STO LEADERSHIP & My Answers to Questions About STO Leaders: Strategic, Tactical & Operational

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 9/25/15.

I have written extensively on the importance of team building with complimentary leaders, including creating a questionnaire to help you find your leadership mix.  Called STO Leadership (Strategic, Tactical and Operational Leaders) a student asked important deeper questions about it. Below are my answers which help expand (with his good questions) the importance of understanding Strategic-Tactical-Operational leadership.

Here are the questions from the student, with my answers embedded in them.

Student:  Do tactical leaders have to have equal or exceeding competency as the operational leaders they are leading in the given subject?  (I would lean toward, ‘no’)

Whitesel:  Tactical leaders are good at analysis, usually more than content. Thus, they enjoy balancing either bank statements or cultural/evangelical mandates.  Therefore, analysis trumps content, so no they do not have to have exceeding (or even equal competency) in a given subject with the leaders they are leading.

Student: I have a suspicion that strategic leaders are also not the best at developing new leaders.  So, when I read Nelson’s article I find a difficult time figuring out what to do about it.  Just last night someone on my board said, “we need to disciple these people, how are we going to do it?”  I just drew a blank.  She was right, but I didn’t know what to say.  Not because I didn’t want to do it – I just can’t figure the process.

Whitesel: Right, the process often is beyond the strategic leader’s skills. That is why strategic leaders need tactical leaders as their closest partners.

Student: Some of these principles in Nelson’s article just won’t fly in an established small church.  I have attempted to employ some of these things (like holding volunteers accountable) and it blew up in a huge way.  The people may not have thought me ‘wrong’ but they did think me ‘mean.’  In a family church structure – peace is more important than production.

Whitesel: Strategic leaders are not good at holding people accountable (neither are tactical leaders).  For example, a strategic leader on a board may say, “Joe and Mary aren’t around much anymore and they seem dissatisfied.  I think we should ask them to resign from the administrative board if they are not going to support our mission.” The tactical leader on the board replies, “They haven’t given money in a month, and I’ve noticed they’ve been absence four out of the past five Sundays.”  As a result the board votes to ask for Joe and Mary’s resignation.  What is happening is that an operational leader is missing, to be the go-between between the S and T leaders and the workers.

Student: This read helps me put people like Nouwen into perspective.  I have a hunch, and I may be completely wrong, that he is a strategic leader.  When I read his writings it seems he has a difficult time prescribing process and practicality.  Wonderful matters and paints a beautiful picture of the Christian in his book “In the Name of Jesus” – but what really does he want people to do?

Whitesel: Exactly, at a conference I was listening to a very strategic thinker-author one day and another one the next.  Their speeches are largely one “catch phrase” after another.  I don’t think many pastors were getting ideas that would help back home.

Student: To verify what Whitesel shared about a strong focus on strategic leadership to the neglect of tactical I checked out the DVD’s to the 2007 leadership summit put on by Hybels and gang.  The messages from 2007 include the following:  “Vision to Die For,” “Strategy and Leadership,” “Living for the Greater Good,” “Building Humanity,” and “Whatever You Do, Inspire Me.”  These are all strategy/vision appealing messages.  I think those that are more tactical oriented are just not popular by attendees, and they are presented by speakers who are brought back perennially.  I know I have left feeling more inspired than equipped.

Whitesel:  Well said, “more inspired than equipped.”

STO Leadership & A Comparison Between the 3-types of Leaders (created by my leadership students).

A comparison chart addresses higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and provides a visual representation.  The contrast/comparison chart below was created by my former LEAD 600 students.



They see a need and future and are dreamers with vision and creativity. (Doug B.)

Have a purpose or goal that they are working towards with passion. (Tyler K.)

Always see the big picture, you can see the positive that could be accomplished. (JC)

Seem to have a vision and direction for the future. (Ryan V.)


They have a vision, but limited idea of how to get there. (Doug B.)

May not simultaneously share appreciation of current state, demoralizing operational leaders.  Makes all feel like what they’re currently pouring themselves into isn’t good.  (Tyler K.)

Are not sure of the steps to take to get them to where want to go. (JC)

They don’t always know how to accomplish the vision and direction for the future. (Ryan V.)



They can budget, plan, chart, graph and figure out the steps to accomplish the vision. (Doug B.)

Always coming up with ideas, which she also carried out (Christie W.)

Are able to work out the steps to implement the plan.(JC)

They are great at planning and organizing.  They like to take ownership. (Ryan V.)


They are good planners, but not always the best at rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done. (Doug B.)

The only negative aspect of the person’s excitement was that sometimes everything had to go her way because she thought it was the best plan. (Christie W.)

They have a hard time working with the people to put those steps in place. (JC)

They are not good with new things. They like to be left alone in order to accomplish the task ahead. (Ryan V.)



When given a task and a plan, they will “get it done!” (Doug B.)

Acts as a servant out of love for Christ and others because they believe what they are doing matters in the big picture. (Tyler K.)

They are excellent at building relationships. (JC)

They are caring and willing to jump right in to help. (Ryan V.)


They tend to focus on the immediate task at hand and sometimes fail to see the bigger picture or future. (Doug B.)

Stares at a tree and misses the rest of the forest.  The rest of the forest may be “burning” or unhealthy and it would take them a long time to notice that there is an overarching dynamic that is going to affect them if they don’t let go of their tree. (Tyler K.)

They don’t like to correct people than they are wrong, so always let things slide.(JC)

They can easily fade away if placed in a position that appears tactical. Tend to be short-sighted. (Ryan V.)

Read more on STO leadership here …

STO LEADERSHIP & How differentiating between Strategic-Tactical-Operation styles helped #EdStetzer break the 200 barrier in church growth.

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: Operational leaders lead by employing a tightknit group of people to assist them. However tactical and strategic leaders systematically delegate to others while empowering emerging leaders. Such a transition in leadership style appears to have contributed to Ed Stetzer‘s case study about how and why the church he pastored broke the 200 barrier.

“Break Church-Growth Barriers: Build a Bigger Leadership Table” by Ed Stetzer,, 3/28/17

…The Systems Connection

The typical church in the United States has fewer than 100 people in weekly attendance. One of the reasons is that in order to go beyond that number, we must move from relational connection to systems connection. When we are under 100, discipleship influence is exerted through direct relationships. When we pass the 100 mark, if we don’t transition to a discipleship system that can be successful without a direct relationship to the senior leader, it’ll ultimately fail.

The unfortunate reality is that most pastors don’t know how to construct congregational systems and effective structures because they lead only relationally. Sure, this is a wonderful way to lead, but it’s simply not sustainable as the church grows. As we make the transition from leading relationally to leading systemically, there is a loss of control and a loss of intimacy, which can be tremendously challenging for pastors. However, it is one of the most valuable lessons leaders of growing churches can learn.

When one of the churches I pastored made this change, we did some ongoing messaging to persuade people to participate in the process with us as leaders. But remember: not everyone who has been a part of the church will continue to stay as the church grows numerically. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

After our congregation made this all-important transition, it almost doubled in size in a year. Of the people who stayed, every one of them had gone through our process of assimilation into congregational life and every one of them was now serving in some capacity. The pastor was no longer seen as the sole provider, but as occupying an important function within the church where the body of Christ ministered.

This transition became key in the life of our church. If we hadn’t made that change, we would have shrunk back to 75 in attendance because that would have been all that the relationally oriented leadership could absorb.

Read more at …

STO LEADERSHIP & Your leadership style under pressure: leaders have a fallback style when under pressure – how to change it.

Your leadership style under pressure

by Bob Whitesel
I’ve become convinced that leaders have a fallback behavior on which they rely when they are uncertain, conflicted and/or under pressure.

Read more at …

STO LEADERSHIP & Are you a general or a colonel? What characterizes your leadership style? #video

What characterizes your leadership style? Dr. Bob Whitesel, professor of Christian Ministry and Missional Leadership at Wesley Seminary, discusses two leadership styles that are also found in the military. How will different leadership styles implement the goals and vision of your church and ministry? (Excerpted from the Society For Church Consulting’s Church Staffing Summit 2015.)

STO LEADERSHIP & Learning from your leadership style: Are you a shepherd, a visionary or a combination of both? #video #SocietyForChurchConsultingSummit

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 1/15/17.

Are you a shepherd, a visionary or a combination of both? Dr. Bob Whitesel, professor of Christian Ministry and Missional Leadership at Wesley Seminary, talks about his leadership style and the pros and cons he found along the way. (Excerpted from The Society For Church Consulting’s Church Staffing Summit 2015.)

Video: Learning from your leadership style

Are you a shepherd, a visionary or a combination of both?

Watch more at …

Speaking hashtags: #TransformationalLeadershipConference

MARRIAGE & What my wife taught me about leadership #BiblicalLeadershipMagazine #video

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 2/6/17.

Everyone is a mixture of various leadership styles. Hear Bob Whitesel share what his marriage unveiled about how different leaders approach decisions and even God. How could different leadership styles complement your church’s team? (Excerpted from the Society For Church Consulting’s Church Staffing Summit 2015.)

Video: What my wife taught me about leadership

Hear Bob Whitesel share what his marriage unveiled about how different leaders approach decisions and even God.