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Leadership lessons from lasagne

For many of us, leadership is a by-product of youth and children's work. But we want to lead well, so each month we'll unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it.

Have you ever had a conversation that completely changed the way you lead?

As I reflect back over the last five years, I can think of two occasions when I had a conversation so significant that my leadership changed in that very moment. One of them was about lasagne.

Several years ago I was leading a summer festival event. We were drawing toward the end of the week when I crossed paths in the car park with Jordan, a youth leader from a large inner-city church who had been attending the camp with his young people. We got chatting about the event, so I asked for his feedback. Jordan reflected that his young people had encountered Jesus and had a brilliant time. “But there’s just one thing,” Jordan said (and I quote), “black kids don’t eat lasagne.”

He went on to explain how our catering menu had not adequately catered for the tastes of his black-majority group. “There wasn’t enough flavour, we needed more spice,” he explained. And while we did change the menu the following year, it wasn’t the jerk chicken that changed my leadership for ever (although it was delicious!). Although on the surface that conversation seemed to be about food, it revealed a significant leadership blind spot I had been unaware of until that moment.

You see, the real problem wasn’t the menu. The real problem was that I didn’t have anyone on my team who would notice that there was a problem with the menu. The real problem was that my team had too many people who eat lasagne and not enough people who eat jerk chicken. The real problem was that my team had too many people who looked and thought like me. The real problem was that my team lacked diversity and representation, and because of this my team lacked perspective.

When your team is full of people just like you – those who look like you, talk like you, think like you and share the same gender, ethnicity or cultural background as you – it is deficient because it lacks the perspective of the people who are not represented. As a result, you may be approving ideas, delivering sessions or casting visions that do not resonate with, and will not engage, the people who are not represented on your team. Make no mistake, building diverse teams in terms of culture, ethnicity and gender is not about tokenism. It’s about ensuring that you have the perspectives you need to make robust leadership decisions.

Think of it this way. Lionel Messi is (arguably) the best footballer of all time. His control, passing and dribbling are second to none. His goalscoring record is incredible. His stats are mind-boggling. Yet if you had eleven Messis you would not have a good team. Why? Because a strong team is not made up of people who are all good at the same thing. A good football team also needs a goalkeeper. It requires a few good defenders. It needs a playmaker in midfield, pace on the wings and someone who is strong in the air. In other words, to construct a good team you need diversity.

The lasagne conversation changed my leadership from that moment, because the way I constructed my teams changed from that moment. No longer was I simply looking for people who had the highest skill level, the greatest experience or even the most spiritual maturity. Now I was looking for people who were different from me and from the other ‘players’ on the team. I was intentionally on the lookout for people who would see things from a different perspective and cultural background. I was seeking team members who could represent young people who would experience our ministry and different way from the way I experience it. And I cannot tell you how much richer our team, our ministry and my leadership is for it.

Building diverse teams in terms of culture, ethnicity and gender is not about tokenism. It’s about ensuring that you have the perspectives you need to make robust leadership decisions

I have loved the learning that has been afforded me by these leaders. I am refreshed by the way they have opened my eyes to different perspectives. And I am grateful for the way they have helped shape our events and ministries, making them more engaging and accessible for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. While I am certainly no expert, and am still very much on a learning journey with this stuff, one thing I can tell you is this: If you want a strong team you need diversity.

We would do well to remember that the picture of heaven provided in the book of Revelation is of a great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). Our purpose as the people of God is less about getting to heaven and more about bringing heaven here. So let’s build ministries that engage people from every tribe by ensuring that our teams represent the different perspectives they need to thrive. Now then, anyone for a lasagne?

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