Leadership and followership in a Quaker context

December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is a guest post of mine on Craig Barnett’s TransitionQuaker blog.

Though it’s written for a Quaker audience I’m hoping it may offer general thoughts about the challenges of good leadership – and of supporting those in leadership roles. For some Quakers, the idea of leadership is challenging; and as for needing at times to be good followers and being disciplined as part of a group together – well, that can be a challenging idea too!

The full text is below; many thanks to Craig for hosting me. Click here for a longer, referenced article from which the text below is drawn.

Two taboos? – leadership and followership

This is a guest post by John Gray.

I am wondering if we can become more conscious and celebratory of the many expressions of leadership we see around us – and can find within each of us. I like to think about Quakers being good followers (where appropriate) as well as being open to offering good leadership. Those in leadership roles, and those who are not in formal roles but who are otherwise taking initiative amongst local Friends, certainly need support for themselves and in how we respond to them.

For some, the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ might sit more comfortably than any claim to leadership; and who would not welcome a resurgence of leaderful behaviour amongst Friends. I hope that contemporary Friends are open to seeing the need for celebrating and nurturing leadership amongst us; leadership grounded in our tradition, our service and in our contemporary witness, and imbued with a strong dash of 21st century savviness and realism.

A historical note of how early Quakers understood leadership

Stuart Masters at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre has commented that church leadership as understood by early Friends was at the same time both charismatic and provisional. Charismatic in the sense that any call to leadership should be understood as coming from God and not via human agency or organisation. And provisional in the sense that the calling might be revoked, or ‘be time-limited and/or focused very specifically on a particular issue or task’. Hence, as Stuart Masters identifies, Friends’ emphasis on discernment of rightful calling and authentic authority; and that acting faithfully was held as more important than achieving specific outcomes.

We can see the enduring success of these early leadership initiatives in the fact of the survival of Quakers through the centuries, with some organisational structures and processes created 350 years ago still serving useful purposes; and that a reliance on waiting in – and acting from – the light within remains a central description of current Quaker practice.

Leadership in contemporary British Quaker experience

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Quaker leadership in modern times is under implicit and sometimes even explicit criticism. The reasons for this may be debated, but may in part have to do with the rise of individualism in society at large, or an imbalanced reliance by contemporary British Quakers on the primacy of individual discernment above the submission to discipline and testing by the worshipping group (for more on this, see Craig’s post in 2014). Sometimes Friends seem driven automatically to kick against even authentic expressions of leadership or leaderful behaviour – the so-called ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.

We are called to speak truth to power, but I may erroneously assume that I have all the truth and ‘the other’ has all the power. If the other is another local Friend, that criticism can be a devastating experience. Our over-busy lives do not help; and there are many roles which need to be filled. At local and area meeting level in Britain Yearly Meeting, is it going too far to describe contemporary Quaker leadership at times as being leadership by the available – or, by the least unwilling?

But we have many resources to draw on for leadership, even if we do not remember them. Amongst other characteristics for leadership, George Lakey identifies the non-distinction between holy and secular ground; that as a priesthood of all believers we are all expected to make a contribution; we have a history of inspiring action; and that mentoring and community lie at the heart of supporting each other (Powerful beyond measure: Trusting the call to leadership. 2011 William Penn Lecture. http://vimeo.com/22094824, at 13:35 – 33:35 minutes).

In a beautiful phrase, Lakey describes leadership as ‘taking initiative in relationship’, implying both the quality of relationships we need to foster; and that we are called to initiate, not just coast along. And enthusiasm for servant leadership by some Friends is welcome – so long as the actual practice of servant leadership is not passive-aggressive manipulation, nor a mock-humble and unassertive denial of the responsibility to initiate and guide! If modern Quakers are ambivalent about the exercise of leadership within our worshipping communities, how much more unpalatable might be the proposition that at times we need to be good followers!

Yet the theories of followership have much to offer us. We can be usefully interested in the characteristics and behaviours of individuals acting in relation to leaders, recognising that the terms ‘follower’ and ‘leader’ refer to roles not people (and note here the echo of early Quakers’ understanding of leadership). Followers and leaders can switch between roles when tackling different issues or over time. They can share a common purpose. Their roles are relational and dynamic in nature. Leaders and followers interact to co-construct leadership, followership and outcomes.

How different the experience of leadership if followers are active not passive, and if they bring independent, critical and yet supportive thinking. Well might Ira Chaleff praise the leader’s courage to be less dominant and a follower’s courage to be more dominant (though we might prefer the term ‘influential’ rather than dominant; Chaleff, The courageous follower: standing up to & for our leaders. 2009). The courageous follower needs to be willing to assume responsibility, to serve, to participate in transformation and change processes when needed, to challenge the leader, and even to take a different stand in answer to their own moral values.

Supporting those in leadership roles

Effective leadership is not easy, and demands – at the very least – courage, strength and persistence.Pitfalls await those who seek to bring about change. Burn-out and disillusionment are early shoals upon which to run. Ineffective approaches (too much command and control, for example, or trying to bludgeon or guilt-trip folk into action) will hardly yield enthusiastic support and perhaps instead outright hostility. Or there may instead be ego-driven leadership, and assumptions of power or authority which are not grounded in a spirit-led, tested leading. How can we encourage a development of leadership skills and the arts of insight and self-awareness? What is the work we can do to support those who have taken the first courageous step? What can I do for myself, so that my leaderful behaviour does not at the same time bring burdens or harm to others?

If we regard Friends in leadership roles, or demonstrating leaderful behaviour, as acting in the ministry, then at the very least we have our Quaker processes of upholding each other in worship and in practical ways. Threshing meetings, meetings for clearness, and nominated support groups, may prove useful mechanisms for some of those in leadership roles. Oversight, coaching and mentoring are available too; as are peer processes such as collaborative inquiry approaches, action learning sets, and self-and-peer review.

So where is all this leading?

Firstly, for sure, I yearn for a reclaiming and celebration of leadership as an essential element of Quakerism practice today. Leadership is not a dirty word, and need not be automatically equated with abuse of power or a trammelling of others’ freedoms.

Secondly, we should embrace the concept of good followership, as a gift that Friends can offer each other and their worshipping groups.

And thirdly, we need those who are willing to offer leadership or to learn its ways, and to prayerfully discern the opportunities for leadership to which we are called. I am particularly interested in the engagement of young Friends: in these uncertain times, passion and fervour are as much our allies as grey hairs and wise souls. In reality, of course, our ageing demographic means much is also required of those who are no longer young. Equipping for Ministry, and the Young Adult Leadership Programme, are exciting initiatives which over time will help change the Society’s attitudes to leadership; similar programmes are also running elsewhere in the Quaker world. In essence, we will do well to create routes into leadership roles for members of our community, and educate them in the soft and harder skills of leadership, collaboration, conflict resolution, globally responsible practice and values-in-action.

John D Gray

If this blog piece has caught your attention, you may be interested in some reflective questions:

Some reflection questions
· What if any of all of this resonates with you and your experience?· What was useful for you? Challenging? Unclear?

· Where do you prefer to place yourself on the spectrum of leader – follower?

· Does the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ carry meaning for you (in comparison to ‘leader’)?

· What further thoughts or actions might this piece encourage for you?

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