Speaking of governance, speaking of leadership

Hands up who would want to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. I genuinely believe that he has one of the hardest ‘leadership’ jobs imaginable. The Archbishop, and the House of Bishops, are in the unenviable position of being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I think we need to be realistic about the lot, and burden, of episcopal leadership. Sure, it comes, like all callings, with its joys but by heck does it have its tribulations. I suspect that it is far easier to be an armchair archbishop or bishop than a real life one.

When leadership is difficult and challenging, when it seems really hard to see what it takes to hold the whole ‘messy church,’ together what can be done? Sometimes the answer might be nothing. Living with disappointment, hardship, difference, threats, and perhaps even schism is in some ways part of the reality of leadership. This is why leaders need to be resilient characters.

There is a modern tendency to believe that leadership is reducible to being a purposeful visionary. I think this is a catastrophic mistake.  Many organisations that fail do so because their leaders have failed to pay attention to the robustness of their governance processes. Is the Church of England in danger of doing precisely this? Possibly, would be my answer. So what is good governance? What is good leadership?

Well lets take creating and sustaining a compelling vision as a given, but lets also say that vision is just the launch pad. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s what you do with the vision, how you manage the vision, how you govern the vision that becomes the main thing. Governance and management of the vision is in many ways they very stuff of effective moral leadership.

Good governance isn’t just about processes, it’s also about people. If we think of the people involved in a robust process of governance we can categorize  people into  two distinct ‘stakeholder’ groups: insiders and outsiders. Stakeholders can be thought of as people, or groups, that have an interest in the organisation and its decisions and who, to varying extents, have the authority and power to influence decisions and / or hold the organization to account. Good governance (and I would suggest leadership) always starts with a thorough and detailed understanding of the ‘stakeholder map.’

The insiders are those occupying senior roles in  the organisation, institution, or in the Church of England’s case body, who keep the organisation honest. Keeping the body honest requires deliberately and explicitly hearing diverse voices, especially when those voices have a high level of expertise. Keeping the body honest also putting in place appropriate checks and balances. This is why it was so interesting to read the Bishop of Peterborough’s thoughts on the burden of proof in the Bishop Bell case and Martin Sewell’s  reflection that ”Archbishop Justin has a handful of advisers to guide him in these matters – not one of whom has a credible claim to expertise in this increasingly complex specialism.”

Turning to the other contentious issue we now know that, despite assurances of ‘prayerful consideration,’ the decision to offer the Rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, for transgender people, was delegated to a sub committee of the House of Bishops.

In governance terms there is nothing wrong with delegating tasks to sub committees. In fact it is necessary. Public Limited Companies, for instance, have remuneration committees, succession planning committees and so on.  Sub committees should be populated by people with the necessary skills to make good, high quality, and objective recommendations, to the entirety of the board whose job is to scrutinize their recommendations.  The wider board, because it is collectively responsible for all governance (and leadership) decisions must hold any sub committee to account. Rubber stamping the recommendation of a sub-committee, rendering the sub-committee the locale for decision making, is the most heinous of all governance ‘crimes.’ Deciding what should be delegated to a sub committee and what must remain the business of the body corporate is central to the art of good governance. So, why was this issue delegated to a sub committee? Put another way, why wasn’t it considered strategically (and theologically) important enough to be considered by the full House? After all it could have been.  In deciding whether an issue should be delegated surely a significant consideration should be the geography from which the issue originated? This issue originated in and through a motion overwhelmingly carried at General Synod. The recipients of the motion being the bishops. This being the case was delegation for consideration and decision really the best way to proceed? These are all governance and leadership questions. They need to be candidly and truthfully answered to avoid any suggestion that the house was looking for an expedient and political solution.

The notion that all ‘moral agents’ are simultaneously individually and collectively responsible for the decisions arrived at (and the processes through which decisions are made) really is the most basic principle of governance. A failure to understand and enact this is a catastrophic failure of leadership. In a corporate setting an individual  director has a moral responsibility to ensure that he or she is content that all decisions reached by the board are good decisions arrived at following a robust process.

An individual director (or trustee in the case of a charity) simply cannot say: ‘well that decision was delegated to the sub committee and that’s where responsibility resides.’ To do so would to be fundamentally misunderstand the agency relationship which they have been handed whereby each individual director (or bishop)  is personally, as well as collectively, responsible to all stakeholders; ‘jointly and separately responsible’ is the absolute mantra of all good governance. It is indefensible for an individual agent, or governor, to hide behind, blame or even acquiesce to the collective. Good governors are the institutions most tenacious critics, always asking two questions: are we doing the right thing and are we behaving in the right way?   I hope that this most basic of principles is being taught in the Church of England’s  Mini M.B.A. senior leadership development programme? I suspect it isn’t. ( For interest, prior to ordination, I used to lecture M.B.A. students in Ethics and Governance)

For a director, and I would argue a bishop, keeping the organisation honest must come before any notions of unity or uniformity. In fact I would argue that the one area where senior leaders should be united is in their absolute commitment to the highest standards of governance. Where a senior leader, director, or bishop has real concerns about the decisions arrived, and  /or the processes through which decisions are made, they have a moral obligation to make these concerns known. If they feel that their concerns haven’t been properly addressed their only real, moral, course of action is to make their concerns known beyond the closed boundaries of the organisation or body. To do so is an act of loyalty and not disunity.  To fail to do so is to help ensure that ‘group think’ always succeeds. Group think is a very dangerous beast. Group think is also subtle and sly with its preference for masquerading as collective unity. Group think wins out, always, where governance processes are weak and, in a climate of fear.

If, after, asking the right questions and holding the body they are charged with leading to ‘just account’ they are still not content the only choice left is to relinquish their office. Yes, resigning or relinquishing a post, can be regarded, on occasion, as representing the highest standards of moral leadership.

So, I have huge concerns about the decision recently arrived at by the House of Bishops to offer the Rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Vows to transgender Christians and my concerns are primarily about the governance and leadership processes through which this decision was reached. External stakeholders may, may or may not, like the decisions arrived at but what they must have is absolute trust in the governance process and the moral agents (bishops) responsible for the efficacy of the process; trust is after all the most important of all intangible assets. Through the governance process leaders can, and should, build always seek to build trust. Trust in bishops is at a very low ebb and we therefore have a crisis of episcopal leadership.

Trust has been undermined because it seems that the decision was made, not by the House of Bishops, but by a sub-committee of bishops (how these bishops were appointed is also an interesting governance question which should be answered. I would question given the voting record of some of the members at synod whether the group possessed sufficient objectivity), with the House of Bishops effectively rubber stamping the decision.

Of course we cannot truly know this to be the case because the agenda and minutes of the meeting are private. Privacy is fine only, and as so long as, trust exists in the individuals, the body and the process. In the interests of good leadership and in order to instill a sense of confidence in the governance and leadership process I would like for the minutes and agenda to be made public (redacted if necessary). The ‘external’ stakeholders have a right to know whether the Church of England’s bishops are committed to the highest standards of governance and leadership and whether recent decisions really are the result of ‘prayerful consideration.’

At present it looks unlikely. What is at stake, for all stakeholders, is the moral authority of our bishops, individually and collectively. 




2 thoughts on “Speaking of governance, speaking of leadership

  1. In our church order, decisions about doctrine are made by the House of Bishops. The Synod may request this or that, but ultimately the decision is taken by those to whom authority has been committed for such purposes.

    • that’s not the point I am making. This is about the governance and leadership. The House of Bishops as said in the article will make decisions that please some and not others but they must do so through robust processes of governance and on this occasion they failed to do so; miserably.

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