Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about leadership. From the launch of iTunes U I’ve been watching lectures from several universities on the issue of organisational change and leadership. There seems to be a very strong wind of change blowing in the management world. The recent credit crunch and recession may have something to do with that rethinking. The paradigm seems to be shifting dramatically, at least in academic circles. Corporations and governments better change, or the economy will hit a brick wall within our life times. This seems to be generally accepted in economic circles. But it applies to all areas in my view…
When we think about what makes a leader, generally we think about a person who has a vision and is able to both communicate it clearly and get people to buy into it and implement it. Sounds familiar? That’s what I used to think about leadership. In many ways I still do at the instinct level; but now I think I am wrong. The emphasis is on vision building and planning. If you have a good plan, if you implement it well and stick to it, you will have success.
There’s a new thinking in management beginning to emerge. It has to do with how we imagine organisations in the first place. The ‘visionary leader’ makes sense only if we imagine organisations as wholes, as unitary entities. But they are only wholes in our imagination. All organisations, commercial or charitable, are made of people, and people are complicated. Rather than think about the whole and how we can get it to move in a certain direction, we need to take its complexity seriously. I wish I had known this when I started ministry.
Complexity is important because THAT is what we experience in organisations, and not the other (unitary) bit. What we experience in reality is the local interaction of people (or agents, as they’re called in the complexity sciences) and the ideas that emerge from these interactions.
For instance, think of the 10 billion (or so) neurons in the brain: There is no single neuron commanding all of them. Rather every single neuron interacts with 15,000 to 30,000 other neurons who do the same. Every single neuron thus interacts with only a fraction of the whole. What emerges out of all the local interactions is a ‘population wide pattern’. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll just leave it at that and look at the local interaction for now, which has been neglected to our peril.
If we apply this to organisations, the leader is the person who can best identify and articulate what is just emerging from that local interaction, and keep the conversation going. He/she may have a vision, but that only serves as a conversation starter, and not as a governing principle or the end of conversation. A good leader will not kill the conversation by negotiating some kind of ‘shared values or vision’. This stifles growth and movement, ultimately leading to death. A good leader will keep the conversation going at all times, aware that nobody can anticipate with any certainty what the outcome of our actions will be. It assumes a complex world, it involves risk taking and ongoing conversation.
Does this make sense as we think of our leadership role in the church? (I’m not only referring to ministers. Leaders emerge in local interactions all the time, even if we don’t call them that. The implications for pastoral care and local ministries blow my mind!)