Friday, March 20, 2009

On Leadership

I come from a commie-pinko-hippie place that fetishizes individual choice and expression. I value personal liberty, even libertine attitudes toward sex, relationships and basically anything which isn't harmful to other human beings. When it comes to decision making I can wax poetic about the virtue of consensus building, spiritual discernment, and attenuated authority. I have been tempted to utter the phrase "can't we all get along," and not just in jest.

I don't know precisely how I landed in this place philosophically. Perhaps it has to do with growing up in California. Perhaps it is my parent's fault. Perhaps it was the liberal-beyond-belief undergraduate program I attended. Perhaps it is something native to me. Probably it is all of the above.

However, no matter what I believe philosophically about communal living, and shared responsibility, and egalitarian power structures, in practice, as a pastor, I make decisions for other people and I bear more responsibility than other people do. I am not just one person in a community of equals. I am a leader, and I find leadership to be indispensable to the health of the church.

Here is what usually happens when a group of people come together to make a decision: most of the group sits in silence while a few people with strong opinions debate back and forth until one side wins out, or someone with authority weighs in and terminates the discussion. Whatever decision making method is employed (voting, consensus, fiat), it is usually a formality. The actual decision was made based on the balance of investment in the group. Whoever was most invested in the outcome usually gets their way.

Sometimes this investment arises naturally. Sometimes people really care about the issue and they are therefore willing to invest in the decision making process to get the outcome they desire. Many times, however, no one cares and no one is willing to invest. A leader is basically someone who is willing to invest for the sake of the community moving forward on an issue where it would otherwise stagnate.

For consensus to really work everyone involved has to be willing to invest. I still hold that this is ideal. I still believe that the best decisions, the ones that accomplish the most in the life of the community, are ones in which the entire community has invested. However, the reality is that this is a rare occurrence. Most of the time a majority of people do not want to invest, and so it falls to a minority to act on behalf of the group. Frequently this minority is the same person or handful of people over and over. This pattern is what ends up distinguishing leaders and followers. Leaders are those who are repeatedly willing to invest in decision making processes. Followers are those who repeatedly defer to others.

No one is a leader all of the time and few people are followers all of the time. Even if we have a strong proclivity toward leadership we usually have venues in which we behave as followers and vice versa. I also don't want to suggest that leaders are superior. A person may be willing to invest in decision making processes for entirely ignoble reasons. The will to power, arrogance, and selfishness can all play a part in why a person might take on a mantle of leadership. Followers, likewise, are not necessarily obsequious. One might choose to follow out of deference to another person of greater knowledge or skill. One might choose to follow out of self-preservation in a climate of mistrust. One might choose to follow simply out of exhaustion. Extroversion and introversion probably have their say in which role we choose as well.

So the question that arises for me is: if my model of ideal community is mutual and consensual, but I recognize a practical necessity for leadership, how can I lead in a way that approaches my ideal?


Jodie said...


Notes and comments:

When you see this, it is a sure sign of lack of leadership:

"Here is what usually happens when a group of people come together to make a decision: most of the group sits in silence while a few people with strong opinions debate back and forth until one side wins out, or someone with authority weighs in and terminates the discussion. Whatever decision making method is employed (voting, consensus, fiat), it is usually a formality. The actual decision was made based on the balance of investment in the group. Whoever was most invested in the outcome usually gets their way."

Leadership inspires and draws participation from everyone. When the voice of the silent is heard, that is when you have leadership. When the disenfranchised are inspired to invest, that is when you have leadership.

Leadership is not about making decisions for all. Nor is it about taking command. Anybody can make command decisions. Some, not many, can even make good command decisions.

But leadership is about service. And making sure that the needs of all are served.

It is true that we tend to look for leadership from those that have command authority, but that is not necessary. Nor is it very common. It would be a mistake to assume that because one has authority that therefore one is a leader. Any more than assuming that the loudest person in the room has any leadership skills either.

Usually the loudest are just the neediest. They can be very disruptive. Serving them takes great skill and patience. In many ways they are like people drowning, and what passes for investment is merely the thrashing about that precedes death.

The best use of authority is often just to shut them up.

On a practical note, when I am being asked to make a decision for a group of people, I do not exercise that authority until I have heard from the quietest person in the room. I find that often the silent are the keepers of the wisdom. You have to tease it out of them sometimes, but never make a decision without considering their input.

The definition of a good decision varies from situation to situation. Sometimes it is just about making the team feel like a team. Sometimes it's about giving the team the success that it is striving for. Good decisions do not always require a consensus, nor even a majority opinion. But it is always a full body experience.

And listening is the most essential ingredient.

So, to answer your question, the practical necessity is command authority. But if you want to lead, you must learn to serve. And to serve, you must learn to listen. To every word, to every involuntary twitch of body language, to every spoken and unspoken need.

And out of that kind of leadership, comes community.

Jodie said...


Nick.Larson said...

Nice comment Jodie. I was going to post something along these lines as well. I think one of your first statements about drawing participation out of people spot on. I would argue that a good leader uses the authority that s/he is given to help those without authority to have it. This doesn't mean always deferring to someone else or another point of view either. Leadership, I believe, is about casting a vision or articulating a vision (I would argue this more so in the Christian framework) and then working to get as many people to understand and buy into it as possible. Hmmm...sounds an awful lot like pastors to me.

Aric Clark said...

Jodie & Nick,

I think you guys let too positive a valuation of "leadership" creep into your definition. I agree entirely with you that what you have described is good leadership. I just think that leadership itself ought to be defined more neutrally and include basic decisions on behalf of a community from a position of authority etc... etc...

I suppose there is nothing very important at stake in this quibbling over definitions, I just think that you guys have made leadership into something which is inherently good, which would mean we would need another word to describe all those times that idiots or jerks lead people off of cliffs.

Also, I did not describe the situation Jodie quoted as an ideal, far from it. But it is the reality as I encounter it, and it is what has to be dealt with for good or for ill in many churches. Sure leadership ought to be pushing toward that "full body experience" Jodie describes, but one does not get there overnight and in the meantime decisions have to be made. Constantly. You both made some good, helpful points, about listening and ways to try and draw out participation, but there is much that won't wait for the participation to come, and there are times that listening doesn't result in clarity (most of the time I would say), and there are plenty of times where I am just not skilled enough or patient enough or inspiring enough, but I still have to get the session to make a decision and the job still has to get done. Leadership is as much about those times as it is about the times that you succeed in getting good participation.

Jodie said...

Hi Aric,

You are right that I assume leadership is a positive service. But we do sometimes talk about bad leadership. "Bad" leadership and "lack of" leadership tend to be synonymous.

My heart goes out to you in your first pastorate. Personally I think that solo pastors are screwed. The way to learn the skills you need is to have longitudinal examples to watch and participate in, from above and below. I have had such experiences in the corporate world, and I can tell you, compared to what can be done, the best pastors out there come off as rank amateurs. Its not their fault, but our system prevents you from getting the experience you need.

(Wisdom comes from experience. Mostly bad)

I don't know what the answer is. All I can say is that if you can find someone who has leadership wisdom, someone you can trust and who trusts you and believes in you, then make them your mentor.

Oh, one more thing. A moderator is not a CEO. He or she is a referee. The person responsible for enforcing the process, not the outcome. The decision making in the Presbyterian Church lies in the hands of Session. If you focus on making sure the process is followed correctly, and worry less about the outcome, that usually has the result of good decision making.

And it looks like leadership.

(By the way, decisions only have to be right 51% of the time. That is enough to make a convergent process).

Just for the record, I believe you have an excellent head on your shoulders and will, if not in the short term then certainly in the long term, be a screaming success of a pastor.

Of this I have no doubt.