Leadership and Ethics […] 4 – Leadership is disturbing.

For those who might just be looking in, I’ve been writing a series of posts concerning leadership in the Emerging Church. I say ‘concerning’ because I have some concerns that unless we actually deal with the leadership issue properly we will simply end up with the same church situation we are critiquing. But with tea-lights.

I have been reading Griffin’s book ‘The Emergence of Leadership – Linking Self Organisation and Ethics’ and attempting to distill some of the highly academic work in there, and draw some conclusions for our situation.

To summarize the previous 3 posts on this leadership issue:

  • By locating ethical responsibility in a few ‘leader’ individuals, and in ‘the system’, we are adopting a view of leadership in which it is individual leaders who are blamed and punished when things go wrong, and treated as heros when they go right. We too often take on passive roles (the gathered congregation) as victims of ‘the system’ and of manipulative leaders, and simultaneously locate our salvation in the actions of heroic leaders. Result: we go some place. Get fed up. Bemoan the system. See some other leader we can worship. Go to their church. Repeat.
  • We need instead to realise that we are part of a body. We all have corporate responsibility. We are in it together. As equal before God.
  • It’s my theological contention that this ‘corporate’ view of the Church, this ‘organ-ization’ that we are a part of, leads us down the road of self-organization. A bottom-up, emergent, complex, living system is what Christ incarnated. And what we have as a model.

So what is the place of leaders in such organizations. Is there one? As I’ve argued in the last 3 posts, I think there is.

  • Leadership is distributed. Different people ought to be exercising leadership in different situations. Not one man does all. This is about interdependence.
  • Leaders are servers. They facilitate communication. They do not act as communiques between people. They simply make sure it happens.
  • Leaders have huge power-potential. But as they are constantly devolving it, and keeping communication open, they avoid power abuse.

I want to add something further to that, mostly based on a re-reading of Capra’s ‘The Hidden Connections‘.

Firstly, if we accept that the groups we are part of are living systems, then we need to appreciate that they cannot be changed in the same way a machine can. You can’t take them apart, re-grind the pistons, connect rods up a different way. Living systems change by being disturbed. Their equilibrium is removed, they are forced to respond, interact with their environment, and evolve to meet the new challenge. I love the recent Guinness ad, which takes 3 drinkers back in time right to them being tiny sea-creatures on a beach not liking the water… It’s only through that disequilibrium – that dissatisfaction – that things change.

The problem is, you can’t always tell how a living system will respond to that. But that’s the beauty of true freedom. Capra uses a lovely example: If you kick a lamp post, you can pretty much predict exactly what’s going to happen. You’re going to get a sore foot. But if you kick a dog… well that’s not easy to predict. Two living systems are now interacting, disturbing one another and having to work out how to face the emerging challenge.

This of course links in with the ‘dirt’ aspects of the book. I argue that we need to re-imagine our relationship with dirt in a church ‘purified to the point of sterility’. In a sterile church where everything is clean and spotless, nothing can live. Everything is dead in an operating theatre. Christ deliberately challenged the dirt boundaries of those he interacted with. Why? To disturb their equilibrium. To challenge them to think again. To force them to interact with their environment: to not ignore the lepers, the women, the tax collectors, the poor, the trafficked, the infected, the asylum seeking, the struggling…

So an aspect of leadership I want to add here is this: leadership is disturbing. This is perhaps in contrast to the ‘peace, peace’ style. Some in the church need to be affirmed in this leadership role (remembering that leadership is plural and distributed) of disturbing the peace. For there is no peace. This is leader as Trickster, if you will. A role Christ played so well.

Of course… there have to be limits. Complexity theory states that for a system to ‘self organize’ it needs to be held ‘at the edge of chaos’. Disturb it too far, you destroy it. Don’t disturb it enough, it dies. Life exists in the strange place very close to chaos. And it is a leadership task to keep us there.


One response to “Leadership and Ethics […] 4 – Leadership is disturbing.”

  1. I’ve read all four of your posts and think you’re on to something important. My question is what does this mean in real life. The most I can draw out so far is that we facilitate conversation. I don’t think that in itself is enough.
    John Carver’s governance model, Rob Bell’s ideas about binding and loosing in Velvet Elvis, and and understanding of DNA provide additional important pieces. This builds on the idea of conversation, but adds structure: The purpose of leadership is to help the system speak to its purpose and its limits. “Self-organization” emerges because the purpose and limits are simple enough to be seen and understood through incarnation. Thus, eveyone who chooses can live out the DNA.
    John Carver talks about this with a seemingly modernist view of clarifying Policy Ends and Executive Limitations. Bell refers to the binding and loosing in the church as an important to help clarify people’s freedom. And DNA identifies the importance of clearly summarizing and living out the important information. Thus the system self-organizes in such a way that more productive incarnations thrive and less productive ones don’t. The problem in most systems is that leaders tend to define too much (not allowing the “self” in self-organization) or too little (not allowing the “organization” in self-organization). Which brings us back to the balancing act.