(Re)Thinking about leadership

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!)

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4 thoughts on “(Re)Thinking about leadership

  1. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    The Church is not the same as a corporation – that’s why we call it ‘the mystical body of Christ’, unless we opt for the (very) low church option of reducing the Christian community to its immanent sociological dimension. But then it stops being the Church.
    Nevertheless, because she is made up of people, sociology, and by extension the sociological dimension of church leadership, are legitimate sources for our learning. But do we really learn from these, or we consider them as merely ‘unspiritual’ sources?

  2. Thanks very much. I agree. The church is not the same as a corporation. What I wrote I think applies to any kind of organisation, if it’s made up of people. People are made in God’s image, so I don’t feel the need to make separations, because then the design of God is found to a certain extent in any organisation. Of course the church is a different kind of organisation. But people in the church – who are made by God – behave in just as complex ways people behave in other areas of life; unless they’re schizophrenic when it comes to churching.

    I actually think that this way of thinking about organisations is much closer to the way God made us as human beings. This is not just sociology – an area that we, theologians, tend to look on with a measure of suspicion. This idea didn’t come from sociology in the first instance. It came from the natural sciences as experience was examined. Sociology applied it in their field. But the natural sciences explore the world that God made. We would do well to pay attention and make sense of what this means for us, not to end the conversation, but rather to keep exploring…

  3. Are new ideas and ways of doing not only leadership but any community work to be embraced as God’s will for Christianity or is it part of the inevitable falling down leading to the end of times?

    My instinct goes with Daniel’s views on the challenges presented to the Church’s by the emerging way of seeing leadership, although I understand Danut’s reticence regarding its limitations.

    I would call this vision as one of a “leadership of all believers”, a mirror to the “priesthood of all believers” doctrine.
    On another hand there is no such position [that of the leader] consecrated in the Early Church scheme of functions. I can only fully accept as universally valid a similar one, which is “minister”, in its most accepted understanding as “servant”.

    One way of finding more sense to it is looking at the Jesus Christ style in leading His disciple in the historical and cultural context. What was status-quo and what has He brought new in this respect?

  4. What you say makes sense, Sam! Thanks for commenting. I have been reflecting on the role of the minister quite a lot, especially since my congregation is made up of almost 700 members. Could the minister (or servant as you called it) serve all 700 directly? As you rightly point out, let’s see how Jesus did it. He spent most of his time with twelve people. That was his closest network – his local interaction. There were of course others on the edges, some women traveled with them, but he focused on twelve, and spent even more time with three of them (Peter, James and John).

    People who criticise ministers for not being there for everyone could say the same about Jesus – and he is the Son of God. Yes, Jesus worked with crowds: he preached to them, healed some of them, fed them en masse, and that’s about it. The bulk of his time he spent with a very small group of people. I think Jesus did that because (1) he knew he was human, and there are limitations that come with that, and (2) this is how humanity is built to function – in local interactions, not as huge blocks of people.

    So can we imagine a minister who preaches to all, is there if people need to talk or pray, but spends most of his/her time with a limited number of ‘natural’ leaders, enabling them to do the same with their own networks? In many ways this is already happening naturally. It would probably be better if we recognised it as such, and work with it. It makes sense both from the Jesus model of discipleship stand point, and the latest discoveries of the natural sciences. All round good news I think!…

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