Leadership Transitions and Overcoming “Founder’s Syndrome”: A Case Study in Humility and Gratitude

Kevin Halloran

Content Specialist, United States
January 27, 2021

Some leadership transitions are fraught with tension and conflict. Others can even sink a church or an organization.  Thankfully this wasn’t the case for Leadership Resources International (now known as WordPartners) when Craig Parro took over for Founder Bill Mills as the President of the organization in 2010.

Craig and Bill recently sat down to discuss the challenges of avoiding “Founder’s Syndrome,” and shared how God helped them transition with grace.

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Bill Mills (1944–2020), our Founder

Bill Mills: God gave Karen and me the grace – the joy – of being the founders of this ministry in 1970. I was president of the organization for the first 40 years. It’s amazing to think back that length of history.

Craig joined our staff in about 1989, and by the time we transitioned from me being president to Craig being president, we had worked together for 21 years. Craig was our International Director and laid the foundation in those years for everything we’re doing overseas today.

Craig Parro: So, Bill, as we worked together over those years we learned to work together well. We’re wired very differently. Bill is your classic entrepreneurial visionary leader that began the ministry on faith and very little else. And the ministry grew under his leadership. Bill was able to attract people to join him. He’s a man of great faith, and so the ministry grew under Bill’s leadership.

Craig Parro, President of WordPartners

I think during the 1980s Bill began to recognize two things: One is the need for leadership of the ministry with a different gift mix, perhaps. Someone, perhaps, with a little more strategic gifting and organizational-building type of wiring. I had at least some of that, and so Bill began very intentionally to begin to build into me. He really did that the whole time we were together. Bill has always been very intentional about developing me as a leader, as a teacher, and encouraging my gifting.

BM: You know, Craig, what you’re talking about is the reality that drove this change – the shift in leadership. It was purely a strategic move in my eyes. I wasn’t tired of the job. I wasn’t burned out in ministry. I felt, first of all, that I had my chance. Forty years is long enough to be in leadership. But it was a strategic move. I knew that your gifts of leadership and organization were much stronger than mine. And Todd Kelly had joined our staff and he was our Training Director, but of course when you joined our staff in 1989, most of what we were doing was in the States, and our work overseas was just beginning to grow. Now ninety or ninety-nine percent of what we’re doing is around the world and not in the States. And so this was a strategic shift, knowing that we could strengthen the ministry in one move on three levels: You had the gifts needed to lead the work as president that I lacked, Todd could strengthen the work by taking your place as International Director, and there was a need for someone to take over our work in Russia and Central Asia. I was glad to do that, and to me it was purely a strategic move. I loved you and trusted you, so the rest was easy.

CP: But the rest wasn’t always easy. Often for Christian organizations, or any organization or church, when the founding leader turns over the leadership to someone else but then sticks around, that often makes the organization very vulnerable. That’s the “Founder’s Syndrome,” if you will. It’s his baby; he’s poured his life into it. And that can play out in lots of different ways – and often in destructive ways. In fact, Bill watched a partner organization of ours go through a poor leadership transition, and I think one of the things Bill thought to himself was, “Oh, Lord, don’t let that happen here at Leadership Resources.” And it didn’t.

I attribute it to two things that Bill did:

First of all, he stepped off of our Board of Directors when I became president. That meant that Bill had no organizational oversight over me as a leader. What happened is that it gave me space – it gave me freedom to shape the ministry and reshape the ministry as seemed best to me. I appreciated that so much.

The second thing Bill did was to announce to the entire staff that his job description was to do whatever Craig wanted him to do. That demonstrated a humility which was no surprise because of who Bill is and the way God has been building into His life over the years. But I attribute those two decisions, if you will, to making the transition amazingly smooth for us.

BM: But, Craig, to be honest, the truth is, you and I are about as different from each other as two people can be. In character, praise God, we’re very much the same; but personality, gift mix, and the way we think about ministry and the future are very different at times. And you and I have had some very rough waters that we navigated through. And the truth is that, being founder and president for so long, my heart has been deeply invested in this ministry. Not only in the past but in the future. And we have had some real struggles and confrontations, and we’ve had to work through them. And by God’s grace, we’ve been able to do it. We were not thinking we want to do this as a model for others or an example to be followed. We just wanted to be the best stewards of this work that we could be, and so we were committed to getting through this stuff. But it hasn’t always been easy.

CP: One of the things I’ve learned from Bill over the years is when Bill struggles with a relationship at the ministry, he tries to do this – to thank God for that person, to be grateful for the person with whom he’s struggling at the moment. And that is a powerful approach to difficulties in relationships, because it reminds us. . . . When there’s a difficulty in a relationship, we’re always focused on the problem, the negative, the irritant that keeps frustrating us. But when we go to transition to gratitude, we’re focusing on the strengths, the blessing, the gift that the other person is.

When Bill struggles with a relationship at the ministry, he tries to do this – to thank God for that person, to be grateful for the person with whom he’s struggling at the moment.

I think Bill and I have learned to do that with one another over the years, because we have frustrated each other. The transition was eight years ago. I would say during those eight years, we had five or six clashes where there was some real energy and angst and yet none of those were showstoppers, because we valued one another so deeply. We realized we’re wired differently, and my job isn’t to fix Bill or change Bill. Bill’s job isn’t to fix me or change me. So, God just gave us grace to navigate those difficulties loving one another, being patient with one another, thanking God for the unique way that God has wired each one of us.

BM: Yes. One thing you were talking about there can be defined as trust. We talk about valuing each other. We have honestly trusted each other along the way. And underneath that, we genuinely love each other. That is a glue that has not only bonded us, but kept us, together for the sake of the work. It’s not a make believe; it’s a deep and genuine love. But there’s another thing Craig, and you talked about humility a moment ago. . . . I think part of the grace that God gave to us along the way is: this isn’t about us, and we were more committed to this work. We’re talking about not Leadership Resources as an organization, but the work of the gospel throughout the world. This work is more important than we are, and we genuinely were not most concerned about our reputation or our agenda but committed to doing what is best for the sake of the gospel and the growth of Leadership Resources. I think next to the love and the trust, that third thing – the commitment to the work of the gospel beyond ourselves – has been a great power and protection along the way.

CP: Jim Collins talks about a “Level Five” leader. That’s one aspect of a level-five leader: they put the mission first before personal agenda. We both have aspired to do that. We haven’t always been successful with it, but we’ve aspired to be that kind of leader. Dr. Henry Tan, one of our board members, asked the question, “Who’s the boss?” And his answer is, “The mission.” And I think both you and I ascribe to that, Bill. It’s not about us; it’s about the mission. It’s about God’s glory.

It’s not about us; it’s about the mission. It’s about God’s glory.

Kevin Halloran: To close, Bill, say you know the founder of a ministry and exhort him – maybe he’s thinking about or there’s a leadership transition going on. And then, Craig, can you give an exhortation, a word of encouragement to a guy taking the reins of an organization?

BM: What we’re talking about here is really the fruit of much deeper theological understandings and commitments than just how to navigate well through ministry transition. First of all, if we understand that ministry is about God and not about us, if it’s about what He’s doing rather what we’re doing, that creates in us a humility that frees us to walk with God through the process. If we’re most concerned about preserving what we’ve done or our own reputation, we’re in an extremely vulnerable place. So at the root of this is deep and genuine humility. And neither Craig nor I want to put ourselves forward as an example of humility – we are deeply flawed persons – but that’s been part of God’s grace to us.

If we’re most concerned about preserving what we’ve done or our own reputation, we’re in an extremely vulnerable place.

I just want to say that part of what has given me freedom along the way is . . . Craig talked earlier about gratitude, and part of my wonderful freedom and joy is looking at Craig’s stewardship of this ministry that I love so much. You have done very well with it, brother, and carried it to places beyond where I could have ever been, and I love you for it.

CP: My exhortation to someone who is facing a leadership transition and handing over the reigns to someone else is: Get out of the way! You are more invested than you realize; you have more influence than you realize; you can cause more trouble for the person following you than you realize.

There’s a blind spot in the “Founder’s Syndrome” that is a huge vulnerability for you and for the person following you and your organization or church. This comes back to self-awareness. But get out of the way. Bill got out of the way, and I’m so grateful to the Lord and to Bill for that.

BM: Let me conclude with an exhortation for those who are reading: If you are facing a leadership transition in your church or mission organization, don’t assume.

Don’t just embrace the wisdom of the world immediately that says, “The former leader needs to leave the scene in order for the transition to be effective.” Don’t buy into the wisdom, the thinking of this system. That is not biblical, and it’s not even true. There are riches that have been developed over the years that God can use if we are willing to walk humbly through the process and build up each other and the work along the way by God’s grace. So, don’t just assume that, well, this is the pattern; that’s what we need to follow.

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