessed children. Jesus recognized that the power of this world corrupts and seemed to warn us that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He empowered his disciples by going to the Father and sending them the Holy Spirit, passing power to us so that we might pass on the power of the good news to others. In doing so, he became our King.
As we circle Jesus, the center of our universe and our leadership methodologies, may we lead and serve as if we’re in Jesus’ jazz band, relinquishing positional power to understand the beautiful and, at times, tough paradox of powerless but powerful leadership. When we overpower, we squelch those around us, but when we empower, we submit to the Father, as Jesus did, and step beneath those around us, becoming the intern and supporting others to do the will of the Father and build His Kingdom here. J.R. Woodward puts it best, “Absolute powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.” So with that mantra, may we as leaders seek to serve, not be served; empower, not overpower; and “corrupt absolutely” for the glory of King Jesus and the renewal of all creation.
Like what you see here? Join us on Sunday mornings at 10:30 at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington for the conversation and our Q&A.