Leadership and Sandboxes

Leadership and Sandboxes

“Leadership” is a word I don’t particularly like – a reality not helped by the fact that it has become such a popular word in recent years.  Popular, of course, does not mean that everyone uses it in the same way.  For some, leadership is the authority to tell others what to do.  For some, leadership is the opportunity to determine what has to be done.  For some, leadership is the ability to gather followers.  The word “leadership” has been used to justify everything from micromanaging to absentee oversight.  It is a concept easily used to justify abuse, narcissism, close-mindedness, secrecy, hyper-control, and at times even laziness.

I don’t pretend to be a “leadership expert,” but over the past twenty years, I have had ample opportunities to see ample opportunities of what I would consider “good leadership” and “bad leadership” in practice.  In my experience, the distinction boils down to three basic questions:

  • What does the organization exist for?
  • What does a leader exist for?
  • Whom does a leader exist for?

What does the organization exist for?

This should probably go without saying, there is no value in any organization that exists simply to exist.  Obviously there are many organizations for whom this is the de facto reality, but “existing” is not a good enough reason for existence.  (Ok, go ahead, call it a “mission” if you want.)

Organizations must exist for a purpose.  If that purpose is unclear, the organization cannot thrive.  If the stated purpose does not match up with the real purpose, the organization cannot succeed.  If the purpose has not changed – even a little bit – over time, it is probably a sign that either (a) the original purpose did not meet a real need, or (b) the organization is not fulfilling its purpose.

What does a leader exist for?

A leader exists to help the organization fulfill its purpose.  It is that simple.

Every aspect of a leader’s “leadership” should be focused on helping the organization understand, and therefore live out its reason for existence.

A leader does not exist to fulfill his or her desires (although, one hopes that there is a certain amount of vocational satisfaction in leadership).  A leader does not exist to protect his or her position/office/role (although, certainly part of leadership is ensuring that the position is ready for healthy transition upon departure).  A leader does not exist to better himself or herself (although, of course, it would be absurd to imagine that a good leader is not constantly growing a developing).

Whom does a leader exist for?

Here’s where it gets interesting.  A leader exists to equip, encourage and coordinate the others in the organization in order that they can do their part in fulfilling the organization’s reason for existence.  A leader does not do their job for them.  A leader does not micromanage how they do their job.  A leader does not need to know how to do each of their jobs.  A leader does not need to be involved in every decision or every activity.

A leader makes sure each individual has the resources, training, support, and coordination necessary to effectively do their part within the larger “whole” of the organization in order to most effectively tackle the organization’s reason for existence.

Some Common Mistakes

Pretty much every mistake in leadership can be boiled down to one (or both) of two problems: either (a) the organization’s reason for existence is not clear, or (b) the leader does not understand why or for whom s/he exists.

The first problem is pretty straight forward.  Fixing it is not easy, but it is easy to understand why it is a problem.

The second problem is much more complex.  Many “leaders” do not truly believe that they exist to help the organization fulfill its purpose (although they may give it lip service), and many “leaders” do not truly believe they exist to enable, equip, encourage and coordinate.  Indeed, all too often they believe the organization exists to accomplish their goals and others in the organization exist to do their will.  Thus, many “leaders” become bottlenecks in their organizations  – hoarding resources and power for their own use and, therefore, preventing qualified and capable people from doing the jobs that they are prepared to do and capable of doing (in most cases) much better than the “leader” him- or herself.

This leads to leader burnout (because the individual is fundamentally incapable of doing well all the things that s/he insists on trying to do and because the leader ends up believing that “if it has to be done, it has to be done by him- or herself”), and more importantly it leads to worker frustration.  Workers are either not well-equipped to do their jobs or are prevented from doing the jobs that they are equipped for (because the over-controlling leader does not allow them to).  They (rightly) recognize that the leader is (wrongly) using them to fulfill the “leader’s” personal goals (or feed his or her ego) and see no place for themselves in what the organization is trying to do.


Of all the leadership theories I’ve encountered, the most effective is the one I learned as a seminary intern under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Terry Nyhuis (though, he recently informed me that it was not his theory).  To be fair, that was about two decades ago and it may have morphed a bit in my mind over the years.

Imagine that the organization is playground filled with sandboxes.  Each sandbox represents one of the activities that must be done for the organization to be effective.  Each individual has his or her own sandbox – thus, his or her particular role in the organization’s purpose.

The rules are simple:

  • You can do anything in your sandbox that helps you fulfill your role in the organization
  • No one can do anything in your sandbox without your permission
  • You may not do anything in anyone else’s sandbox without their permission
  • The leader will only get involved in your sandbox if (a) s/he is asked, (b) you are unequipped to do something and need help, or (c) you are about to do (or have done) harm to yourself, someone else, or the organization.
  • The leader will help coordinate communication and cooperation between sandboxes (if necessary), but the previous rules still apply.

Practically speaking, imagine the playground is a church (which, of course, I’m most familiar with, but the concept is applicable to any organization).  And imagine that the church’s “reason for existence” is a Sunday morning service.  (Obviously, churches are more complex, but we can pretend for now.)

The sandboxes may include office work, music, and preaching.  (Again, this is a simple example, but let’s pretend.)

One person is assigned to each of those “sandboxes.”  Obviously they need to coordinate to prepare for each Sunday – the office worker has to prepare the bulletins which reflect music, and sermon information; the music person has to be applicable to the preaching and accurately reflected in the printed bulletins.

The preacher, in this setting, may request a song (“play in the music person’s sandbox”) but not demand it (because it is not the preacher’s “sandbox”).  The office worker may ask the preacher to tackle a particular theme (since, as we all know, church secretaries know more about a church than anyone else!), but not demand it (because that is the preacher’s “sandbox”).  (Note: this cooperation can and should happen without the leader’s help – s/he only steps in if necessary.)

If, for some reason, it isn’t clear where a responsibility fits (for example: does a “responsive reading” fall under office work, music, or preaching?) the “leader” gets involved – not doing the responsive reading, but evaluating where the responsibility lies (at best, in consultation with all the potentially-applicable parties) – perhaps by giving it to an existing “sandbox” (and, if necessary, equipping that person to do it), or perhaps by creating a new “sandbox” (i.e. liturgy) and finding the right person for it.

In this case, the “leader” does not pick the music, does not write the sermon, and does not type the bulletin but is carefully ensuring that each of these things are done well – watching for problems (especially in communication), and ensuring that each person is equipped and given the appropriate authority and resources to do their part.

It’s worth noting, that the leader (in this situation) is not personally responsible for the fact that a particular hymn has not be sung in six months.  If someone wants a particular hymn sung, they talk to the person in charge of that sandbox directly, they do not triangulate the “leader.”  This means the music person has the ability (having been well-equipped) and the authority to do his or her job, s/he also has the responsibility to accept the repercussions of both good and bad decisions in the course of doing that job.

However, the leader can and must step in if the music person is causing harm to the organization (i.e. insisting on Queen’s “We are the Champions” as the opening anthem in a congregation that uses a liturgy from the 1830s simply because s/he “likes it”).   The leader also must step in to protect the individuals within the organization – while everyone is accountable for their own work and decisions, one of the leader’s roles is to balance that personal responsibility with his or her responsibility to protect the individuals.

How to get started

Most organizations do not start out with well-organized leadership and many have suffered through years – if not decades – of narcissistic, controlling, and often abusive leaders.  It behooves us, then, to ask how to get started.

Theoretically, it’s simple:

  • Clarify the organization’s reason(s) for existence
  • Find a leader or ensure the current leader both understands and is held accountable for this style of leadership
  • Identify the necessary “sandboxes” and the personnel associated with them
  • Equip or hire personnel for sandboxes that are not well-staffed
  • Eventually, move or remove personnel that cannot (or will not) meet a necessary need for the organization’s purpose(s).

Practically, the biggest hurdle for most organizations is finding a leader who is both profoundly committed to the organization’s purpose(s) and profoundly committed to equipping, encouraging, and coordinating the various individuals involved without micromanaging, bottlenecking decisions, or “playing in” someone else’s “sandbox.”  In many ways, the leader is like a lifeguard in a pool – ensuring everyone is safe and doing what they came to do, but seldom ever actually getting in the water.

It is worth noting that most leaders in most organizations also have their own “sandboxes.”  In these instances, the leader needs to be very careful (aka “humble”).  The “leadership” role and the “sandbox” role (though they may overlap) need to be distinct.

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