Management, leadership, success-failure, heresy and idolatry.

Over the last week or so management and leadership have been the stuff of real and contentious debate in C of E circles. First came Martyn Percy’s 95 Theses, quickly followed by the Peterborough crisis.

My concern is not whether we need decent management and leadership (we do) but rather the nature of our belief in management and leadership. My fear is that we in the C of E currently hold some fairly false beliefs about the nature, scope and ability of management and leadership. If I am correct we need to be careful because false belief is not something the church should facilitate in case it leads to heresy and idolatry!

So let me offer a three questions to ponder or chew over:

To what extent are high quality management and leadership determiners of growth?

For me this is a vital questions because the really important thing in management and leadership is to identify the ends towards which management and leadership initiatives may be reasonably be directed.

What does good management and leadership look, and perhaps as importantly feel like?

I say feel because management and leadership is experienced through our nexus of relationships. Good management and leadership, it perhaps goes without saying, can feel either good or bad. The paradox is this: bad leadership can be positively experienced just as good management and leadership can provoke negative feelings, or at least feelings of resistance.

My fear is that the majority of us only want good and effective management and leadership to feel good. My greater fear is that those putting together the training scheme for senior leaders believe that quality management and leadership is always experienced positively and as such is capable of delivering positive outcomes for all. For its own well being the C of E must resist such romanticism.

What sources are the C of E drawing from in establishing the curriculum?

Let me again start with a fear; one of I have offered before. My fear is that the C of E, in common with many institutions, will (or do I mean has?) opt, in the words of Henry Mintzberg, one of the most sophisticated management thinkers, for the ‘trivial new,’ at the expense of those wonderful old writers.’

Turning to my first question I would like to suggest that high quality management and leadership is not necessarily a determinant of long-term growth! In fact it rarely is.

We might want to feel or believe that it is, especially those of us who regard ourselves as leaders. Surely this, given the hard evidence is straightforward hubris? Maybe the result of buying into the fallacy that strong and decisive leadership equals success and growth leads ultimately to managerially induced feelings of depression and inferiority?

As suggested we may even be invested in the notion that quality leadership is the most straightforward route to growth and success, but what is the hard evidence that would lead to this conclusion? Growth, I suggest, is a function of many ‘inputs’ some of which leaders and managers can control but the majority of which they can’t.

Luck always plays a part in corporate growth, macro economic conditions play a significant role, activity in what is known as the ‘transactional environment’ is vital (an example of a factor in the transactional environment would be competitor behaviour which is something management has no direct influence over but can benefit from – substitute growth is characteristic of conditions in the transactional environment). Yes strategy is important, and yes a visionary leader or a hard task master can make a difference, but what I would want to suggest is only an incremental and shorter-term difference. Luck and serendipity do, however, play an enormous role in the success-failure dynamic. As Christians we might, if pushed, also be forced to accept that providence has a role to play!

Empirical research, hard evidence, suggests that, in the corporate sector, today’s growth companies normally end up being tomorrow’s failures. Fortune, a well respected provider of market data in the U.S. reckon, based on historical trends, that 2/3 of those companies currently achieving the fastest rates of growth, will end up failing. Presumably the majority of the leaders of these businesses are currently revered, even idolised, for their insight, charisma and vision?

In the U.K. only thirty of the original members of the FTSE 100 index (launched in 1984) still exist. The interesting thing is that all of these companies have been led by a cadre of highly talented and well trained leaders! Or is good management and leadership only to be found in the 1/3rd of businesses that sustain over the longer-term? Are those 1/3 of organisations that sustain over the long-term the only ones that deserve the best leaders and managers? Well no! But, since we can’t accurately predict which organisations (or even churches) will continue to grow over the long-term (whatever current leaders and strategists say) the question is in any case impossible to answer.

So I do not believe that high quality management and leadership, even though it is an absolute and functional necessity, has any real bearing on long-term growth, whatever the popular leadership books tell you (poor management and leadership can however accelerate decline, but that is a different argument). This is I suspect a hard message, or a bitter pill, for those who idealise or even idolise the notion of leadership. There is one caveat I would add: many successful organisations, institutions and even churches can extend the impact leadership has on ongoing success through a careful policy of identifying, nurturing and appointing their own leaders. This, just like Liverpool’s policy, of promoting from within their own ‘boot room,’ may help sustain super-normal returns beyond the time period where such returns would normally be achieved but what it can’t do is ensure a never ending pattern of growth and success for too many other variables are at play. Just consider Liverpool’s history of astonishing success followed by relative failure.

The irony is that in the corporate world, at least until recently, management (and leadership) were recognised as important without promoting them to be the key determinant on the success-failure continuum. Just consider what MBA stands for as a point of illustration: Master of Business Administration (my daughters ‘accuse’ me of being a Master of B….. All)! When MBA ‘s were established it was recognised that the scope of management control was extremely limited. Managers existed solely to administer the business to the best of their ability.

Sometimes good management and leadership is about sustaining in difficult market conditions, sometimes it is about administering a well executed and timely departure from a market, and occasionally it might be about ensuring that the company can achieve accelerated, or super-normal, rates of growth for a period of time.

Good church leadership can, and should, likewise be found in static, declining and for the fortunate few growing contexts. The Church should resist all tendencies to suggest that stasis and decline are necessarily a function of poor management and leadership and that growth is always attributable to dynamic leadership and prudent management. Too many other factors are at play and such crass attribution is in nay case unfair on those who lead in some of the most challenging contexts.

Good leaders read the conditions and react accordingly to events in the macro and transactional environments (this is called strategy in simple terms); that’s all! They might support their efforts with corporate visions, mission statements and so forth. They may well be blessed with charisma and the ability to cajole (although we shouldn’t underestimate blandness as a leadership quality), but what they can not promise or necessarily even deliver is long-term success. To claim they can is a heresy, to place too much hope in their ability to do so is a form of idolatry.

If we accept the notion that management and leadership are activities that need to be undertaken by all institutions irrespective of where the corporation finds itself in the life cycle we must presumably accept that management and leadership, even when performed at a high level, can leave stakeholders experiencing a variety of emotions?

If our preference is for a visionary leader who is able to continually inspire growth we need to be careful. Too much faith in this type of leadership can lead to either high levels of instability as followers search out and give their allegiance to seemingly omnipotent leaders (leaders who frequently move on to the next opportunity as their style of leadership in its particular context reaches its sell by date), or alternatively frustration, cynicism and unhealthy stoicism as the reality of the limits of leadership become increasingly obvious and we realise we may have, in fact, been sold a pup.

Do we, the followers, for the sake of our own (spiritual) well being want to risk becoming either success junkies, or depressed cynics? Yet, I would want to suggest that good management and leadership should leave us feeling something.

Rather than feeling inspired and up, perhaps, the real test of ‘good’ (as in virtuous) management and leadership should be to leave us, the followers, with the feeling that we have been considered, attended to, dealt with fairly, courteously and justly. Perhaps the best compliment that we can give a leader is that in whatever circumstance they were managing and leading, whether they were ‘delivering’ growth, or ‘administering’ decline, or even if they were simply running hard to stand still (which is the norm for many leaders), they did so with integrity?

In order for ‘us’ to experience leadership integrity we require a real emotional, spiritual and tangible level of connection with our leaders. A church which fails to connect both vertically and horizontally is a church that is doomed to fail whatever grand initiatives are offered up, whatever new ways of doing things are introduced.

Good and virtuous leadership can only ever take place in relationship and surely this is something that the church ought to be teaching the rest of the world and let’s be honest, given the empirical evidence, toady’s charismatic-visionary leader stands a very good chance of being regarded as tomorrow’s loser, or worse still charlatan. Unless that is they are perceived as being relational, humble, and imbued with integrity.

Maybe St. Benedict was onto something when he suggested that his abbots seek out, consult and relate to all members of their communities, especially the young and the weak, before making a significant decision? Perhaps St. Benedict’s advice is something our senior leaders (aka bishops) need to take to heart as they discern the direction the church should be heading in? And, maybe they should also listen to St. Benedict’s view that frequently the Holy Spirit works through the youngest and weakest members of the community rather than through those currently occupying the glossiest and most elite positions, or whose star appears to be in the ascendancy?

St. Benedict, and his rule, I would want to suggest is one of the sources we should be drawing on. St. Benedict is undoubtedly, in Mintzberg’s terms, one of those ‘wonderful old writers.’ The Rule of Benedict should be a core text for all interested in, or identified for, positions of Christian leadership. By all means read Mintzberg and Porter (even Tom Peters if you must – but not Jim Collins, please) but not until after you have read the Rule of Benedict and a little bit of Henry Nouwen. Benedict and Nouwen have far more to say to us than the vast majority of popular management and leadership thinkers or even seemingly successful practitioners. We need to learn as a church to take success with a very large pinch of salt, not sugar!

Henry Nouwen, in ‘The Wounded Healer’ (first published in 1979) describes what he calls the ‘Rootless Man.’ The rootless man is someone who is dis-connected from any sense of the past, or the future. The rootless person, has no real guide or narrative to live by. The rootless person distrusts (perhaps with good reason) the majority of institutions and therefore becomes isolated. One strategy the rootless person may adopt is to seek the approval of their peers (who are also institutionally cynical). This strategy may work for a while, up until the point where the person feels that they will have to forego something of their own integrity in order to retain the groups affirmation. This is how Nouwen explains the problem, and, it is a leadership problem:

Many young people who are completely unimpressed by the demands, expectations and complaints of the big bosses of the adult world, show a scrupulous sensitivity to what their peers feel, think and say about them. Being considered an outcast or drop out by adults does not worry them. Being excommunicated by the small circle of friends to which they belong can be an unbearable experience. Many young people may even become enslaved by the tyranny of their peers. While appearing indifferent casual and even dirty to their elders, their indifference is often carefully calculated, their casualness studied in the mirror, and their dirty appearance based on a detailed analysis of their friends……..not following fathers is quite different from not living up to the expectations of one’s peers. The first means disobedience; the second, feelings of shame. In this respect there is an obvious shift from a gilt culture to a shame culture.’ Now for the really hard bit: ‘This shift has very deep consequences, for if the youth no longer desires to become an adult and take the place of the fathers, and if the main motivation is conformity to the peer group, we might witness the death of a future-orientated culture – or to use a theological term – the end of an eschatology.’

Drawing on Nouewn’s analysis (and many would continue to argue that we continue to live in a rootless era) (church) leadership should be:

a) characterised by integrity

b) concerned with authenticity. The culture should be one that does not insist that folk, young, old, or anywhere in between need to fake it to make it. This might cause tensions at the level of doctrine! But culture, lived values, not aspirational growth should be church leadership’s preoccupation. Better to be smaller and healthier than large and unhealthy. Growth and apparent success can easily be based on bad values (masquerading as good ones). Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.

c) Be deeply connected and relational in the here and now in order to be future-orientated.

Nouwen rightly believes that the leaders need above all to connect and relate and, he has a word of warning for all who have a (misplaced) faith in the ability of leadership and management to inspire, build up, evangelise, grow, disciple and succeed only in their own carefully calculated terms. Let’s leave the last word to Nouwen, one of those wonderful writers of old:

The task of the Christian leader is to bring out the best in man and to lead him forward to a more human community; the danger that his skillful and diagnostic eye will become more an eye for distant and detailed analysis than the eye of a compassionate partner. And if priests and ministers of tomorrow think that more skill training is the solution for the problem of Christian leadership for the future generation, they may end up being more frustrated and disappointed than the leaders of today. More training and structure are just as necessary as more bread for the hungry. But just as bread given without love can bring war instead of peace, professionalism without compassion will turn forgiveness into a gimmick, and the kingdom to come into a blindfold.’

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