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?

Leadership – self and peer development

September 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Imagine you’re with your work colleagues, during a day-long annual looking-back-looking-forward review and planning session together.

In turn, each of you takes a few minutes to speak, reflecting on your professional performance over the last year or so, referring to your values, the nature of your commitment to the work, your achievements and challenges, and your hopes for the period ahead.

You’re listened to carefully by your colleagues, after which each of them takes time to affirm what they’ve seen of your participation in the team over the year, and to validate the claim you’ve just made about yourself – including pointing out where they think you’ve undersold or oversold yourself!

The spoken contributions come from places of inquiry and curiosity, not blame or condemnation.

The atmosphere of the session is calm, reflective, honest – and safe enough for everyone to feel they can challenge themselves and each other. The outcomes: deeper trust, greater self-awareness, and a greater sense of accountability to and reliance on each other.

Sounds implausible? Could any team trust each other so much to run such a process, let alone being interested enough in each other to do so?

Well, recently I had the privilege of supporting a senior leadership team to take themselves through this process. And they were in the public sector, amidst all the pressures of delivering a service in a highly-regulated environment.

For the past two years I’d watched them work out for themselves, and for the teams they managed, what they believed was needed in terms of greater leadership and leaderful behaviour within the service. They had communicated this to their teams, and endeavoured to live out this new form of leadership, which prioritised accountability, greater autonomy, stronger accountability to self and to others, and a much fiercer loyalty to the overall vision and values of the services.

The leadership development interventions I devised with them, and my coaching, were aimed at supporting them fulfil the resulting commitments they had made to each other and to the staff. The Head of Service, fully part of the process,  had inspired them and supported them over the previous few years, to reach a place where they now knew for themselves the importance and the genuineness of the work in hand.

This form of self review which they were now engaged in, with feedback from colleagues or peers, is a powerful alternative or addition to formal appraisal and 360 feedback processes. It requires a good measure of individual skill and confidence to participate in, and enough levels of trust (though there are introductory processes for less-resilient teams as a way of helping to build deeper trust over time).

The specific opportunities of the process are four-fold:

  • Participants are encouraged, within the scope granted by the organisational context, to set their own standards and aspirations – knowing that these will be heard and tested by their peers
  • Participants lead the processes of assessment, again knowing that gaps between aspiration and achievement explored from the perspective of how things could be better in the future
  • Participants learn from this self-awareness how to identify, choose and practice new behaviours and set new, more stretching, standards
  • Accountability is inherent throughout the processes – aspirations for the future will be remembered, and each can hold themselves responsible for upholding (not destroying) their colleagues over the coming months, on the basis that best performance is what’s needed to enable the team as a whole to succeed.

If any of the above has stirred your interest, do be in touch to share your experience.

Supervision Workshop at London Mediators Day 2016

September 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

I’m pleased to have been asked to run a workshop on supervision frameworks and supervising mediators, at this year’s London Mediators Day, Saturday 8th October.

Here’s the workshop blurb:

Why does supervision matter, and how can the supervisor and the mediator act to get the best out of the process?

This workshop provides insights and guidance on:

• How to structure a supervision session

• Frameworks for delivery – in-house or external

• Models for peer, individual and group supervision

• How the purpose and outcomes of supervision impact on mediating skills.


There are other great-looking workshops happening throughout the day, and plenaries too – information and booking details here.


Old World superstitions, New World orientation

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Here’s a second nugget from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix (see this post for an earlier nugget on being an organisational emotional domino).

Friedman cites superstitions which underpin what might be called the age of anxiety, wearing us all down. And then, he suggests some ‘new world’ orientations to relationships.

First, those old world superstitions (some of them appear to be quite mainstream and liberal!) –

  • Leaders influence their followers by the model they establish for identification or emulation
  • the key to successful leadership is understanding the needs of their followers
  • communication depends on one’s choice of words and how one articulates them
  • consensus is best achieved by striving for consensus
  • stress is due to hard work
  • hierarchy is about power.

Instead, argues Friedman, a new world orientation to relationships will produce a view of leadership that will say the following:

  • a leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or presence (emotional being) affects the emotional processes in the relationship system
  • a leader’s major job is to understand his or her self
  • communication depends on emotional variables such as direction, distance and anxiety
  • stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others
  • hierarchy is a natural systems phenomenon rooted in the nature  of the [material itself within the organisational system] – what Friedman confusingly terms ‘the nature of protoplasm’).

(adapted from p195, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman. 2007. New York: Seabury Books).

If one can avoid being distracted by the phrase ‘the nature of protoplasm’, for me this list of orientations is exciting and profound.

A systems-thinking approach to leadership – essential in today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous) – leads us to hone and use our intuition to understand the whole, work with the interconnections, and shape the ‘river of change’ to to the best ends possible. And within that, Friedman identifies a principle task of the leader to understand themselves, and their invisible and often counter-intuitive impact on the system around them.

I love the reference to followers – and note I understand leadership and followership to refer to roles rather than being fixed permanently to people, and that informally these roles can rotate to suit the circumstances. And, as has been described elsewhere, leaders and followers can be in a dynamic relationship, ‘interacting to co-construct leadership, followership and outcomes’ (Ira Chaleff).

For me, effective leadership does require one to be alert to the needs of followers – so clearly I’m still partly buying into at least one of Friedman’s superstitions!

But I warm to the primary emphasis on knowing oneself and the reality of one’s presence. If that presence is truly discerned then, from a Gestalt perspective at least, awareness frees resistance (inner resistance, in this case) and will release insight and energy for transformation. And in that sense, maybe yes one can then be alert to the needs of followers, from an unblocked and deeper place of understanding.


Don’t be one of your organisation’s emotional dominoes

July 21, 2016 § 1 Comment

Here’s a nugget from a leadership book entitled A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman.

He explores the concept of differentiation, which he defines as

‘becoming oneself with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others … charting one’s own way by means of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually (seeing) where others are at’.

So for me it sounds like to what extent can I keep objective, and speaking/acting from my own judgments rather than just waiting to see – or being unduly influenced by – what others are doing. And note: I’m taking Friedman’s ‘reactivity’ to mean the likelihood of being stimulated to react.

Below are some examples of differentiation from Friedman, which seem to me – as someone interested in nurturing one’s true voice – to be a great list of aspirations for twenty-first century, emotionally intelligent leaders. See what you think. I love particularly the encouragement not to be one of your system’s emotional dominoes…

Differentiation is…

  • The capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system
  • Saying “I” when others are demanding “we”
  • Containing one’s reactivity, including the ability to avoid being polarised
  • Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others
  • Ceasing automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes
  • Being clear about one’s own personal values and goals
  • Taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context

(adapted from p183, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman. 2007. New York: Seabury Books).

By way of commentary on this: I knew someone, a very collaborative leader, who demonstrated some of the above. His ability to rise above and to read a group situation was amazing. On the few times when I saw him lose his cool, it was almost always out of passion for truth – and what struck me was that even in those moments he never lost his sense of the others around him and what they might be feeling and needing.

Unnervingly, Friedman also points out that effective differentiation by a leader will inevitably trigger sabotage from the ‘least well-differentiated’ people in the system. A health warning, therefore. Just sayin’. Sabotage is possible in any circumstances, of course; so differentiation may be a better path to choose, though not necessarily an easier one.

NB There’s a separate inspirational nugget I found in Friedman’s book, which I’m planning to post about in the next couple of days.

Coaching culture

May 30, 2016 § Leave a comment


Coaching is a professional relationship between a trained coach and a client (who may be an individual or a group) with the goal to enhance the client’s work or home life, their leadership or management or their personal and professional development.

As ever, it’s the verbs which tell the story – in this case, “enhance”. In my experience of coaching, stretching back to the early 2000’s, most people exploring coaching begin with “How…?” questions. “How do I manage myself better in this upcoming situation, How do I free myself to find a better way of …, How can I better lead this colleague…, How can I improve the team’s performance?”

It’s the opportunity created by having time with an experienced independent practitioner who is dispassionately and wholly on your side: questioning, supporting, reflecting, encouraging, challenging; and all with a view to enabling you to find new understanding or new ways of ‘How…’.

Coaches need coaching too!, and I’ve been skillfully supported by Penny Kay in recent years – and we’re delighted to announce our associate relationship. We are working together as joint coaches where there is a pair, group or organisation who want a coaching approach.

As Penny writes, “Coaching is a lovely integrative method of problem solving, resolving dilemmas and discovering a way forward. Here is a nice summary from ILM that shows how  the development of a ‘coaching culture’ in an organisation can be beneficial. But coaching can also be very useful for individuals who want to make positive changes, including their wish to improve their overall health.”

The ILM report that Penny cites shows how many organisations and companies, large and small, have used or are turning to coaching to change cultures and enhance professional development.

Contact either of us for more information – my details are here, and here for Penny.

Supervision skills training course – last call for places

February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

*** As at 25 February – three places remaining ***

15 & 16 March 2016, Manchester – Course flyer

Supervision skills : A course for mediator supervisors

College of Mediators on Twitter: “‘@johnddgray’s popular and fabulous mediation supervisor training – don’t miss it”

For practising supervisors, ideally with some experience of supervision

To further develop your skills, or to put a conceptual framework on your existing practice.

Suitable for staff and Board members, and volunteer mediators taking on an additional role within your service

* Boost your supervision capacity amongst existing staff and resources

* Take home tools and approaches to improve service provision

* Understand the role of supervision in developing and retaining staff

For practitioners across the mediation sector, including family, neighbour and community facilitation, inter-generational, restorative justice, schools and workplace mediation

Manchester, Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 March 2016, 9.30 for 9.45am to 4.45pm

College of Mediators accredited: 12 CPD points

Feedback from previous courses:

  • “I felt comfortable to share my views with the rest of the group which I don’t normally feel able to do; so I was definitely more vocal and this was down to John’s training style and relaxed atmosphere. Brilliant!”
  • “I was particularly impressed with the sensitivity and knowledge that John brought to his role as facilitator and the way he supported each participant to find their own voice.”
  • “I really enjoyed the content, delivery and encouragement. I feel positive about becoming a supervisor.”

John Gray is a supervisor and executive coach who also has experience of leading a community mediation service and experience of managing both staff and volunteer mediators. This popular course has been delivered within several community mediation services, and is running again as an open programme for the first time since 2014. John has also delivered aspects of the course in workshops at recent College of Mediator PPC conferences.

About the course

The course takes a developmental approach, building on the range of skills and experience that each person brings. John is a highly experienced people developer and groupworker, who shapes activities and interventions that stretch and educate all participants.

The course input includes

  • A straightforward and easily adaptable model of supervision for improving supervisee effectiveness and commitment
  • The key elements and tasks of supervision
  • Supervisor person specification and role description
  • The essential supervisory skills of assertiveness and giving feedback

At the end of the course, participants will be able to:

  • Describe their own model of supervision and the role of the supervisor
  • Demonstrate core skills of a supervisor
  • Know what core skills and qualities are required on the part of the supervisee to contribute to an effective supervision session
  • Critically assess their own practice and identify areas for their future development.

There will be opportunities to explore typical supervision issues, such as mediator low self-confidence, struggles with impartiality, low conversion rate of cases to round-table meetings, conflict between co-mediators and poor attendance at supervision.

The course fee include all course materials, lunch, refreshments and certificate of participation.

Booking your place:

  • Price: £220 per place – no VAT payable
  • 10% off for second and additional places booked by any one organisation

E-mail john@johngray.org.uk to reserve your place.

A 10% deposit secures your place; full payment is due prior to the course beginning.


100% of course fee payable if cancelling two weeks prior to the course.

50% payable if cancelling more than two weeks prior to the course.

About the trainer

The programme facilitator is John Gray. John was formerly the coordinator of Face to Face, City of York Council’s mediation service for neighbour disputes. He now works as a freelance organisational consultant and trainer with not-for-profit organisations across the UK. He has experience of service management, recruitment of staff, neighbour and workplace mediation, and of supervising service managers, Board members, staff and volunteers.

He is the author of Responding to Community Conflict: A review of neighbourhood mediation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2002; and A Tour of John Heron’s Feeling and Personhood, Oasis Press 2006.

For more information about John and his work, please visit www.johngray.org.uk


Leadership Amongst Friends

February 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

I am delighted to be leading a course in June 2016 on Leadership Amongst Friends – Friends, in this context, meaning Quakers.

We hope that the three days will be of interest to those in a formal leadership role, those who are active change agents outside a meeting’s formal structures, and those who are seeking opportunities to exercise their leadership gifts. And, of course, those who wonder why ‘leadership’ might be resting in the hands of a few rather than a shared valued commodity, where everyone can be supported into leaderful behaviour.

I am proud to be running the course with Zélie Gross, author of With a Tender Hand.

27 – 29 June, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham.


Malala Yousafzai

January 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

“I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.”

I went yesterday to see the film He Named Me Malala. The documentary shows Malala Yousafzai and her family making their new life in Birmingham, England, and also provides a compelling account of the rise of the Taliban in the Swat valley and the events that led to the attack on Malala and her school friends.Image result for malala image

Here is the trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cug1-eTOVS

I hadn’t realised how active Malala’s father had also been in protesting against the misapplication of Islam by the Taliban; though that only drove home the importance of Malala’s assertion in the film that it was she, and no-one else, who chose and who chooses how she acts.

Most significantly, of course, the question arises What would I do in such a situation?, if the rights of myself and those I love were being so comprehensively violated. I hope that I would take a stand, despite the risks. So many people around the world do take a stand; and too many are threatened, harassed, or are killed, unrecorded and uncelebrated.

So I was excited, on returning from the film, to see a University of York e-mail notification of an Extreme Values Research Masterclass. “That has to be worth going to”, I thought, imagining the application of core human values in extreme situations. Imagine my disappointment, on opening the e-mail, to read “Extreme value modelling is a well-established area of statistics, motivated by problems in hydrology, the environment, drug safety, and other fields…”.

A different meaning of values. But still a useful framing for encountering Malala through the film – her values in practice, in extreme situation; and an extreme and wonderful example of courage and leadership.

More information here on Malala Yousafzai.


The practice of reflective practice

December 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is a link to a blog piece describing a session on reflective practice that a colleague Jenny Gibbons from York Law School and I delivered earlier this year.

Our aim was to teach the basics of reflective practice, and to facilitate some practical experience for participants to take back into their work.


My prezi from the session is here; feel free to be in touch for more information or if you’d be interested in organising a session for you and your colleagues on reflection and learning within a work-based context.