The Best Leaders are Teachable

Wisdom From Solomon

I read something interesting recently in Proverbs 26:12 that speaks clearly to an important leadership principle. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Some might think Solomon’s words here are harsh. Yet, the longer I work in organizations, the more I see the wisdom in what Solomon said. What he’s talking about here is being teachable, a key trait of leaders.

However, teachability assumes a certain amount of humility. That’s because teach-ability requires leaders to admit that somewhere out there, there’s someone who knows more than they do about a specific subject. That’s not always easy for “the person “in charge” to do.

The Good to Great Difference

However, that’s what Jim Collins found in Good to Great companies.  These organizations outperformed the market at a rate that was 7 times higher than average. Interestingly, they all had level 5 leaders who combined an unwavering commitment to the mission with a personal level of humility. In such cultures success is not for the leader’s glory but for the advancement of the organization.

This is particularly true in the pastorate. When we’ve helped churches organize fundraising campaigns, we’ve found that the pastors who are most teachable also seem to be the ones that are the most successful.

In fact, over our 20-year history of working with churches, we’ve only had one church fail to achieve its goal. However, we’ve had several examples of churches where pastors have not been as successful as they might have been, because they’ve not been as teachable as others.

For example, our church campaigns usually include a planning study. During that study we conduct some internal analysis of giving over a three-year period along with face-to-face interviews and a church-wide survey. That process helps determine the giving capacity of the church and the congregation’s propensity to give to this project. But pastors don’t always pay attention to what we tell them.

For example, at one church that failed to achieve its goal, we recommended a slightly longer pledge period. The congregation had many young couples that didn’t have much discretionary income. The pastor disagreed, commenting that they needed the money ASAP. He just didn’t want to wait for the longer pledge period. They also failed to implement other key recommendations we made and ultimately came up short of their goal.

Being Teachable Promotes Success

However, another church that had failed in a previous campaign came to us for help. The new pastor did a great job of motivating the church members, and they followed everything we recommended with enthusiastic zeal! As a result, they exceeded the goal, even though it was more than 50% larger than the first goal.

What’s the difference? The latter pastor was quite teachable and the former pastor was not. As a leader of any enterprise, you have to admit that you don’t know everything and then be willing to embrace new knowledge. That’s how leaders get better at their craft.

Pastor Matt Keller wrote a book entitled, The Key to Everything.

He notes, “The more successful you become, the less you become teachable…highly successful people know how to handle success successfully…(and they also) don’t let their failures define them.”

Sometimes both leadership success and failure can stunt a leader’s growth. It never ceases to amaze me how some pastors hire us to be their fundraising consultants and then ignore our recommendations. The secret is to have accountability structures that challenge pastors or CEOs to continue learning and seeking help no matter how good they are.

Pastor and philosopher Meister Eckhart put it this way. “Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.”