Reactive Leadership

wrong wayIt has been an interesting three months.  From November 6 until January 27, I spent most of my time bent over in pain as a sliver of bone gouged into a cluster of nerves along my lower spine.  I have never known such pain and distress in my life.  It wasn’t fun for me, and I wasn’t fun for anyone else.  Blessedly, wonderfully, joyously the thorn in my flesh detached and I am (relatively) pain-free for the first time in almost three months.  As the fog clears (pain and pain medication are wonderful ways to stop paying attention to almost everything) I am observing the current messages in our denomination about leadership, planning, the future, and our best way forward and I am just as confused as when I was heavily medicated.  I attended the Quadrennial Training in Nashville on Adaptive Leadership and have delved more deeply into Vital Congregations and Healthy Church Initiative — and it makes me wonder if anyone consulting our denomination has read anything new in the past dozen years?

The Quadrennial Training in Nashville offered a Reader’s Digest condensed version of Adaptive Leadership — taking a thoughtful, strategic, thorough approach to complex problem solving and critical thinking and turning it into a watered-down, simplistic, half-baked “group process” that gutted it of most of its depth or lasting value (my personal opinion).  I remember meeting with and inviting Ron Heifitz in 2000 (whose 1994 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers became the Adaptive Leadership gold standard for a decade or more) to come to the General Board of Discipleship to share his vision and wisdom.  Unfortunately, there was no interest or support at the Nashville end, so nothing came of it.  Lo, and behold, thirteen years later we finally got around to Adaptive Leadership — unfortunately, we got around to learning what was new and cutting edge in 1994.  Attending the training, it felt as if nothing significant has been learned about systems theory, complexity theory, diffusion theory, Theory U, mindfulness, participatory decision-making or emotional intelligence by our church in the last twenty years.  Oh, we did have a YouTube video on marketing manipulation/persuasion that is kind of recent — but it was about marketing manipulation/persuasion, not good leadership.

At the heart of Adaptive Leadership is a wisdom that complex issues require time, effort, energy, critical analysis, and creativity to address.  Quick-fixes and simple step-by-step group processes are what keep us bogged down in the messes we are in.  The idea that leaders from around the church could gather for a few days together and meet for five or six hours of training and bring about deep change is the same old, same old.  And slapping it together with Vital Congregations is merely adding insult to injury.  It has been gratifying that so many people have written me to thank me for my blog comparing Adaptive Leadership and Vital Congregations (The Janus Conundrum, November 18, 2012).  Over two dozen people told me that it helped them see the problems and inconsistencies in what we are trying to do.

In my opinion, our problem is that we are in reactive/panic mode — we don’t feel like we have time to make things better.  All the “death tsunami,” doom-and-gloom fatalists have been shouting that our end is near, that we are on the UMC equivalent of the fiscal cliff, that 30 years from now we will no longer exist (this prediction was first made in the 1930s, repeated in the 1940s, 1960s, 1990s, and the 2000s.  It seems we could be more biblical and choose forty years as our arbitrary expiration date instead of thirty, but what do I know?  I have EUB friends who feel like the church DID die in the 1960s, so maybe the prediction came true and we’re too dense to notice…), making people more than a little anxious and motivating them to grasp at any and all straws to stave off annihilation.

But Adaptive Leadership demands “slow down, watch, observe, assess, look beyond surface appearances, and don’t fall back on what worked in the past.”  Most of this got left out of the training in Nashville.  For people who really want to see where the best thinking has evolved since the 90s, I would recommend Theory U by Scharmer, Reframing Organizations by Bolman & Deal, Resilience by Zolli, Transforming Leaders by Carol S. Pearson, Complexity: A Guided Tour by Lewin, and two great classics: Diffusion of Innovations by Rogers and Organizational Culture and Leadership by Schein.  Yes, I know that none of these are “churchy books,” but I am a firm believer that God can speak wisdom through whatever mouth God chooses, and that there is great value in learning from a wide variety of disciplines (so there!).

The benefit of reading this laundry list of forward thinking is that it is all based on possibility, potential and promise (not problem solving or escaping the wrath to come).  There is energy and hope in these concepts.  We absolutely do NOT have to live without faith in the fear and false prophecy being espoused that we are an endangered species and God’s kingdom/kin-dom on earth is about to fall because we’re not counting enough attendees or raising enough money.  The institutional preservationists want to scare us into being better, but God is calling us to a Promised Land.  I am running toward God’s glorious realm… not away from the death tsunami.

In our Bible we have a book of Acts, but we operate as a church by a book of Reacts.  The passive, reactionary, anxious and fear-laden path we are on will not take us where God wants us to go.  We must spend more time remembering who we are and why we are here, less time worrying about who we are not and what we can’t do.  It gets exhausting waiting to see what new quick-fix, simplistic answer we will be offered next.  Let’s really study adaptive leadership and related thinking, roll up our sleeves, and begin building together a future that will honor, glorify and bring people to God.

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7 replies

  1. Just a quick reflection on an email I received — and just for the record, I’m sharing this because I am sensitive to the underlying emotion, not that I am in agreement with it:

    “You are a real bastard, you know? People are working really hard on these trainings and projects, and you have no right to trash the best efforts of people who you obviously don’t think are as smart or as capable as you.”

    I am the first to admit that I am not smart enough to assess and critique the “what” without hurting the feelings of a lot of well-intentioned, faithful, intelligent “whos”. I don’t think I am smarter than others in the church, but I do believe I am observing through a very different lens. I focus on quality, relevancy, integrity, and impact ahead of survival, numeric growth, popularity, marketing, and image. I believe we are dealing with a crisis of identity and purpose, not structure, governance, and polity. We cannot make adequate and effective decisions about structure, process and policy when we are in such deep disagreement about who we are, why we’re here, what is critically important for us to be doing, and what outcomes we must produce. Form follows function (like cart follows horse…). I am critical, yes, and I am truly sorry for all the places I am being unfair, unkind, or unChristian. This is NOT my intent. I see so much untapped potential and possibility that I do not believe can be accessed by most of the denominational fixes we are being offered. It is my deep desire to be part of the solution by raising questions about what we do, why we are doing it, how we are doing it, and to the best of my ability where our current efforts cannot possibly produce the results we say we want. I am the first to admit that I may not be right — that’s for others to decide. I simply use this blog as a forum to air my thinking and challenges. There is no malice intended, though that may not always be apparent. Thank you for challenging me and I will try to be more gracious and careful in the future.

    • So glad you are doing ok now–please keep up your good work I have felt this way for 30 years & have told every one I could. I always ran in to walls. God Bless you now & always. Patty

  2. Dan,
    A friend has recommended the book “The Truth About Leadership,” by Kouzes & Posner. I am wondering if you are familiar with it, and, if so, is it of the same tone and tenor as the adaptive leadership books you mention in your article? Thanks. Randall R. Hansen

  3. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your blog. You’re saying a lot that speaks to a Provisional Minister in his early forties.

    Would it be possible to get your email? I’d like to send you a few questions and an observation or two that I’m experiencing as well.

    Thanks again for the blog.

  4. And was it ever thus??? Thanks for speaking up – I find it ironic that we as ‘descendants of John Wesley’ are so ready to dumb down and react – and not think and integrate. Keep well and keep writing. ,

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