A Little Lesson In Leadership: “Working In” Versus “Working On”

October 12, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

write-593333_1280It’s easy to get trapped in the trenches. This is certainly true for me. With a myriad of emails to answer and phone calls to make and projects to complete, I find that if I’m not behind on at least a few things, then something is wrong! Perhaps you feel the same way.

Having too much to do and not enough time to do is nothing new. Back in 1967, Peter Drucker reminded us that people in positions of leadership always have more to do than time will allow. An effective executive, then, to borrow the title of his famous 1967 book, doesn’t just focus on getting everything done, but on “getting the right things done.”[1] He or she asks “What needs to be done?” rather than “What do I want to do?” Again, to borrow an illustration from Drucker, when Harry Truman came to the presidency, he was convinced that:

The country could and should focus again on domestic problems. He was passionately committed to reviving the New Deal. What made him an effective president was his accepting within a few weeks that international affairs, especially the containment of Stalin’s world-wide aggression, had to be given priority whether he liked it or not (and he didn’t). [2]

“What do I need to do?” is a question I am always asking myself.

I have found that what I need to do can be broadly divided into two categories. The first is what I need to “work in.” And there are many areas I “work in.” I work in the area of adult education at my church. I work in the area of pastoral care and counseling. I work in the area of blogging weekly! And make no mistake about it: I love what I work in! I love sharing God’s Word with God’s people. I love caring for people and am honored that people let me into their lives. I love blogging. I love the areas I work in.

But there is more to my job than just what I “work in.” There is also what I need to “work on.” At my congregation, we are currently working on teaching people how to have what we call “spiritual conversations” so they can share their faith with unbelievers and grow in their faith with believers. Personally, I am working on how I schedule my days so I can be more efficient in what I do.

“Working in” is necessary to get things done. “Working on,” however, is necessary so you can get things done well and, over time and with reflection, get things done better.

As a leader, what are you working in? What are you working on? Though these questions are not particularly theological in nature, they are important to ask. Sometimes, the things you need to work in become so overwhelming that you forget about what you need to work on. The problem is, the areas you need to work in will continue to pile up and you will be unable to manage everything – at least with any semblance of sanity – if you do not take the time to work on the systems and strategies that can help you get things done. So strike a balance. Don’t just work in, work on. Don’t just get things done. Figure out how to get things done well and empower others to get things done as well. Your calendar, your to-do list, and, most importantly, your weary heart will thank you.


[1] Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).

[2] Peter Drucker, “Drucker on Management: Six Rules for Presidents,” The Wall Street Journal (11.18.2009).

Entry filed under: Church Leadership. Tags: , , , , .

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