Turnaround pastors can learn a lot about leadership from a guy who designs gadgets for a living.


Product Design Drawings

The designer’s relentless focus on form, function and beauty should be part and parcel of every pastor’s philsophy of ministry. These “best practices” are hallmarks of the successful Turnaround pastor.

Case in point: Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, recently outlined his three key tips for designers during a talk at London’s Design Museum. These three practices – although crafted in product design and development language – are spot on for Turnaround pastors intent on bringing new life to plateaued and declining churches.

Jony Ive’s 3 Leadership Lessons

JonathanIveIn his talk Ive offered up three key practices for designers. In order to excel, product designers must:

  1. Learn how to care
  2. Learn how to focus
  3. Be prepared to screw up and throw things away

If we unpack Ive’s thought about each of these three keys, we find remarkable overlap with the best practices and inner motivation of successful Turnaround pastors! In this post I’d like to focus on two of the three.[1]

Ive On Focus

Make each product the best it can be. Focus on form and materials What we don’t include is as important as what we do include…

There is a clear goal and it isn’t to make money. The goal is to desperately try to make the best products we can. We are not naive – if you trust it, people like it, they buy it and we make money. This is a consequence.

Leadership Lesson: Focus on the real objective!

Turnaround pastors share Ive’s intense focus on, well, focus! When it’s time to solve problems and come up with new, more effective solutions they use a set of practices gauged on the Birkman “freedom” component scale. This spots where we fall on the conventional – unconventional problem solving scale. It measures how we exercise personal autonomy in matters of thought, innovation and initiative.

Turnaround pastors are far more likely than Status Quo pastors to engage in practices that correlate directly with Ive’s remarks on focus. Willingness to experiment (and to fail, see Ive’s tip #3), is a common practice seen in Turnaround pastors that is far less likely among Status Quo pastors. Turnaround pastors are far more willing to shift ministry priorities, to inaugurate frequent changes and to start new things – presumably if they contribute to more effective ministry.[2]

A famous story about Steve Jobs reaction to the first iteration of the iPod illustrates how focus drove Ive and Apple to product excellence.

Jobs never allowed the opinions of others to drown out his own “inner voice”. One of my favourite stories about him is about the moment when the Apple design team presented him with the first version of the iPod. He looked at it for a while, turned it over and over, weighed it in his hand and then said: “It’s too big.” The engineers protested that it was a miracle of state-of-the-art miniaturisation – 1,000 songs packed into that tiny space. Jobs walked over to the fish tank in the corner of his office and dropped the prototype into the water. He then pointed to the bubbles that floated from it to the surface and said: “That means there’s still some space in it. It’s too big.” End of conversation.

When they follow their own inclinations, Turnaround pastors will be relentless in their focus on improving the church in every aspect. They’re liberated to do this because they deliberately – if unknowingly – engage in the practice of freedom. To quote Steve Jobs directly:

Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Ive On Failing

[We] shouldn’t be afraid to fail- if we are not failing we are not pushing 80% in the studio is not going to work If something is not good enough, stop doing it.

Leadership Lesson: Failure is inevitable. The key is to learn from the small ones to avoid the monsters! Rather than being afraid of failure we should embrace and say, “Gee, I’ve learned one more way to not do this!”

Pastors (both Turnaround pastors and Status Quo pastors) need to look at themselves carefully here. Our research is indicating that both groups might find this hard to do. Pastors seems to score much lower than the general populace in the “challenge” component. As a result they tend not to:

  • Analyze problems and performance critically
  • Be aware of personal shortcomings
  • Accept difficult challenges and goals

But in our striving for excellence we pastors, and our churches, absolutely must learn how to learn from our failures. To look at them as our friend! Willingness to fail – and to learn – should become a more frequent practice among all pastors.

Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.[3]

Caveat: It may also be that pastors tend to have lower need for challenge because they are confident in their abilities, secure in their identity and enjoy the public approval received from their congregants. I expect that this issue will become clearer as our dataset grows.


What’s the single, most important lesson you’ve learned from a failure in ministry? Click here to leave your comments below.


  1. The remarks that follow are based on our research into the distinctive practices and motives of Turnaround pastors. Although our research continues, I am confident in my following remarks.  â†©
  2. One of the largest distinctions between Turnaround pastors and Status Quo pastors is in their respective change component scores.  â†©
  3. Amy C. Edmondson, Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011.  â†©