Unitarian Universalist Chalice

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Discussion of leadership comes at an opportune time for this congregation. Reverend Kim Beach really began the discussion last week in his comments on ministers and ministry. He said that ministry requires a sense of calling. I would argue the same of leadership. Leadership in both the ministry and the secular realm is exercised on behalf of a community to whom the leader (or minister) is accountable. The community must have trust in the minister, and also any leader. Experience counts. Kim argued that we must demystify leadership so that we can understand it. I see that as my role here today--to demystify by talking about what leadership is, about why it is so difficult, about what we should expect of our leaders, and about how we, as a community, can empower them to lead.

The songs and readings this morning provide us with four different models of leadership. In the spiritual "Go Down Moses" we have the "you just tell them" model. It's really more than that--more like, you just tell them and if that doesn't work, you tell them god said so. It's an authoritarian model shored up with the force of Moses's personal and positional power and backed by a supreme being. It worked...but only after those ten plagues.

In contrast, the first reading, from Exodus Chapter 18 is often touted as the beginning of modern management thought. This chapter describes the leader, again Moses, as teacher and organizer (that is, manager) of the people. We are told that Moses did as his father-in-law directed and created the line managers, supervisors, department heads, and vice presidents that people our modern organizations. They still brought the difficult cases to Moses, however.

In Martin Luther King's "Address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," the "I Have a Dream" speech, we are presented with a third model of leadership, that of the leader as visionary. King had two strengths as a leader: his vision AND his ability to describe his vision in ways that captured the hearts and minds of others.

Finally, one of my favorite Unitarian hymns, "Love Will Guide Us," provides our fourth model of leadership. Here is leadership grounded in caring, in community, in selflessness, and in hope.

Other models fill the literature on leadership and management. The following models are represented among the over 2000 books on leadership in the University of North Florida Library: "servant leadership," "catalytic leadership," "shared leadership," "five-star leadership," "vision- based leadership," "values-driven leadership," "the drama of leadership," "leadership jazz," "the inner-faith of leadership," "the leadership engine," "principle-centered leadership," "Jesus CEO," "the corporate mystic," and "only the paranoid survive."

Many of the leadership books published within the past ten years have a personal, even spiritual dimension, perhaps best represented in Stephen Covey's books such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership. I find that appropriate, though I don't find many of these books particularly helpful as I try to think through the personal challenges and opportunities I find in my work as an officially-designated leader in the university. I learned more from Sacred Hoops, Phil Jackson's book on coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, but that, too, has a spiritual dimension.

I should probably also say, by way of introduction for those who do not know me, that I am not a natural leader. I am a shy person who, in leadership positions, has had to overdose on Lake Woebegone Powdermilk Biscuits, the ones that give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. I am a classic introvert who is rejuvenated through quiet, personal time. I hate receptions and cocktail parties; I'm not gregarious. Though I can often find the "right words," it's not without a struggle and a great deal of thought. I find the public world of leadership demands a great deal of me. So I'm inclined to be introspective about leadership, both on a personal and a professional level.

It is from that perspective that I would like to talk about the three main ideas that I alluded to earlier: 1) that these are tough times for leaders; 2) that effective, moral leadership is possible; and 3) that it is possible only in the context of a supportive community. The Age of Distrust

Maybe it never has been easy to be a leader. After all, Moses, who spoke with the authority of god, still had a tough time with the people. They grumbled a great deal, violated the commandments, and generally made it hard for Moses. So it may not be any tougher now than it ever has been, but it's tough. Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who spoke at this church on leadership, described an anxious society facing perpetual change, a status that certainly describes the Israelites in the desert as well as modern American society. I personally think of the challenges of leadership in these terms: lack of shared vision, complexity, distrust, and nostalgia for and the failure of traditional models of leadership (see Warren Bennis, 1989).

Leadership is much easier in a group that coalesces around a set of common values and beliefs, but those groups are rare in modern American society. Moreover, those groups that have explicitly stated and deeply held common convictions are likely to be a little silly and sometimes very scary. Groups have most often coalesced around religious orthodoxy, loyalty to the state, and sports.

Most of us come together in a workplace where we are more likely now than ever before to be in contact with people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, different gender and sexual orientation, who have grown up in different parts of the country or the world, and who have differing notions about the meaning of ordinary events. All that wonderful diversity, which I personally value, also means it is hard to find much that we agree on.

In that sense, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville is a microcosm of the world around us. Notice how cautiously we approach our shared beliefs and values, how tentatively we refer to them, how carefully we make room for dissenting views, how vigorously we resist anything approaching a common statement of vision. Notice also, however, that our consultants in recent months have encouraged as to look at ourselves carefully, to examine our shared history, and to find what is important to us as a community. We have to be able to define who were are before we will be a hospitable place for leadership, whether by a minister or our lay leaders. Leaders may help us articulate our shared beliefs and carry our messages. They can do this work WITH us, but they cannot do it FOR us.

The second problem is that of complexity. Richard Farson, in a book titled Management of the Absurd, talks about the differences between problems and predicaments. Problems, he argues, stem from something wrong that can be solved and corrected. It just takes knowing the system and making the adjustment. Predicaments, by contrast, tend to stem from something right, something we value.

In the university we live with many such predicaments. Tenure protects the free and responsible search for truth and also the jobs of people who fail to contribute to the organization. Accountability ensures that public dollars are used wisely but also buries the organization in paperwork. Shared decision-making guarantees that all legitimate interests are represented but delays decisions so long that they are often irrelevant.

Leaders in the public schools confront even more such predicaments: the tension between equal distribution of resources and equitable distribution of resources; desegregation that ensures diversity but limits choice; recognition of the public will and protection of the rights of the minority. At the same time, the public and the media seek easy answers, ones that can be captured in sound bites and 30-second spots. The six o'clock news is not a good forum for complexity.

Unitarian churches are particularly rich places for predicaments. Those ideas and concepts we value generate them. Free speech, for example, and the dignity and worth of each individual, use of democratic processes, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Those are values that lead to predicaments because embedded in each of them is the difficulty of coming to consensus and the unlikelihood of a single individual's perspective and wishes being reflected by the group.

A third difficulty of leadership in the twentieth century is our distrust of leaders. Leaders, in general, don't have much credibility. People are skeptical...and rightly so. We have lived through Viet Nam, Watergate, and Iran/Contra affair, and, more recently, Whitewater and Monica Lewinski. We've seen presidential candidates and presidents in compromising positions. We seen politicians drummed out of office and even helped with the process. Leaders are not accorded instant respect, and we have convincing evidence that our skepticism is justified, even required. We don't trust leaders to speak for us, and we watch for any compromising show of self-interest or disregard for the community.

A fourth reason these are tough times for leaders is that traditional models of leadership have been largely discredited. Top-down, hierarchical organizational structures have been discounted as ineffective. America's corporate structure has been blamed in part for the failure of American business to compete effectively in the world economy, and corporations have been restructuring, redesigning work, and making paradigm shifts, or at least trying to.

Highly-regulated, top-down organizational structures have not served schools and other public service organizations well either. State legislatures, local regulatory boards, and mid-level managers cannot control what happens at the point of delivery when the doctor consults with the patient, when the teacher meets the child, and when the social worker interacts with the client. When they try, they inevitably get in the way.

But this, too, is a predicament. While we reject these top-down models intellectually, we often long for them emotionally. Richard Farson argues that our stereotypical image of leadership is one of the great enemies of effective organizations. Here I had hoped to talk about the models of leadership we find in American movies, but that, alas, must wait for another time.

To summarize, the context for contemporary leadership creates a set of challenges for anyone who tries to lead: lack of common vision; debilitating complexity; skepticism, cynicism, and sometimes outrage directed at formal leaders; and discrediting of top-down, hierarchical organizational structures while at the same time longing for the kinds of leadership found in cowboy and war movies. What does leadership in this context require? Is it possible to lead? The Imperatives of Leadership

In my view, those who aspire to lead should be held to four imperatives. These imperatives describe what we should look for in our school superintendents, our university presidents, our mayors, and our minister; what we should expect of our school boards and city council members, our legislators, and our UU lay leaders; and what we should demand of ourselves as we assume leadership roles.

The first imperative is that leaders must first know themselves. Becoming familiar with Ed Friedman and his work has helped me to understand this imperative more fully. These are Friedman's words in a book published just after his death in 1996: "The power of all leaders, in sum, resides in their presence, the nature of their being, not in their storehouse of data or [their] technique. The key to leadership, therefore, is not how a leader manages others but how a leader manages him- or herself."

The construct that Friedman developed he called the "self-differentiated leader." Friedman described the self-differentiated leader as a person who knows where self ends and another person begins, who can contain reactivity when others are reactive, who is clear about personal values and goals, who takes responsibility for personal well-being rather than blaming either others or the context, and (the phrase that captures it best for me) who is "an unanxious presence in the face of anxious others." This is a high standard, and Friedman argued that "no one ever gets more than 70 percent there."

The second imperative of leadership is also part of self-differentiation in Friedman's view, the willingness to take a stand, even in an intense emotional system. Leaders who are "peace- mongers" at the sacrifice of principle and who cannot take a stand at the risk of displeasing cannot be effective. Leadership ought to be principled, value-based, and goal-centered. One might ask, leadership for what? Why does any leader hope to accomplish? What would count as success? This is the moral dimension of leadership that was omitted in much of the early management literature and seems, more recently, to have found a place in our consideration of what is required to lead.

What those principles and vision are is immensely personal and important. My own view is that vision ought to be based on values such as social justice, celebration of diversity and complexity, respect for history, appreciation for knowledge of all kinds, and commitment to the continued growth and development of every individual. But that is only my view. Implied in the notion of vision is an obligation for both the leader and the community to test the match between the leader's principles and vision and those of the community. That means that each--the leader and the community--must be able and willing to make their principles and vision explicit. In a classic power play, one or the other or both withhold that information.

That is why the third imperative is important. Principled leadership creates its own predicaments and must be balanced by willingness to engage in discussion and dialogue with others in the community. Leadership in isolation is too arbitrary and the surest way to elicit anxiety and paranoia.

Leaders who do not exist in dialogue do not make good decisions. Management literature in the 1980s made much of the notion of "management by wandering around" (see Peters & Waterman, 1982). All of the successful school principals I know are almost impossible to reach by telephone except very early in the morning and at the end of the day. The rest of the day they are out of the office, talking to kids, wandering the halls, observing in classrooms, teaching themselves, meeting with others. It is through wandering around that leaders have access to multiple, informal sources of information. They know what is going on. They have contacts within and outside the organization and use them to float ideas as trial balloons before they are formally introduced. Leaders who wander around can identify common interests and links among members of the community. They become brokers who ensure that community members are connected with each other.

Contemporary leaders can rarely command organizations. They can, however, often control them. James March captured this notion in a lovely metaphor, "Organizations are to be sailed rather than driven."

To control, the leader must know everything possible about the current state of the organization. This does not mean, however, that leadership is a unilateral activity. Another benefit to wandering around is that the leader is influenced and affected by the other members of the organization. One cannot seek to understand without being influenced by the knowledge gained. Wandering around leads to knowledge and understanding.

Discussion and dialogue are important for another reason. People who lack information about why an action was taken or a decision was made will fill in their own reasons, often reasons derived from own insecurities and uncertainties. Leaders need to explain their thinking, their reasons for believing that a direction should be followed or an action should be taken. Not all people are reasonable, but most are. Even when they do not agree, people want to understand. My observation is that most conflicts in any organization stem not from a failure to agree but from a failure to communicate. Leaders cannot always say all that they know, a predicament in itself. But they have an obligation to say what they can, clearly and as often as needed.

The fourth and final imperative of leadership is willingness to take action. That's not as easy as it sounds. Remember, life is complex. We rarely have enough information and certainly never all the information that we need, and if we waited until we had it, we would be too late. We can explain much of what we do, but never everything. We can build consensus, but rarely unanimity. We may be wrong. In the face of all this, leaders must act. It's risky business but one of the imperatives of effective leadership.

I've talked about why these are tough times for leaders and what I believe to be the four imperatives of effective leadership. The final point I wish to develop is the importance of community to leadership. Leadership and Community

Much of contemporary management literature talks about "empowerment," the notion that leaders must empower members of the organization in order to release their energy and creativity for the work of the group.

It is the reverse that I want to talk about today, the notion that leadership is impossible without an empowering community that provides the leader with license to lead. That license may be term limited, as it is in most of our democratic institutions, but it is nonetheless license.

Some writers on leadership have observed that leaders with vastly different styles, with different strengths and weaknesses, can still succeed. Why is this possible? Because others in the community have the power to make their leaders look good. Groups can compensate for the weaknesses of their leaders. They can also withhold that support.

Ed Friedman gave a great deal of thought to the role of saboteurs in organizations, which he found evidenced in the bashing of leaders. Sabotage in organizations takes many forms. Friedman identified the following: intense criticism; paranoia about the leader's intentions; interference in relationships; quickness to react or take offense; attempts to elicit guilt; veiled threats; argumentativeness; and lack of playfulness and sense of humor. Friedman argued that saboteurs should be excised from organizations. That's an option most leaders do not have. The best I have been able to do is to isolate saboteurs and try to coop them as I build trust-based relationships with other members of the group.

Leadership, I believe, is more a property of a group than a person. It is distributed among members of the group, each of whom plays an essential but incomplete role. Here's what Richard Farson said about the role of the group in leadership: "Relying on one person--the manager, for example--to provide all the leadership builds expectations that cannot be met. Moreover, it robs the group of its powers, leading to over dependence on the manager. In turn, the leader's response to this dependence is sometimes to micromanage, getting into areas of control and responsibility that represent a poor use of time and may far exceed his or her capabilities, actually reducing the productivity of the group." He continues, "In a well-functioning group, the behavior of the leader is not all that different from the behavior of other responsible group members."

I have observed that in this church community we have difficulty empowering our leaders and providing them license to lead. As Unitarians, we do not expect our ministers to speak with the voice of god. We may be unrealistic in more subtle ways. We are also hard on our lay leaders, and in turn our members are reluctant to serve. This may be a problem we can solve or, more likely, it is a predicament rooted in our fundamental values. It is a predicament we must learn to manage.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that leadership is possible in spite of the difficulties embedded in contemporary American society. It is only possible, however, if we have clear expectations of our leaders. I have described those expectations as four imperatives: that leaders know themselves well enough and be mature enough to serve as an unanxious presence in the face of anxiety; that leaders stand for something important and valued by the community; that they engage in dialogue with other community members so that they can understand and will be understood; and that they are willing to take action in the face of uncertainly.

We must also have expectations of ourselves as members of a community. The community must also know its values and be willing to engage in dialogue with each other and with those in leadership. The community must deal with saboteurs and provide leaders with a license to lead, while holding them accountable in the ways I have described.

I believe our church community can flourish only with enlightened and empowered leadership, in the ministry and in lay leaders. At a minimum, I hope I have encouraged you to think about what leadership means in this church. I look forward to your comments.

References

Bennis, W. G. (1989). Why leaders can't lead: The unconscious conspiracy continues. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Covey, S. R. (1991). Principle-centered leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Covey, S. R. (1989). Seven habits of highly-effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Farson, R. (1996). Management of the absurd: Paradoxes in leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Friedman, E. H. (1996). Reinventing leadership: Change in an age of anxiety. (Video and discussion guide). New York: Guilford Press.
Jackson, P. (1995). Sacred hoops: Spiritual lessons of a hardwood warrior. New York: Hyperion.
Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America's best-run companies. New York: Harper & Row.
 

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