Increasing Influence by Leading Small
Recently, Greg McKeown of Stanford University, convincingly re-established the case for essentialism. Essentialism argues that the disciplined pursuit of less will accomplish more. Long before McKeown, Jesus lived out this counterintuitive principle by leading small to accomplish greater influence – greater influence, in fact, than any leader in history. He modeled a leadership that had an outsized focus on patiently and deeply investing in small bands, first the 12, with even greater investment in Peter, James, and John.
Jesus lived out this counterintuitive principle by leading small to accomplish greater influence...
The validity of this model has not changed. As David Ford reminds us, “Small groups that seek God’s desires together have been at the heart of most of the major developments in the church through the centuries. Whenever such a group breaks out of routine and has an intensive time together or with others, then transformation tends to happen.”
Yet, most leadership writing, training, and institutional practice clash with the very practice the most influential leader in history modeled for us. Too many of us succumb to this peer pressure. We are lured into chasing numerical growth, social media followers, and increasing revenues at the expense of investing more time with fewer people for superior kingdom influence. Not that large numbers or scale is wrong. Heaven will be good-sized. However, if our leadership focus is on “scaling,” history confirms we ironically run a pronounced risk of gaining short term impact while forfeiting long term influence.
Further, leading small is not only about greater influence. Leading small is about healthier influence. While a light touch to high numbers might look good at the board or elder meeting, shallow interactions leave us vulnerable to all kinds of unhealth. Our relational God designed us to heal, become healthier, and grow up through relationships where we are known and loved. This requires “small.”
We can test if we really trust this principle of increasing influence by leading small, by looking at our calendars. Our schedules reveal our priorities.
For the purposes of this article, let’s assume we are all re-evaluating our trust in the veracity of this principle, to the point that we’re actually willing to consider some changes this year and beyond. One of the many ways that this can be lived out is in small groups of people living authentically alongside one another, just as we see Jesus modeling for us. This might be a small team at your workplace, a small group of people studying the Bible together, or any other form of committed community where the goal is to go deep with a few. If you get to this crossroads, your next question will be – how?
Navigate Leading Small: Five Best Practices
Leading “small” in a group setting requires intentionality and humility. It is unfortunately easy for these groups to flounder or nurture surface-level relationships. Five best practices have proven themselves to distinguish typical groups from groups people will talk about the rest of their lives.
Leading “small” in a group setting requires intentionality and humility.
Exceptional leaders who are focused on investing deeply with a few implement these practices in leadership teams, small groups, and family systems. These practices follow a sailing metaphor to help us simplify and remember them. After we overview these five practices, we will focus the rest of this article on the second practice, The Captain.
The Destination: (Determine the goals of your group.)
If a group doesn’t know where they’re headed, they are “batting at the wind” and wasting much of their time. Long ago, Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” (Does everybody know and agree on where you are headed?)
The Captain: (Lead with intentionality and vulnerability.)
This is the group leader, who we believe represents most of this article’s readers and is the most influential component. (Below we will unpack this principle at length.)
The Crew: (Clarify your group culture.)
This represents the group’s culture. Remarkable culture thinker Edgar Schein wrote, “If you do not manage culture, it manages you.” There’s an unspoken crew culture, or family system, in our board meetings, friend groups, and at our dinner tables. (Do you know your group’s spoken and unspoken rules, and how are you intentionally shaping that culture?)
The Ship: (Design your time for transformation.)
The wise design and structure of the ship deeply influences how the captain and crew spend their time on this adventure. How you do what you do as a group matters profoundly. Adam Judge clarified that “The alternative to good design is always bad design. There is no such thing as no design.” (How can you change the structure of your time together as a leadership team, or a small group, to help you get where you want to go?)
The Route: (Plan ahead to get where you want to go.)
One of the most critical responsibilities in sailing (read ‘groups’) is navigating the route. The captain must learn both focus and flexibility as they plot their course. As Richie Norton attests, “Destiny is not fate, it’s navigation.” (As a team, do you have a plan or a map to help you reach your destination?)
The Captain: a deeper dive
Within these five principles, our role as the captain is the most important and influential component for groups longing to experience transformation. However, it’s much easier to know about the principles of effective leadership than to implement those principles in the teams and groups that we lead.
Leading small is hard, and feels like swimming against the current.
We (at least Bruce and Robby) struggle to lead with intentionality and vulnerability despite our desires to lead well. We resist leading “small” because we fear that if we do, the outcomes will suffer. The pressures of our responsibilities push us to major on productivity and minor on the relational investment required in the practices above. The urgency of our growing list of responsibilities as leaders are continually at odds with our desire to practice deeper investment in those around us.
Two Formulas for Greater Impact
We cast our vote with our calendars, and our votes too often reflect the false belief that we can have greater impact with the following formula:
Productivity > People = Increased Impact
Said another way, I trust myself with being able to produce and achieve greater outcomes through my efforts than the outcomes that will come through investing relationally in my leadership team, family, and small group.
However, we must lead in a countercultural and counterintuitive way, living instead into a formula that says:
People > Productivity = Increased Impact
Leading with this better formula for increased impact requires two things:
Trusting Christ for our identity, no matter the outcomes
This requires a level of humility where I trust God with who he says I am. This is my already-settled core identity. This lifelong, simple yet profound journey looks to God for one’s worth, satisfaction, and purpose instead of the outcomes. Captains who increasingly trust Christ for their identity are captains who are experiencing the “rest” Jesus offers. They can afford to lead small for long term influence, because the pressure that lures captains into believing that worth is dependent on others’ approval and the outcomes is ebbing away. This also frees captains to model vulnerability in their relationships, trusting God with their never-changing identity, no matter the outcomes. This means crew members who are also living in their core identity can actually help captains live into and lead out of their identity in Christ.
Learning and applying best practices for leading small
Leading small for greater influence, will move us to ask, “How do I learn to effectively lead small?” There are lessons to learn from Jesus, group therapy, organizational team leadership principles, and small group methodologies used in ministries and churches. These best practices help us be our best as captains leading small for outsized impact.
In his classic, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Baker Books, 2006), Robert Coleman reminds us of the Jesus lesson this article started with, which leading small will free you to practice: "It is good to tell people what we mean, but it is infinitely better to show them. People are looking for a demonstration, not an explanation. Having called his men, Jesus made a practice of being with them. This was the essence of his training program – just letting his disciples follow him."
Here’s your bonus: If you consistently lead small, you will experience amplified joy, beauty, and love with the Triune God and others, because you were made for this! Your soul will come alive with many relational epiphanies. Let's prioritize more time with fewer people for greater kingdom wonder and influence. In all areas of our lives.
Robby Angle is President of Trueface, based in Atlanta, GA since 2019. Dr. Bruce McNicol is President Emeritus of Trueface, serving from Phoenix, AZ since 1995. Robby is author of The Cure For Groups (Trueface, 2021) and Bruce is co-author of The Cure (Trueface, 2014).