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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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.

 

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.

 

Defining leadership

November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

As more and more of my practice develops into working with leaders – in formal or informal leadership roles – I thought I would put together some definitions of leadership which clients have found helpful so far.

I’ve chosen definitions which I hope are useful, and which are also offer a take on the realities of leadership in the early twenty-first century.

There are only four! – five, if you get to the end and find a comment on the difference between management and leadership.

Let’s start with the basics. This first definition is a favourite of mine because it’s comprehensive, and does not restrict the principle of leadership to a chosen few.

“Leadership may be defined as the capacity to influence people, by means of personal attributes and/or behaviours, to achieve a common goal. … It is important to recognise that most people, at some points in their lives, are leaders. Leadership is not just about the qualities of an elite few, and is not always associated with a formal managerial role, although the leadership skills of chief executives and their teams are of fundamental importance for organisations.”

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, UK

Even shorter – but also here an emphasis on practice, and spelling out that leadership is indivisibly associated with working with others:

Leadership is “taking initiative in relationship”. George Lakey

In other words, not only working with others, but using as a platform the relationship that has already been built. So a leader’s priority is to build trust. This means a leader developing respect for those who might be expected to follow them, and providing opportunities for those ‘followers’ to understand why and how the leader is acting.

So we can take another step:

“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” Kevin Kruse

Here we see three elements of leadership – influencing change, through coordinating (or at least inspiring) others, with a purpose.

And what is that purpose? We could call it the Why of leadership – leadership, but towards what end?

Or to put it another way, we need to draw a distinction between, for example, leadership as demonstrated by Bashar al-Assad and by Malala Yousafzai.

So the fourth quote:

“It 
is 
time 
for 
all 
the 
heroes 
to 
go 
home, 
as 
the 
poet 
William
 Stafford 
wrote. 
It 
is time
 for 
us 
to 
give 
up 
these 
hopes 
and 
expectations
 that
 only
 breed
 dependency
 and passivity, 
and
 that
 do 
not 
give 
us 
solutions 
to 
the 
challenges 
we 
face.
 It 
is
 time
 to 
stop waiting
 for 
someone 
to 
save 
us. 
It 
is 
time 
to 
face 
the 
truth 
of 
our 
situation — that 
we’re all 
in 
this 
together,
 that 
we 
all have 
a 
voice — and 
figure 
out 
how 
to 
mobilize 
the 
hearts and 
minds
 of 
everyone 
in 
our 
workplaces 
and 
communities.”
 Margaret Wheatley

In other words: leaders can no longer expect trust or followership simply because of their seniority. Leaderful behaviour (or leadership if you prefer – I use the terms interchangeably) needs to be encouraged at every level, because the complexity of the majority of work roles require initiative and accountability at all levels of organisations.

So I hope those definitions are interesting and thought-provoking. I will say more about twenty-first century leadership in my next post.

In the meantime, if this reflection on leadership has got you thinking about where does management come in, then here’s my fifth definition:

“It is incumbent on leadership to ensure that the organisation is effective in what it does; that its strategies, and the way in which it gives effect to these, are appropriate and have impact. It is incumbent on management to ensure that the organisation is efficient in what it does; that its internal systems function logically and smoothly. To put it simplistically, it has been said that while leadership ensures that the organisation does the right thing, management’s responsibility is to ensure that things are done right.”

Kaplan, Allan (1994), Leadership and Management, CDRA Community Development Resource Association. The full text is available at http://www.cdra.org.za/uploads/1/1/1/6/111664/leadership_and_management_allan_kaplan1994.pdf.

So we might see management as head down/’desk’ horizon; compared to a leaderful head up/’world’ horizon; or management accepting the status quo whereas leadership aims to challenge the status quo. Again, I’ll be writing more on this aspect of leadership in the future.

Any thoughts/comments? Please post below, I look forward to hearing from you.

October 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

I will be chairing the third lecture in the series of ‘Talking of Peace’, this Thursday 29th October 2015 at 7:30pm in York.

The speaker is Kat Craig,  and her topic is Britain’s War on Terror at home and abroad – making the world a safer place?

Kat is Legal Director of the Abuses of Counter-Terrorism team at the human rights organisation, Reprieve.

The full program for the series is listed below.

7.30am, Thursday 29 October 2015, Quaker Meeting House on Friargate (off Castlegate).

Please Note: due to extensive building works in the neighbourhood of the Meeting House, the bottom end of Friargate is closed for a considerable period.  It is therefore necessary to approach from Castlegate rather than Clifford St.  Also the cycle rack in Friargate has been removed by the builders so cyclists will need to use one of the other racks in the Castlegate area.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Invitation to a series of Peace Talks: Thursdays in Autumn 2015

1st Oct: Faith, Power & Peace – Creating peace by peaceful means

Diana Francis, Trainer in Conflict Transformation, & Past President of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation

15th Oct: Security and the Dispossessed – How the military & corporations are shaping a climate-changed world

Steve Wright, Reader in Applied Global Ethics at Leeds Beckett Univ

29th Oct: Britain’s War on terror at home and abroad: making the world a safer place?

Kat Craig, Legal Director of the Abuses in Counter-Terrorism team at Reprieve

12th Nov: Reimagining Security: an alternative approach to the UK’s national strategy

Celia McKeon, Assistant Secretary, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Quaker Meeting House, Friargate, York, YO1 9RL

7.30 – 9.00pm

Retiring collection

For more details: tel 01904-624065

or e-mail: peacenetwork@yorkquakers.org.uk
or see www.yorkquakers.org.uk 

Questions of purpose

March 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

I heard recently about a religious community which was facing fundamental questions about its purpose.

The tension seemed to be around those who saw the community primarily as a worshipping community which also offered courses and retreats; and those who wanted a course-and-retreat venue run by a group of people who happen to live in a religious community together.

By the sound of it, there were enough folk alive to the issues to enable a careful debate to arise. Communities like this (and others such as self-build groups, housing co-ops and other peer-led groups) require a level of leadership skills, conflict skills and self-awareness/self-management above what is normally taught in our current society.

Fundamental questions about purpose are the reality of life in organisations, networks, and within any community which organises around a central vision. In the best of such organisations, these questions are never definitively answered for all time (‘future-proofed’, to use the jargon). They may be answered for a year ahead, or five years, but by then a more substantial look at ‘Where do we want to be heading’ will be needed.

Answering questions about future mission depends – more than we sometimes care to acknowledge – on the personal preoccupations of the people currently in the organisation. In a contemporary religious community with a membership which changes over the space of a decade or so, this is perhaps more explicit. But in the larger organisations too, in my experience the interests and passions of the current staff play as much a role as the more objective factors identified through, for example, a SWOT analysis.

So long as this subjectivity is acknowledged, it seems a fair compromise. After all, it is the present membership and staff who will be tasked with bringing the mission into fulfilment.

If the organisation depends on attracting new members, however, then the more the organisation is a collection of people doing their own thing, the more complex it will be to engage others into the enterprise. Almost as complex, perhaps, as facing the conflicts arising when members are driven by competing purposes.

As the saying goes: by all means trust in God – but don’t forget to tie up your camel.

Bringing some truth into the light

December 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

It seems appropriate to post a seasonal reminder of some positive things that are happening. It’s a personal collection, of course, and for some of the stories the good news is the shining of light on the forces which oppress or undermine human fulfilment.

Thank you to all those I’ve worked with over this year, it has been inspiring to see and support your work and your aspirations for the future. One shift in professional development is to move from seeing yourself as the hero, to instead seeing your clients as the real heroes of the piece; and that more and more seems my experience in the work that I do.

So, those positive news stories:

Naming the past: the secrets of Brazil’s military dictatorship. How fitting that the report should be introduced to the media by Brazil’s current president Dilma Rousseff, herself a torture victim under the country’s military dictatorship

But of course we don’t need Truth Commissions in the UK, surely? Find out here about the work of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission.

Though there is much more the Church of England could do (for example, joining the disinvestmnet from fossil fuels movement), here’s the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking up about hunger in the UK; and news of the Church’s first female bishop.

News of an online archive of art by people with mental health problems; and the Guardian’s own Christmas appeal on challenging the stigma of mental health.

Amnesty International UK is highlighting the UK’s complicit role in torture and illegal rendition; and here are some of Amnesty’s own good news stories.

Two images to finish with:

First, a stunning info-graphic on the numbers which make up the internet – such as the number of tablets and smartphones sold each day around the world, the number of e-mails sent, the number of sites hacked…

And second, all the water in the world is just a tiny drop on the world’s surface; no wonder it’s such a precious resource, if only we knew it.

With best wishes for 2015,

John

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