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:


returning the name

IMAG2162Just recently we took our kids for their first visit to Port Arthur.  It’s a place that represents a unique insight into the convict period of Tasmania’s recent history.  Operating as a secondary prison, it was home to men and boys who had been shipped to the colonial convict prisons, and then re-offended in some way.

Part of the site at Port Arthur includes a restoration of what is known as the “Separate Prison”, a place of particular brutality and deprivation during its operation. Here men were essentially denied their humanity, forced to work in silence, deprived of inter-personal contact of any real sort, forced to wear masks when outside their cells.  The idea was to confront the convict with their own broken-ness and force some kind of change to occur.

My kids, as we walked around the restored ruins of the separate prison, were incredulous. “How could they think this would work?” they would ask. “How could anybody be so cruel?”

We didn’t defend the choices made in those days, just observed that then, as now, people were working with what they new, what information was at hand. At that moment in time, taking away the individual humanity seemed to be an approach that might lead to restoration.

The prison has now been restored to tell a different story, the story of the men who were held there, broken there, lived and died there. Now, 150 years later, there is a sense in which humanity is being returned to this unspeakably inhumane place.

See these words for example, from a photographic installation telling the stories of the prisoners:

Port Arthur Separate Prison Words

In this place, where their names were taken from them, we name them again.

Those are powerful words, and a powerful statement. They in some small way restore something to those who had everything taken away.

It’s a difficult time in our national story, the time of the convicts. It’s a time when so many had their names taken away.

And it parallels another difficult part of our story, when indigenous Australians likewise had their names taken, had their humanity denied, were cast as incomplete, inhuman, and unimportant.

And that is a story that generations on we still struggle to right.

In our day, in our communities, who are the others whose names are taken away?

Is it the poor, living below the poverty line, and powerless?

Is it the person living with disability, the essence of their humanity not seen by those around them?

Who else?

It strikes me that part of the purpose of God for the church is to return names to those who have been stripped bare. At the same time as we have to acknowledge that at times we have been complicit, so we have to continue to honour, to name, to respect, to humanise.

Who can you honour by returning their name?

the tulip: a metaphor?

The tulip is my favourite flower.  I’m not all that big on flowers in general, but tulips are incredible. The shapes, the variety of colours I find astonishing.

And so last weekend, with a day to spare and not much time left to explore Tasmania, we loaded the troops and headed north-west to check out the glorious sights of Table Cape tulip farms. It’s a couple of weeks after the famed Wynyard Tulip Festival, but we guessed there would still be plenty of colour around.

There is no arguing that it’s a spectacular scene, row upon row, wild with colour, bright against the rich red soil.

The thing is, as we got up close with the tulips, we noticed all is not as it seems from a distance.

In the neat, uniform rows, gaps appear.  In the blanket of tulips, we notice that the flowers are actually not spread evenly, and not every plant bears the bright petals.

And in this picture of health and vitality, some of the individual flowers are not quite so healthy, the petals damaged by wind and rain, flowers starting to break down as they pass their prime.

There are pockets, of course, where this isn’t the case, where row upon row of late-blooming varieties are perfect.

But for the most part, look closely, and the signs are there that the spring is nearly done, that the cycle of life continues, and the health that is obvious from a distance is in fact starting to fade.

The astute gardener (which I most definitely am not!) will know that there is no point in trying to prolong the life of the flower. Now is not the time for fertiliser to try and get the flower to bloom again. The tulip’s flower is best removed as soon as it starts to fade, allowing the tulip to put all its energy into the bulb, and ensure a healthy tulip in the next growing season.

There’s no avoiding the life-cycle of the tulip, only value in recognising which part of the cycle it is in, working with the seasons, caring for the plant, flower or bulb as fits.

Sometimes that means it’s time to remove the flower from the plant, at another time to remove the bulb from the ground altogether, and later still to replant, to fertilise and water in preparation for a new growing season.

As I wandered among the rows, entranced by the variety, the beauty, and noticing the life-stage of most of the plants, I couldn’t help wondering if sometimes the same is true for our communities and churches.

There are times when we are in our prime, when things look great (and they are), and there are times when we need to recognise the fading light, or the time for renewal, for storing energy, for putting down roots and for rebirth.

Where is your community in its life cycle? What care does it need right now?

just around the corner

I parked yesterday in a suburban street in West Launceston.

It could have been anywhere. Houses, footpaths, cars. Kids playing. People walking. A school at the top of the hill, a shop down the road.

It was so very normal. Suburbia.

And then I walked.

After two minutes I was in ‘First Basin’ where the South Esk River comes spilling out of the upper sections of Cataract Gorge, into a large open pool, before continuing down the Gorge to the waiting arms of the Tamar estuary. The water is surrounded by cliffs and hills, parkland and bushland, a 300m chairlift carrying excited school kids overhead. Peacocks fussing and preening.

It’s anything but suburbia.

And I walked again, following a trail upstream toward the delightfully named Duck Reach.

Not 10 minutes from setting out on foot from my car parked in the heartland of the suburbs I was a world away.  The remnant of last week’s floodwaters tumbled down the rocky riverbed. The steep sides of the gorge deep with forest, the atmosphere still and heavy – the river and an occasional bird’s call the only sounds beyond my own footsteps.

It is a beautiful place, and all the more remarkable for being so close to the heart of the city.

At one moment I was in the normalcy of suburbia, and minutes later deep in tbe beauty of the gorge.  It never ceases to amaze me that such a remarkable spot can be so close to ordinary life, literally just around the corner.

As I walked I thought a lot about that fact. I wondered how often we who are caught up in the ordinariness of daily life miss the spectacular, the remarkable, the astonishing that is just around the corner.

And I wondered about the church that I work among, so obsessed with worrying about our daily bread that we miss all the opportunities that lie just out of sight.

It seems an obvious connection. Lift our eyes from suburbia to find the remarkable that is literally on our doorstep.

But as I trod the riverside path on my way back home, something started to stir for me.  I had parked my car in the middle of everything that I know, and gone off to find something better.

And how often, I wondered, is that the case?  How often do we give up on all that is normal and around us to go searching for the something remarkable?  How often do we leave suburbia to go hunting for Cataract Gorge?

The closer I got to my car the more I realised that suburbia is anything but ordinary.  This is where I live. There are friends and family, there are stresses and tension, there is laughter of kids playing in the front yard, heartache as an amublance races to the scene of a domestic tragedy.

This, suburbia, is life. It’s not ordinary, it’s incredible.  When I go looking for the amazing that I’m convinced is just around the corner I think perhaps I miss the remarkable that surrounds me right where I am.

The grass is always greener, or so we say.  The salvation of my church, the restoration of my soul, the reclaiming of my world as a better place….these things are perpetually just around the corner.

Except they are not. They are right before my very eyes. They are my neighbours, my family, the shop at the end of my street.  The best stuff isn’t around the corner, its right here.

Perhaps I’d best start just here.

the many shapes of normal

Today i went to visit Hobart’s new MONA gallery.  MONA is the private gallery of Tasmanian David Walsh.  It’s only opened recently in a new purpose built venue at Walsh’s Moorilla vineyard/winery/entertainment precinct.

I went to visit with Cheryl (who reflects on her visits here and here), to encounter the gallery, and it’s opening exhibition “Monanism” (I think it’s basically a collection of Walsh’s favourite pieces).

Visiting MONA is an expedition into the unexpected.  Almost from the moment you turn off a suburban street and suddenly find yourself in the midst of a riverside vineyard, everything is abnormal, and (in my limited experience) its distinctly un-gallery like.

The building itself is stunning.  Carved from the ground, the gallery covers four main levels and is industrial in nature – steel, bare timbers, brushed concrete, and the sandstone that lies under the ground.  It’s all angles, and rust and grunge. And it’s astonishing. (click through to read on…..) Continue reading

workshop description: re-imagining worship in a traditional space

The Uniting Church in Tasmania is blessed with many fine old church buildings.  They’re traditionally shaped, and often furnished accordingly. Long fixed pews, pipe organs, even old-school box pews are common. Heritage listing prohibits re-shaping many of the buildings to a form more appropriate for a modern faith community.

Those buildings are both a blessing, and a profound challenge to the church – in ways that we’ll continue to explore.

Last week we had the opportunity to run the latest in our regular “Hobart 2020 Forums” for those interested in exploring the themes of “How then shall we live?”, the interim report of the Uniting Alive: Hobart 2020 process.

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workshop description: create-a-cafe

Last week we ran the first of a series of “Hobart 2020 Cafe Forum” gatherings.  Designed to provide opportunity for people to explore the themes of the report “How then shall we live?” for the Uniting Church in Hobart, we tried to take a creative approach to this gathering.

The key themes of the report that formed the basis for this gathering are collaboration, creativity, innovation, imagination and community.

This post records the shape of the event, some of the thinking behind it, and a simple recording of what happened. If it’s an idea that has use for you, please feel free to run your own create-a-cafe gathering….either along similar lines to what happened in Hobart, or better still, shaped to fit your own context.

Hit the link to read all the details:

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