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Say “What If?” And Not “If Only”

Say “What If?” And Not “If Only”

Leading to Catch Opportunity

Mitchell Leach

Community Director

Peace Church

Published On:

November 10, 2023

I "suffer" from time capsuled panic attacks. They often hit me while nothing else is going on and my mind can wander. And then it hits. Out of nowhere, I wince or — under my breath — let out a “dang it.” This (without fail) makes my wife fearful that something wrong has happened. But nearly every time, it isn’t something that is happening that I am reacting to it is something that I am reflecting on that has already happened. This is because as my mind wanders, I usually come to a missed opportunity, a situation I mishandled, or a problem that could have been fixed by an idea that I am just now having.


Maybe you don’t suffer from time capsuled panic attacks like me, but we all know that feeling when — as a leader — you know you’ve missed an opportunity to create meaningful change because you weren’t ready to act.


A Lesson From College Football

Nick Saban has a cleaver saying that he instills in his players and coaches at Alabama, where he says something like this, “We need to say what if.’ What if I lead my teammate out of a destructive decision? What if gave my best today? What if I showed up prepared for practice with the first team?’ Rather than saying, ‘If only I’d have known I would have been thrown in with the first team. If only I’d have stopped my teammate from…”


The point is when you prepare yourself and your mindset to think what if I… you’ll avoid having to make the excuse of “if only.” This has tons of applications for leaders. As a leader in the church, I grieve the “if only” moments, because that means we missed an opportunity to see the gospel proclaimed to the lost. And that may seem like a huge leap, but it isn’t (and if you thought it was, as a brother in Christ, this is probably a huge blindspot for you).

When we miss an opportunity to make a great first impression we might miss out on seeing someone come back for the first time. When we fail to follow up with a student, or member of our church who is struggling in their faith, we will miss out on seeing someone grow spiritually.


When we fail to recognize the proper leaders in our church, we are slowly poisoning the church's future.

How often do you think of the Roman Empire?

Some people ask “How often do you think of the Roman Empire,” and I love church history so I tend to think of it more often. When I think about the church after Constantine became a Christian (or pretended to become one, we could debate this, but this article is about leadership, not church history), something went terribly wrong. The church went from men who — as they gathered for the council of Nicea — physically bore the marks of torture for Christ, men who lost loved ones because of their faith. We went from that to men who corrupted the faith in the middle ages.

We need to remember that as a leader you have been called to a high calling, and every action or lack of action has — potentially — eternal consequences.

And it may seem too simple to say that we can avoid the “only if” moments by intentionally asking “what if” more often.


So how do we do this? This seems nice and all, but how? Here are some practical ways you can implement this in your leadership.


Raise the value to ask “what if” on your team.

You won’t be able to ask “what if” for every possibility on your own. You need people on your team to come alongside you to ask these questions about different areas. It’s your job to ask “what if my team asked ‘what if’ more often?” Leaders want the job to get done and they don’t care who has the brilliant idea. Don’t gatekeep people from being proactive, and dreaming about how things could be done better.


Come to every meeting with 2-3 “what if” questions


No one likes when people come with too many questions so limit it to a couple. But everyone loves someone who can ask a question to avoid a problem. You can ask things like:

  1. “What if too many people show up?”

  2. “What if ________ we’re to go wrong?”

  3. “What if we had a local company sponsor the event?”

  4. “What if we partnered with another church?”

  5. “What if we’re not the experts in this, and should hand this to someone else?”


Also, this doesn’t only have to be a literal “what if” question. This question can take the form of “What would it look like too…” or “Would it be possible…”


Work hard not to silence the “what if” askers on your team


The saying is true that what gets celebrated gets repeated, but the inverse is equally true. While there are definite times to shut down a brainstorming session, giving your genuine attention to people when they ask “what if” could allow you to see a whole new world of possibilities that you’ve never considered. Leaders listen to everyone. You can’t only listen to the “what if” questions from the people at a certain level in your organization. If there are people on your team that you feel you shouldn’t listen to, then you should either get rid of them — because they're the wrong fit — or you need to do some self-examination on why you feel that a good idea couldn’t come from someone in a lower level than you.


Ask yourself “what if” I trusted my staff to ask the “what if” questions and “what if” I really listened.

My mom works at Amazon (let me finish before you skip this part), and they have a leadership principle called Bias for Action. They define it this way, “speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.” When talking with my mom about this, she told me that in order to kill a new idea as it rises up the ranks, a boss must write a two-page paper on why they shouldn’t do that. In other words, they intentionally make it more work to say no, than to say yes.


Too many ideas get killed because leaders aren’t willing to take risks or because saying no is easier. This isn’t a prescription, but maybe there’s something to learn here. Maybe we ought to set systems in place that make it harder to say no than to say yes.


In the church world, we are known for being behind. We are slow to adapt to new leadership models, we are slow to accept and integrate new technology. While being cautious about change is a good thing when it comes to theology, it is a very bad thing when it comes to leading towards something new. Why not us? Why can’t the church — in an organizational way — show the world that we care about lost souls more than corporations care about money? Let’s dream big as if we believe in a God who is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being,” A God who has continued to pick the underdog (the outcast, stranger, and the little brother). Let’s build something great, not because it’s for our kingdom but because it’s for his kingdom.

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