One of my favorite leadership expressions says that if you think you’re leading people but no one is following, you’re not leading – you’re just taking a walk.
A surefire way to get people to stop following is to be demanding and correct them constantly without offering profuse encouragement. As Mark Chanski says in his recent book, encouragement is “adrenaline for the soul.” It motivates, surges energy, and drives people to do more than they thought possible.
In my almost 17 years of leading in various capacities, I have never heard someone say, “They just go over the top with encouraging me and telling me how they appreciate my part on this team. I can’t take it anymore…I’m out!” But how many times have people served and served and served and never been offered a genuine expression of gratitude and thanks?
Good leaders make it their aim to show every person they lead how valuable they are to the team. As a pastor in my church, I need to make it my aim to show every person who contributes to the ministry of our church that I know their contribution and am thankful for it. Now, I may not be able to do that for every person ever week or month, but I should make it my aim to encourage as many people as I can each week in a myriad of ways: verbal, written, private, and public.
Every week, the pastors at our church write at least five notes of encouragement and thank you cards to our volunteers and staff. We have a written list of all the volunteers who serve in various ministries, and we keep track of how often we send cards. Also, when someone does something that is in line with our mission as a church, we strive to acknowledge them publicly at one of our gatherings. We try to do little things like ending every email with a statement of love and gratitude and joy in working alongside of those to whom we write. We try to find creative ways to show gratitude, small gifts, birthday celebrations, and stopping by where they work just to say thank you for all they mean to us.
Now, I don’t do these things perfectly. I have so much room to grow in the area of encouragement. But the better I am at encouraging others, the more likely that people will have adrenaline to follow as I try to lead them to faithfulness to Christ and our shared mission.
A rule of thumb that is good to follow is the rule of 10. We should seek to encourage people ten times more often than we correct. A seminary professor of mine once expressed this idea by saying, “There should be ten “Attaboy’s!” for every one “You dummy!”” (obviously, not that you call people dummies, but that’s often how people feel when corrected!). Sam Crabtree, in his book Practicing Affirmation, reinforces this principle when he comments that correction, which everyone needs from time to time, is best received in a culture of affirmation and encouragement.
If the only time we ever encourage someone is to soften them up for criticism, that type of “encouragement” will seldom be received. If every time we say, “I am so thankful for you and you have many good qualities,” and we then follow it up with a criticism, we might as well not encourage at all. It is tempting to think that giving affirmation before a criticism softens the blow of that criticism but all it really does it empty the affirmation of any weight.
But if the regular culture of our leadership is one of encouragement with no strings attached, then when we do have to come with needed correction, it will be much better received. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” says Solomon in the Proverbs. Friends are there to support, encourage, and defend so when they do come with a word of correction, it is received in love and not as the trap at the end of a dangling carrot of false, insincere encouragement.
If you lead, encourage. If you don’t, you may look back and find no one following you.