Interview with Larry Osborne: How to Lead Well

Last month I attended StickyTeams conference in San Diego. I had the privilege of interviewing Larry Osborne, senior pastor at North Coast Church in Vista, CA. During that time, North Coast has grown from a fledging group of 128 meeting in a rented high school cafeteria to a multi-site church ministering to over 11,000 in weekend attendance. He has a passion for helping Christian leaders in both the secular and church world succeed and bring glory to God.Larry has a passion for leadership, spiritual formation and discipleship.  As a nationally recognized trainer of leaders and pastors, and church planters, he travels extensively, speaking at conferences and mentoring events.

This is my first time attending Sticky Teams conference. What is the inspiration behind creating and organizing a conference like this? How did it all get started?

Larry: We’ve had so many people come to our church for training. We’ve felt that our niche was to teach our best practices rather than everything we do. We focus on sermon-based small groups, multi-site, and leadership structure. When people bring a team, they impact an entire organization. When just a leader, it’s just an idea. Our idea is that we almost punish you if you come alone rather than bringing a team. The whole thing is designed to be intimate. We cap it at 800 people and had no green room so people can be exposed to different personalities and leadership.

The theme of this year is “Leading Well.” What does it take a leader to lead well and why is it so difficult to lead well?

Larry: Well, sometimes I think we’re not ourselves – we try to become someone else. So we’re trying to making our church into something that is successful or big rather than what God called us to. In my mind, I often tell people that each church is just a Sunday school class in God’s great church in the community. If you have that mindset, you’re probably lead pretty well within your giftedness and your personality. But when you decide your particular church is the answer to all the spiritual problems in your community, you’re not going to lead well because you’re going to be like star athlete in your football team that doesn’t stick to his lane. Leading well to me starts from knowing who you are and what your assignment is and like Joby said, we’re called to disciple and love our family and Jesus will build his church.

How do you define leadership?

Larry: I have a very different definition whenever I’m asked. I don’t have a canned one. Spiritual leadership is helping bring people to the point that they are being all that Jesus wants them to be. Leadership is knowing where we are and where we need to go in a realistic not in an idealistic way to get there. I’ve never found a good leader who isn’t accurate in his understanding of reality of the situation.

What are some of the biggest leadership insights from pastoring North Coast church?

Larry: I give a talk sometimes called “How to grow your church and still have a life?” The first is to lead, develop, or plant the church or one of the two. For to me, that’s a major part of leadership. If God’s going to bless you to lead beyond a house church that has an organization component, it’s got to be in the framework of who God made you to be. One of my biggest lessons is in the first three years when things weren’t going so well, and I learned that I was supposed to be just creating this Sunday school class in His kingdom that I wanted to go to and shockingly thousands and thousands of people wanted to go to. But it’s not driven to be big. It’s driven to be authentic, real and who God made us.

Another one I often come up with is we’re called to shepherd the sheep we have not the sheep we want to have some day. It’s really easy to presume upon the broken people that come to Jesus and the moment they come to Jesus, they think they are well and give them a squirt gun and say charge hell with me. They are broken. I think in my early years, I used the people I had and instead of serve the people I had. And lastly, do your best and take a nap. We take too much credit for victory and too much blame for our losses. They are out of our control. My job is to know where the water is and lead the horses there.

I know there is an “army of volunteers” in North Cost. How do you empower them to take on a leadership role?

Larry: I think one of the biggest mistake of building a team of volunteers, you forget that the people you serve are more important than the people they serve. I use a pony express as my word picture often. If I only owe pony express, the ponies are more important than the mail. I find most leaders especially in Christian environments, we think the mails are more important than the ponies. We drive our people. But if I only own pony express, I can miss on the mail once in a while, but if I kill the ponies, I’m dead. So our volunteers it’s about maximizing them – not using them. For instance, if you have a turnover, you have a lot of burnout. What that tells me is you’re mistreating the ponies. For a while, it’ll work, but one day you’ll look at the stable and no one is there. At North Coast, we take care of our staff and volunteers. The classic example I use is: “If you have a children’s program, what’s the best? To have the same every week or two weeks on two weeks off?” And it’s obvious it’s the same teacher. But, what’s best for the volunteer? Two weeks on two weeks off. So guess what we do. Two on, two off. That runs through our system. The ponies are more important than the well. If you take care of them well, they can run a long, long time.

What do you think ministry leaders can learn from business leaders and vice versa?

Larry: I think sometimes we are too afraid the plumber that doesn’t has a fish on his truck. I just want to know the guy can fix a broken plumber. It’s the same with leadership. A church is not a business, but the moment something organizes – it either organizes something healthily towards a mission or unhealthily. What the church can learn from the business world is common grace. The wisdom that people have just like Moses learned from his father-in-law who was a pagan until the night before and he learned how to organize the children of Israel. I think businesses either serve their customer and the mission or they are all about the bottom line and they abuse their customers and switch their mission. So, I can learn from ones that are healthy.

How have you built a system for succession planning?

Larry: I don’t believe in succession planning more than 18 months. If you get someone to wait in the wings for more than 18 months, they are not a real leader. I hear these succession plans of five to seven years. What they really mean is that the leader can’t imagine doing this five years down the road. Really high powered leaders they won’t wait long term. If the plane goes down, I want to know who in our team is capable of taking over. If you don’t have answer, you don’t have a good leadership pipeline. But the person who is the right person today might not be the right person ten or twelve years from now. I don’t think of succession as much as leadership pipeline and health. At North Cost church, people misunderstand because Chris and I are co-pastors. Neither of us believe in co-pastoring as a philosophy. I’ve never seen it work as an idealistic philosophy – it always blows up. It happened because of my unique personality and his unique personality, our giftedness and this time, this place.