you are a machine!

Recently I was in Canberra for work, staying with a friend in the foothills of Mt Taylor, to the city’s south.

With my battle against middle age continuing, I packed the running shoes, intending to get out for an early morning run before each day’s conference gathering got under-way.

My host advised a left turn from his driveway and then head up towards Mt Taylor to pick up a flat walking trail that runs all the way around the bottom of the mountain with quiet countryside and spectacular views – and a distance of around 5k or so.  Perfect.

So I headed out, turned left into the park and started up the 2-300m straight uphill section (flat!) to the walking trail.  As I huffed and puffed my way up the hill, a young bloke came around the corner at the top and headed down the trail toward me.

As we passed, him strolling downhill, me doing a good impression of a man about to have a heart attack, he spoke to me:

“Great work! You are a machine!”

I puffed my way up, and he was gone.  Never seen him before, unlikely to ever see him again.

Those words were powerful, just as I felt like slowing to a walk I found a little extra energy to complete the last of the climb to the trail.

A machine!

Now honest truth be told, I would have looked anything but.  Hunched over, almost shuffling, breathing hard, mismatched running cclothes, ill-fitting old cap.

Some machine….

But, days later, I still feel a little burst of energy when I think of his words.

They cost him nothing to utter. Just a couple of words to a complete stranger.

Such is the power of encouragement.

Further on in the run I nodded hello to a couple of retired blokes out walking their dogs. Later as I looped around the mountain I came upon them again, this time a more friendly greeting exchanged between us all.

Day two and and I ran Mt Taylor once more. How could I not? I was a machine!

Of course I saw those two same gents and their pair of pooches, out for their morning walk, and the greeting was once again a little more friendly as I continued on my way.

And then one final time as I neared my last stretch, almost out on my feet with the hills in my legs (flat!), I ran into that same pair, chatting animatedly, walking their dogs.  They looked up, saw me coming and one spoke aloud to his friend, and to me:

“Aha, we know this guy, he’s the runner! Keep it up, you are doing awesome!”

I returned the greeting, we chatted momentarily as I passed, and that was that.

From somewhere came the energy to finish out that run, standing just a little taller, striding out just a little longer.

Words are free.

But they are also priceless.

Of course just as easily words can hurt and drag down, but on this occasion, these occasions, two different people offered freely the gift of encouragement to a stranger. Words not deserved, or earned, and with nothing to be earned in return by the giver…..but given anyway, given generously.

And not only did I run a little longer and better as a result, but resolved to pass on words of encouragement wherever I can, to friend or stranger.

Encouragement might just be the gift that keeps on giving.

And it’s free.

Get better than that.


leadership 8: riding out the vacuum

Over the last few weeks as I’ve pondered leadership lessons, I’ve had cause on several occasions to think back to my time in outdoor education, working with Higher Ground Australia.

One of my very first encounters with the crew at HGA took place on a training weekend. I was there as a potential staff member, alongside a range of others who were interested in developing outdoor leadership and facilitation skills. We were working through a series of practical and theoretical sessions over the weekend.

One of the most memorable moments of the weekend for me (and it would live long in the collective memory at Higher Ground) happened late one evening. We had been out running some navigation and rescue simulations before being sent scurrying by an electrical storm.  As we (a group of 20-25 potential leaders) gathered in the warm, dry shelter of the campsite hall, we figured the experienced HGA leadership team would tell us what to do next – when it would be safe to move back outside, or whether the evening’s activities would be cancelled due to the weather.

Those same facilitators abruptly asked us to make our own decision with only one condition – it had to be unanimous – and then retired to the back of the room to watch.

In a complete leadership vacuum, the consequence was both predictable and frustrating and eventually a powerful lesson.

Loud voices dominated.

Proposals were offered, analysed, and often split the group.

Consensus was far away.

Voices were raised, frustration increased and a stalemate quickly grew between those who wanted to return to the activities, and those who wanted to call it done as rain continued to fall.

There was no solution reached, and eventually the leadership team returned, quickly moving the conversation from whether to return to the activity or not, to an analysis of what had just unfolded between us.

In a sense of course, the situation was artificial. But as a participant, the experience was powerful.  With no structured handover, no established hierarchy there was an absence of leadership.  Some offered power as a solution, some quiet reason, some obstinate refusal.

This week in class one of the topics we touched on was the transfer of power from one leader (or leadership group) to the next.

There is a sense in which the incumbent leader needs to release power, to let go. And to do that fully and properly, not holding on to influence over the community. That’s maybe a story for another day.

And there is always the need for the next generation of leader/s to be identified, to take up the reigns as it were.  That too, might be a story for another time.

But it seems to me that there is always this in between time.  Even when there is careful transition from one leader or group of leaders to the next, there is so often a moment of uncertainty – when the relationship between the group/community/organisation and the new leader has to be understood on its own terms, rather than just depending on the endorsement of the outgoing leader and carrying on as all-systems-normal.

The question for me is: do we resist this in between time? Do everything we can to minimise it? Perhaps even imagine that we have arranged such a smooth transition that there is no need for the in-between?

My sense is (and feel free to disagree) that sooner or later the relationship between the new leader and the community will be tested, reformed and reshaped.  If we allow that process to happen naturally at the point of transition, just maybe that’s better in the long run than the re-shaping happening in the face of some challenge or crises a little while down the track.

However we manage it, three things have to happen in leadership transition.

  • Someone (or group) has to leave the leadership role, fully and properly and appropriately.
  • Someone has to be chosen or appointed.
  • The community/leader relationship has to be re-defined.

Even if the in-between space is uncomfortable, even if the outcome is uncertain, even if we feel momentarily rudderless….the in-between time matters a great deal because it’s where we understand who we are together.

That camp hall experience as the rain pounded down will live long for me. First as to what can occur in a vacuum of leadership with no process in place to move forward. But second as a reminder that however leadership transition occurs, there is always a moment (fleeting as it may be) where there are no hands on the wheel.

And that’s kind of ok.

By the way….we did eventually go back outside that night and finish our training activities. But we took so long to make the decision that the storm had passed and stars shone above. I think that’s a lesson in itself – about the power of procrastination!

NB: This is the eighth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

NBB: That’s the end of the course. I’ll offer a closing thought on the experience in a week or two. If you were part of the course, let me invite you to send me your own reflections which I’d be very happy to post as a Guest Blog. Thanks for reading.

leadership 7: jesus as “the ultimate leader”?

In a course on religious leadership, run in a christian theological college, it’s inevitable that we would eventually confront this question:

Is Jesus the ultimate leader? One through whose life we can discover all we need to know about leadership?

Now before I starting wondering about that question, let me say that if you’re reading this and not christian…well stick with me, I’m not going to go all theological on you (well, not much).

The story of Jesus life as recorded in the gospels, and as at least partially corroborated by external historical sources is the story of an itinerant preacher in the ancient middle east.  He gathered followers, taught his “way”, and wandered the countryside preaching, teaching, healing.

And then he was killed, leaving behind a small group who at first fled, but later continued to teach the same message, founded the christian church, and the rest is history.

But was Jesus actually a great leader? And what can we learn today about the art of leadership from this life and story?

One thing we do know is that he did not live up to expectations. There was a whole mythology and prophecy around what the Jewish ‘messiah’ would be like – including the expectation for many of a mighty leader who would overthrow the Roman empire who at that time ruled over much of the mid-east world (and to be fair, a whole chunk of the western world as well).  The messiah would be a warrior, a powerful king.

And Jesus?  None of that.

One of his finest public moments came riding a donkey. Another attacking the temple itself, the heart of Judaism. His confrontations with representatives of the Roman empire were limited, and he definitely didn’t set the Jewish people free from Roman rule. Eventually of course, the Romans had a hand in his death. If his leadership was oriented around a national uprising, it was a miserable failure.

Jesus, as much in his leadership as in many other aspects of his life, was counter-expectations, counter-cultural.  He made no effort to live up to the expectations of others – instead charting his own course, living according to his own clear sense of purpose.

That in itself is an interesting lesson for a leader to learn.  Be clear about your purpose, and live accordingly.

Secondly, I think we can look back and see some other interesting leadership qualities in Jesus.  Here’s the few that particularly appeal to me:

  • practiced an action/reflection model of learning for his followers – once famously sending a group out to teach, preach and heal with limited instructions and resources. On their return, he retired to the beach with the group to reflect on and learn from their experiences
  • re-interpreted well established world views – Jesus’ story is filled with moments where he took well known and well established religious and cultural teaching and turned them upside down, creating new possibilities
  • empowered all sorts of people – Jesus didn’t just work with those whom the society classed as best of the best, but imparted a sense of hope and possibility to all sorts of people as he met them – from social outcasts such as tax collectors and lepers through to Roman soldiers, fisherman and all sorts. Jesus also had a remarkable view of and interaction with women completely at odds with the culture of the day
  • saw to the heart of the matter – Jesus had an amazing ability to see through the surface of a situation or conversation, to what was really going on.  And a willingness to confront what really were the core issues, to name what needed to be named

Interestingly, these are leadership skills that I personally prize highly, and wish were much more developed in my own life and leadership. Jesus was the kind of leader I wish I could be.

And that reminds me of the old saying “God created us in God’s image, and we have been returning the favour ever since”.  How much of what I see in the Jesus story as leadership qualities to aspire to, are actually me reading my own situation and preferences back into this ancient story?  How much am I creating Jesus in my own image?

And thinking about that question reminds me of this piece from the movie Talladega Nights (and don’t watch if you are nervous about a little “blue” humour) that constantly reminds me of how we read our own modern situation and preferences into the life story of Jesus:

I guess the question I ponder is, does it matter?  Does it matter that in thinking about leadership in a modern context we project all sorts of situations and beliefs back into the life story of a man who would never have had to think about or confront such issues?

Or is that actually the whole point?  That in the life of Jesus we see a life fully lived, humanity represented most fully within his particular time and place?  That it’s therefore ok for me to look at what underlying principles might stand the test of time, might enable my to live out my own humanity more fully in my particular time and place?

I sure can’t look to Jesus life for a model of how to lead an organisation consisting of thousands of people with a budget in the millions.

But I can encounter the story of one who inspired countless others both in his own time and in times still unfolding; who believed in the capacity of the human spirit; who confronted injustice at personal cost; who raged when rage was needed; who wept when that was the only possible answer. I can encounter the story of one who challenged and changed the world view that shaped and sustained the culture into which he was born.

And ultimately as a “believer” I personally can enter into the strange, mystical sense in which that all continues to happen.

And so even if I find myself unconvinced that Jesus was a ‘great leader’ in modern terms, I am sure and certain that in the stories of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the ‘idea’ of Jesus I am challenged and inspired in the exercise of leadership in many different aspects of my own life.

And interestingly, there’s nothing religious about any of that.

NB: This is the seventh in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

leadership 6: radiating possibility

I’ve just finished watching a video featuring author/conductor/inspirer Benjamin Zander. Go ahead and watch it, I’ll wait (you’ll need 14 minutes – but its worth it!).

(Credit – I was put onto the clip by Peter A who posted it over at the Forming Faith, Growing Disciples facebook group)

There’s lots to like about the clip, and the irrepressible Zander, but these lines struck me the most:

A conductor (of an orchestra) doesn’t make a sound.

A conductor depends for (his) power on the ability to make other people powerful.

My job (as a conductor) is to awaken possibility in other people.

You can tell when you are awakening possibility in someone because their eyes are shining.

It seems just about the most poetic and inspiring description of leadership that I’ve come across. The leaders task is to awaken possibility in another, to make them powerful, to make their eyes shine.

Zander goes on to talk about the ‘negative spiral’ language so common today, in which we manage to constantly talk everything down, in the process convincing ourselves that the world really is hopeless.  This, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite to awakening possibility in someone (and that’s Zander’s point).

In the church, the institution in which I work, the negative spiral is verging on out of control. We are too old. Our properties are a noose around our neck.  There aren’t enough of us anymore.  On, and on (and on and on) it goes.  We have all but removed any hope of awakening possibility in the people of the church.

Last night I was helping to host a mission planning conversation for a Uniting Church region (called a “presbytery” in our ever-so-helpful internal lingo) and we tried to identify the critical questions for the church to address.  Quite a few of the questions that emerged were ‘negative spiral’ kinds of questions – but not all.

One of my favourites came from a group who simple asked, “how can we turn our negatives into blessings?”  That, it seems to me, is a question that starts from a place of possibility, of hope that there can be a new way.

It reminds me that in class last week, we encountered Stanley Hauerwas, and some of his thoughts on leadership.  I took five things from the encounter with Hauerwas (watch the video here):

  1. The leader articulates a vision, or speaks for the community.  The leader doesn’t speak to the community, but for it – recognising the vision, the image that is within and declaring it out loud
  2. Innovation and creativity are critical in the art of leadership, and they can be habits formed intentionally – in an individual and an organisation (*)
  3. The leader’s role is to recognise what is within – what giftedness can be found in the community – and empower it
  4. It’s impossible to lead without community engagement – the leader cannot operate in a tower of isolation
  5. The discipline of the ego (of the leader) is vital

Most of those lessons came to mind as I watched Benjamin Zander riff on possibility, on awakening, on seeing eyes shine.

And I was reminded of one experience from my own life that came closest to that kind of encounter.

I went to visit a group from a very small rural church in Tasmania. The group consisted of mostly elderly ladies (and as a result featured the most lavish country style afternoon tea!) and the purpose of our gathering was to think about the future of their church.  The conversation didn’t start well, with the clear declaration that “we are too old, too few in number to have any kind of future”.  I wanted more of that afternoon tea so didn’t want the conversation to end too soon, so we poked and prodded and explored and wondered for a couple of hours together.  We asked questions like “what do we look like at our best?” and “what do we love about our community?” and gradually, bit-by-bit, a different story started to emerge.  Not mindlessly optomisic, but an awakening of possibility, that this group (small and old as they might have described themselves) had a great many things to offer.  The whole tone of the conversation shifted over those two devonshire-tea powered hours of talking and wondering.

I think maybe that’s what Zander is talking about, and Hauerwas too.

Leadership is awakening possibility.

NB: This is the sixth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

(*) I have a habit of thinking about imagination and Hauerwas stoked the fire for me again. I think imagination is a most important aspect of leadership, and the most often under-developed. Here’s a few thoughts in case you’re interested:

leadership 5: so….does “it” really exist?

canoe1Four weeks into our exploration of leadership (and specifically ‘religious leadership’), having spend the first couple exploring definitions and understandings, and the next couple unpacking the inter-relationship between power and leadership, we come to a set of questions that have stopped me in my tracks.

Does leadership really exist?

And, if it does, what about ‘Christian’ leadership? What is (or can be) specifically christian about leadership?

Of course leadership has to exist. It’s in nearly every conversation about the state of the world, the state of the church, the identified solutions to all our woes. It’s a gift, a skill, an approach.

Leadership must exist, or we wouldn’t talk about it so much.

For something we are so very definite about, it gets ever more murky when it comes to understanding, describing, or (heaven forbid) defining the term. There are so many different understandings, so many different definitions, so many wonderful quotes about what leadership is

Some say leadership is influence.  But that might just be semantics. Surely influence is influence.  Why introduce another term?

Some say leadership is the capacity to get a group of people to do something.  But maybe that’s just coersion, or inspiration or bullying. Power at work, rather than leadership.

The more I think about leadership, the more I wonder if it’s not really a skill or gift that is practiced by an individual (or group) who is “being a leader”, but is actually about the perception and experience of the follower.

If two people are looking at the same ‘leader’, one is inspired and the other left cold…in what sense is that leader genuinely offering leadership?

If two segments of our society look to the same leader, half are convinced of great, powerful, wonderful leadership, but the other half see abuse, bullying and short-sightedness….in what sense is leadership actually being offered?

Perhaps leadership isn’t something that is offered at all, but it’s something that is received, or experienced.

What am I talking about? Clearly, I have no idea. But stay with me while I wonder aloud.

A few years ago, I worked in an outdoor education organisation.  Our stock in trade was risk.  Specifically, we put people in risky situations to help them learn something from the experience about themselves, their capacity, their group, or about leadership (yes…true!).

There is something powerful about fear, about our emotional response in situations of great risk that make those moments priceless development opportunities.

Except the reality is that we went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the situations in which we put people weren’t really all that risky at all.

Sure, whenever you’re paddling a canoe in white water, riding a mountain bike, or abseiling off a cliff, there are some risks. But we worked hard to minimise those risks, purchasing and maintaining over-the-top safety equipment, training staff, putting in place logistics programs to make sure we were always within an acceptable risk window.

To our clients, none of that mattered. As they stood on top of a cliff about to lower themselves down, as they floated across a dam on a raft made of barrels, bamboo and bits of string, or as they camped in the wilderness in the midst of a thunderstorm…the risk seemed very real.

And therein lies the value in doing what we did, and I wonder, the connection with leadership.

Even if the real risk was low, the perception of high risk made those situations valuable teaching moments. The experience of the participant in being pushed into a heightened state of fear or emotion was completely real – even if the risk was only perceived.

Even if leadership isn’t a real thing, or at least it’s hard to put a finger on, it’s the perception of leadership that inspires, equips, enables the follower to action.

Maybe reality and perception are two sides of the same coin.

The combination of good communication, of the power of encouragement, the capacity of good systems to release resources, the inspiration that comes from an amazing idea….perhaps all these little pieces of reality are experienced or perceived as leadership.

And that might explain why one person’s leadership is another person’s frustration.  Leadership is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s perceived rather than real.

Even if that makes sense (and I’m not sure it does) where does that leave the concept of specifically christian leadership?

Is it enough to say that there is an added dimension of Christ-likeness on behalf of the leader (or at least the perception of Christ-likeness)?  Is christian leadership that experience or perception that inspires the follower to join with God’s mission in the world? Or to seek to grow into deeper relationship with Christ? or is it the outcome that determines if leadership is christian leadership? If God is honoured, if “mission happens”, if people grow in faith…then maybe christian leadership has occurred.

These are just some of the elements I’m wrestling with as this fascinating exploration of leadership continues.

All of this, and the title of a book we were introduced to today (“You’re the Messiah, and I should know”) reminds me of one of the funny (and bang-on) scenes from classic Monty Python movie “The Life of Brian” – where we are reminded that leadership is experienced, rather than offered. I leave you with it to ponder….  (oh, and language warning…).

NB: This is the fifth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

PS> If you’re interested in this notion of risk, I once reflected on it a little more deeply:  Here and again here.

leadership 4: i have the power

First…a regression to my childhood. This:

This week, week four of contemplating leadership, the crux of our discussion was around the theme of power.

There are a bunch of questions around the interplay between power and leadership:

  • is power inherently negative? is it entirely about the capacity to deprive another?
  • can there be leadership without power?
  • is fear of power a fear of leadership itself?
  • is power the same as capacity to influence?
  • is influence a value-neutral replacement term for power?

It seems that so much of the exercise of leadership is about an interplay built around power.

Sometimes (Machiavelli style) it’s about wielding power as a weapon to instill fear.  Sometimes (as we in the church like to proudly proclaim) it’s about empowering the powerless.

Sometimes power and its impact is obvious, known by both sides of an exchange. But sometimes it’s hidden, not acknowledged or realised by one party or the other.

A few years ago I was a new arrival in a leadership role in a challenging context. There had been conflict in the organisation before I arrived, and the situation was anything but clear. I figured that as a newcomer, I could perhaps dance along the fence separating the parties maybe doing some good, maybe contributing to a restoration of relationship.

I met with the wounded party, who from their perspective had been dealt with unjustly and harshly over a long period of time.  I tried to dance that dance, to steer clear of involvement in the conflict and look to a new relationship.  Nothing worked.

Over a long period of time, and several tense conversations, my colleague helped me realise the power imbalance at play in my attempt. No matter that I was new on the scene, I wore the badge of office, I was the face of the same establishment that had committed this perceived injustice, I was powerful, even if I didn’t know it, or feel it (or want it). That was a good lesson to learn.  It was a reminder too, that there is sometimes power that is positional, or institutional, other times personal (maybe even charistmatic). What other kinds of power can you identify?

The conversation in class this week got me wondering whether leadership can be understood as a kind of power-exchange.

In good, effective, just leadership, the exchange of power might mean the leader giving up some of their own power, in order to empower the follower.

Or maybe even a win-win situation is possible, in which the wise and gentle use of the leader’s power (after all, what is gentleness if not perfectly controlled strength?) not only builds the power of the follower, but maintains or even strengthens the power of the leader?

And I think we can all remember situations in which an abuse of power by the leader slams the follower, puts them in a position of utter powerlessness.

There is an exchange of power that goes on in the living out of leader/follower relationships.

Our other contemplation this week started with the oft-quoted phrase:

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Lord Acton)

Lord Acton borrowed the idea from earlier authors – but it’s his wording that has stood the test of time. What is less commonly quoted is the phrase that follows in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton (from which the quote is drawn). Acton went on to say:

Great men are almost always bad men.

That is quite a declaration.  “Great men are almost always bad men”, and if it’s the power that corrupts, then I guess the question is whether they are bad at first, or become bad  through their experience of exercising (or exchanging or receiving) power).

Maybe it’s a little too naive, but I truly hope this isn’t a genuine reflection on the human spirit and condition.

I wonder if maybe power amplifies the underlying characteristic.

If I’m nasty, rude or arrogant, then power has the potential to amplify that nastyness, rudeness or arrogance.

On the other hand, if I’m compassionate, thoughtful and creative….maybe power can amplify those positives?

Perhaps where this theory runs into difficulty is in thinking about the kind of person who is more likely to seek after power, to gather power together, who aims to grow their own power even if at the expense of another.  If that same power then amplifies that hunger…well, I guess you can see where that notion ends up.

I’m a long way from sorting thoughts on power and leadership into anything like a coherent understanding (as you can tell!), but there’s no question in my mind that the exercise and exchange of power (whether in a positive or negative sense) is one of the critical ingredients in understanding and exercising leadership.

NB: This is the fourth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

leadership #3: following the leader

Over the last couple of weeks in our leadership class, we’ve been mainly focused on two questions of leadership:

  • What is leadership?
  • Who leads?

Those conversations took us in some interesting directions, but today we found an entirely different tangent to pursue.

Today we talked about followers.

Today we wondered if leadership is actually something that is offered by erstwhile leaders at all, or rather whether it’s something that is sought, recognised, and even bestowed by a group of followers.

We talked about the little known notion of ‘followership’.

When all the attention in our talk about the future is on seeking a higher quality of leadership, finding new leadership theories, developing the leaders within our community, or bringing in wildly brilliant leaders from outside….the theory of followership suggests that we perhaps ought to be focusing our attention elsewhere.

The success of any enterprise, or organisation is largely attributable to the quality of the followers, the community of people who identify as “we” and who collectively seek after common goals. The leader might help to organise and equip, and even to recognise the vision and purpose that is hidden within the group of followers….but it’s the followers that matter most.

Or so my understanding of the theory goes.

And to be truthful, it kind of rings true. It’s hard to be a great leader on your own. In fact there’s no leadership in action at all if its not recognised as such by a group of followers.

Somehow in our world, we’ve managed to bestow negative connotations on the word follower. Say it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue. Follower. It’s hard to say without thinking of sheep, of uncritical, unthinking flock. Followers bad. Leaders good.

The truth could hardly be more different. And as a Christian, I should know that. Jesus didn’t ask us to be unthinking, uncritical, automatons. Sheep-like followers.

Jesus did call us to follow, but in a sense to follow with the best of who we are. To bring all our giftedness, all our talent, all our capacity to reason, to think, to analyse, to critique and to act. To join with God’s purposes for the world with all that we are.

In that light the famous question “what would Jesus do?” is the wrong question. It could be construed as the question of a sheep-like follower. Perhaps the better question (though a little less sexy and not quite as neat) is to say “as one called to bring all I have to follow Jesus, what should I do?”

I’m patenting that and having bracelets made up. “AOCTBAIHTFJWSID”. They’re going to be big sellers.

The question of course, for those thinking about what leadership means, is what to do with this notion of followership. I think there are a few clues, a few places to start:

1. Recognise that within the group or community there is an astonishing capacity, a broad range of gifts and skills, and the potential to transform the world (or at least that part of it to which we have access).

2. Recognise that within the group or community there is (either overtly or tucked away) a vision – a sense of who we want to be, what we want to achieve, how we want our (collective) life to feel and look.

3. The task of the leader is to recognise what’s there and help give expression to it, to sharpen it, to identify as one with the community, to want and work for the community at its very, very best – and to find ways of organising, resourcing and encouraging to release that best within it.

4. The task of the leader is to love followers. Love them.

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word followers. Followers rock. Followers are the future. Followers (and I’m not even joking a little bit) will save the world.

NB: This is the third in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

leadership #2: the space in-between

  • Does leadership exist, kind of like an entity or a thing in its own right?
  • Does leadership have to be embodied, in the form of a person?
  • Are leaders born or trained?
  • From where does a charismatic leader acquire their power?

So many good and interesting questions at the heart of this week’s second session exploring leadership in the church (with Trinity Theological College).  In these early weeks we’re mostly concentrating on addressing the questions “what is leadership” and “who leads” (you’ll no doubt notice the intentional use of the term ‘addressing’ there, and not ‘answering’!).

What emerged for me in yesterday’s conversations was a reminder that leadership is never independent of it’s context – and that context includes time, place, the leader/s, the followers, the situation or issues at hand.

And so in one time/place/context a particular kind of leadership might be significant, and at another time/place/context something quite different might emerge.

I was reminded of a story from my own experience.

In what sometimes seems like a past life I worked in outdoor education, helping young people discover answers to questions such as “who am I?” and learn team and life skills. Early on in this experience I was out on a program with a group of about 15 young students, as part of a larger camp with a number of other groups. We had shared a fairly good week, unpacking lots of issues and exploring the beautiful environment around Lake Moogerah, climbing, paddling, walking and playing. But I was captured by the approach of one of the other group leaders – a guy who was as intense as I am ‘gentle’, as loud as I am quiet, as crazy as I am sensible, as confident as I am anxiety-ridden.  We were polar opposites in the way we led our respective groups and his group was without question the ‘fun’ group to be in – his young people were having a wild old time. I found myself sinking into despair, feeling sorry for myself, sure and certain that I could never lead them in the way that Tim did with his group, knowing for sure that I was not cut out for leadership in outdoor education because I just don’t have those characteristics.

The poor kids in my group just totally missed out compared to those in the other group.

In the midst of my navel-gazing woe-is-me moment, and as I watched Tim yet again lead some hilarious and wildly successful interaction, the school teacher who had been co-assigned to my group wandered over sat down next to me.  His next words changed my perspective on leadership instantly, and have stayed with me ever since.  “You know Scott,” he said as we watched this inspiring leader at work, “I am so glad that our group had you and not Tim as our leader.  Don’t get me wrong, he is great, but I know the kids in our group well, and they just wouldn’t have handled his approach. Your gentleness and quiet confidence have been just what our group needed and I want to thank you for it.”

Naturally I didn’t point out that quietness wasn’t really confidence as much as it was abject terror, but his point was (and remains) well made.

Leadership looks different at different times and places. And it looks different for different people.  Leadership exists in the interaction, the interplay between leader and follower. It is inevitably shaped by the characteristics of the leader, by the nature of the follower, by the circumstance of their interaction.

Leadership happens in the space in-between.

There is a theory of leadership called “Great Man Theory” (let’s call it “Great Leader Theory”…accepting the term came from an age long ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then) that suggests leadership is confined to a few amazing people who change the world around them, who are event-makers on a grand scale. Following this line of thinking…leaders are born and not trained, it’s inherent within them. And those of us who are not Great Leaders? We’re consigned to lesser roles, to responding to the world rather than remaking it.  One does not ‘become’ a Great Leader – we either are, or are not.  At least that’s my rudimentary understanding of the theory.

Somewhere between this idea and the other extreme in which everybody is a leader (or at least everybody can be a leader), lies this notion that that there are many different types of people who offer leadership of different kinds to situations of different shape, and people of different nature.

In this picture, in this image of leadership as what happens in the space in-between, there is room even for the quiet, shy, gentle, anxious, sensible among us to offer leadership when the context suits.

Maybe there is even room for me. And for you.

NB: This is the second in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

NB #2: I remain genuinely impressed with Tim. He’s a phenomenal, insightful, genuine, imaginative leader. And hilarious. I’m still jealous. 😉

leadership #1: dealing in hope

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)

I’ve just kicked off an 8 week block as a student again, joining in a course on religious leadership with Trinity Theological College.  Each monday afternoon 16 of us will gather to reflect on leadership and the church.  I’m planning on a short weekly reflection to capture some of my thoughts as we amble through the topic.

“Why are we offering this course? Why are we in the church so interested in the topic of leadership at the moment?

Those were a couple of what seemed like simple questions posed by Aaron, our lecturer, to kick off some conversation.  A long while later and with no sign of the energy in the room abating as we batted various ideas about, he had to reign things in so we could move on.

It’s a good question. Why are we so interested in this topic?

I can’t help but wonder if it’s got to do with the state in which the church finds itself (the church in general, in Australia in particular).  I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the church is in a period of lostness, a period in which it is experiencing irrelevance in terms of its relationship with the wider world.

For an institution, and a community who have for generations been at the heart of their communities, held positions of significance and influence, and mostly had to just be there and keep ticking the boxes of regular worship and social opportunity…this current experience is somehow bewildering.

Over the last 40 years we’ve seen a constant stream of correctives in the life of the church, new ways to be who we are, to go about what we do – new ways to organise, to proclaim, to connect and engage – all at least partly driven by this sense of disconnect and irrelevance.

And so I wonder if leadership has become the newest ‘fix-it’ idea.

If everything is broken, we need somebody to tell us how to fix it.

If Napolean Bonaparte is right, and a leader is a dealer in hope, that’s what we’re desperately searching for in the church today.

Somebody to tell us it’s all going to be ok, to lay out a grand narrative that we’ll all immediately recognise and pursue together. We don’t so much want someone to tell us what to do and how to do it, as we want someone to restore hope.

The second interesting reflection from yesterday’s conversation was to think about the concept of leadership and its development over the years. We tracked briefly through a study charting changing understandings of leadership in line with broader cultural changes.

And so in times when industrialisation was the big focus for our society, our understanding of leadership was more akin to what we might today describe as management – good systems, focus on efficiency and production or task orientation.

Later came the move to decentralised power, to an emphasis on teams and flat structures, orientation for leadership was around establishing and achieving group goals.

And now? How is the information revolution changing our concepts of what makes leadership special? How is the messy move in our society from modernity to post-modernity, and in our churches from Christendom to post-Christendom changing how we define leadership?

I think we come right back to the very questions we asked at the start – why a focus on leadership? In 2013 I think we’re looking for leaders who deal in hope, to paint a grand vision (and preferably one that fits with our own preciously held world view) and inspire us to action.

And so alongside Bonaparte, I place my other favourite leadership quote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Hope, courage, imagination….the new currency of leadership.

Either that or I’m totally wrong and what we really want is for someone to tell us everything will be ok….and help us feel safe.

And finally for today, just because, here’s a few of my previous ponderings on leadership and related topics. And a fun video not so much about leadership as it is about followership:

the imagination challenge

Imagination is a way of seeing.

Of seeing something other than the immediately obvious.

Of seeing something that does not (yet) exist.

Of seeing connections between apparently disconnected entities.

Imagination brings us to new places, new possibilities, new moments of wonder.

It’s a fundamental tool of leadership, fuels creativity and is at the core of problem solving.

I’m stuck on imagination, on how to foster my own, how to encourage yours, and how to put both to good use in re-energising our world (and for those with whom I work, our church).

So get used to hearing the word from me…..I think I might be a broken record.

To get you started, here’s a great video (thanks Cheryl) featuring graphic artist Michael Wolff.  Take the time to watch it, and then take the challenge below….

So, the challenge.

Wolff talks about the muscles of imagination, curiousity and appreciation.

I want to challenge you to go and visit a place you’re very familiar with.  It might be your church building, the local shopping centre, the walking trail you take each day, the local park.  Somewhere public, somewhere you know well.

Go there with the specific intent of exercising the interconnected muscles of appreciation, curiosity and imagination.

Notice things. New things.  Things you haven’t noticed at that place before. New sights. New sounds. New smells.  People. Conversations. Interactions.

Allow yourself plenty of time to simply “be” in your space.

Take inspiration from Wolff’s film, of his meander down the street, or in the supermarket.

Open yourself to all that surrounds you.

Take a camera and bring back one image (or many) of something that you noticed, appreciated.  Of something that inspired your imagination.

And then post a story about your experience (at your own webspace or here), upload your photo somewhere on the web and post a link to it.

Curiousity.  Appreciation.  Imagination

Time to get exercising.

This story first published at tasmission