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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Do You Prefer Working Inside or Outside the System?

Two movies came out this fall. In fact, they were showing in cinemas across our nation simultaneously. Their titles: Conviction” starring Hillary Swank, and “The Next Three Days” starring Russell Crowe. Both are intense movies involving a similar plot: The lead character feels compelled to rescue a convicted murderer from prison, whom they know is innocent. Both are great stories.

The interesting difference is this: One tells the story of a woman who decides to become a lawyer so she can investigate then demonstrate that her brother really was innocent of the crime. The other is the story of a husband who decides to plot how to help his wife break out of prison.

In both stories, the lead characters feel frustration with the “system.” Both believe something must be done to right a wrong. Both of them achieve their goal with solutions that required planning, hard work and risk. Neither had a guarantee of success. You’ll notice a big difference however: One worked within the justice “system” and the other worked outside of the “system.”

These stories provide great pictures for us who lead the next generation. Most of us work within a system: a school, a business, a non-profit organization, or a church. Most of us are working for positive change. It seems to me that leaders must become self-aware of which sort of person they tend to be.

• Are you a person who works best inside a given system, where you can endure the politics of a bad boss, the rules that exist or antiquated policies, and still forge transformation in the organization?

• Or… Are you a person who doesn’t have the patience for that — you have to make up your own rules and you work best outside the system. You feel the need to create your own system.

By the way — entrepreneurs and change agents can be either type.

The next time you feel compelled to bring about change, you’d be wise to discern first: Will it work best to execute a plan inside or outside the system? And… Which type of person are you?



  1. Ali Campbell on December 21, 2010 at 8:35 am

    In my role, it has to be both . . . “within” the structures IF I can bring about change then the potential is massive . . . support work across 380+ churches // sometimes though, it takes a “model” on the fringe or just outside what is considered normal or appropriate practice . . . then from within I can point others to this model . . . hope that makes sense. I am a “both and” rather than an “either or” kind of Leader . . . and, I guess I think that is a good position in general . . . along the lines of Pauls example “I become all things” . . . sometimes we need to see people “come to Christ” who are right at the heart of our institutional church . . .

    • Tim Elmore on December 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

      Ali — Thanks for your comment! Appreciate you sharing. Thanks for leading and for wanting to bring about change as a model.

  2. Charles Flemming on December 23, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I’m having difficulty discerning at this point which kind I am. I know, when I was a young man, I was an outside the system kind of change agent. Of course, this resulted in a couple decades of being FORCED to work outside (it’s a self-perpetuating posture). Lately, however, I’ve noticed an enhanced ability–at least most of the time–to work within and persuade my ministry supervisors (who are usually half my age) of the wisdom of taking a different tack than maybe they had planned. Or to expand their perspective about a situation or person, based on what I’ve learned to see. If I demonstrate clearly that I’m on their side and will not throw them under the bus, these leaders learn to trust what I say. But it’s a long game. I can’t make the organization make 180-degree turns. It’s extremely incremental and foundational. If I can gradually get my leaders (the young people who lead me) to develop a mature perspective, then over time I believe it will make a decisive difference. However, if I appear at any point to be undermining them or working independently, everything will unravel.

    Here’s the kicker: These guys are almost always wiser than I was at their age. And they have substantive things to teach me, so it’s a two-way street. Not all the mentoring is upstream.

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Do You Prefer Working Inside or Outside the System?