• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: When to Sweat the Small Stuff

by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2015

Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

When to Sweat the Small StuffSome time ago I mentioned a now classic essay by Charles F. Knight in the Harvard Business Review in which the author, almost as a side comment, said that most companies fail for “non-analytical reasons.”1 His point was that most of the time when our organizations fail, it is not because we didn’t understand what to do, we simply didn’t do what we knew we should. Oftentimes (to paraphrase Robert Burns) “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” because we don’t manage the details.

Let me give you a purely hypothetical example.

A large church with a professional staff and a session well-stocked with highly capable folks decides to embark on a capital campaign. They have polled the congregation about the church’s and community’s needs. They have carefully analyzed these needs and have developed a compelling case statement for why the church should embark on this capital campaign. They have interviewed some of the most generous givers in the congregation to find out if they believe the church has a solid case and how that case might best be framed. They spent months using a variety of tools to analyze the giving potential of their congregation. They laid careful plans to ensure that they have not overshot the mark of what they are capable of raising. Their leadership has carefully crafted a beautiful letter co-signed by the head of the campaign (a widely respected elder representing the session) and the church’s senior pastor. The letter will be sent to all members along with a professionally-produced case statement that conveys how crucial this campaign is to sustain and expand the vital missions of the church. The office staff gets to work pulling together the mailing list and sends out the letters.

But within a few days, the pastor’s secretary gets an angry call from a longtime member, Frederick Arthur David, a beloved and well-known retired physician known to everyone as “Bud.” When the pastor talks to Bud on the phone, he finds out that the letter Bud received from “the church in which I was baptized, the church in which I was married, the church in which my mother and father’s memorial services were conducted, the church to which I gave the stained glass windows that now illuminate the chancel in honor of my wife, Anne, whose funeral you performed last spring” had been sent a “form letter” addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Arthur” with the salutation, “Dear David and Anna.”

The conclusion Bud says he was hesitantly forced to draw is that the church he has loved his whole life doesn’t remember his name, doesn’t remember that his wife “ANNE” died last year, or just doesn’t care.

After taking full responsibility for the mistake, apologizing, and listening carefully, the pastor asks if he can come over to Bud’s house and visit with him. Over the course of the next few days, this fence will be mended because Bud loves his church and trusts his pastor of fifteen years.

Unfortunately this turned out to be just the first shoe to drop.

Within a week the staff realizes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in every 10 letters sent out in the mailing have similar problems. Or worse! It is about this time that they realize too that they were really fortunate with Bud, because a long relationship of trust and affection existed between him and his church and his pastor. This was not the case with other members.

As research has shown, newer members of a congregation and members with few deep, close, long-established ties to the life of the church are willing to base their entire evaluation of a church and its pastors on very little information, perhaps only a single brief conversation. Receiving a campaign letter that appears to treat them as just nameless members of the herd may be enough to end their relationship with this church.

It is about this point in my telling of this purely hypothetical story that everyone hearing it who has ever been responsible for a major capital campaign may begin to look a little shaken and to feel a little nauseated.

Despite great analysis, excellent planning, carefully laid groundwork, and beautiful production of campaign materials, the launch of this capital campaign was undercut by a lack of attention to details. What might have been a great opportunity for the congregation turned out otherwise. Instead of making follow-up visits to take the next step of asking members to contribute to the campaign, a great deal of time and energy now has to be devoted to convincing many of the congregation’s members that their church really does know them and really does care about them.

Sometimes the small stuff isn’t small. And it matters a great deal that those who are checking the details are detail people.

This is one of those instances in which good management can contribute to effective leadership. Conversely it reminds us that poor management can undercut our every attempt to lead well.


1Charles F. Knight, “Emerson Electric: Consistent Profits, Consistently,” Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1992, 57.

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary