Shadows and Light

Japanese Garden in Jackson Park (Chicago, IL)

One of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs begins:

Every picture has its shadows And it has some source of light
Blindness, blindness and sight…

When I talk about leadership qualities, I find that many of the qualities can be either strengths or weaknesses—or somewhere on a continuum between the two—depending both on the intensity of the personality and the dynamics of the situation. Here are a few examples:

Self Confident…………..Arrogant Good leaders need to be clear in their mission and their direction, but they also have to be open to other possibilities.

Knowledgeable about the Organization…………..Micro-Managing Good leaders have a good “birds-eye” view of the organization and how it operates and where it is headed, but they also need to empower others to use their own creativity to work out the details.

Responsible…………..Over Functioning Good leaders don’t just take all the responsibility upon themselves; they empower other leaders so that everyone can be a part of making the mission a reality.

Mentoring…………..Bossing Good leaders don’t teach others how to be carbon copies of themselves, they help other emerging leaders find their own leadership style and to work with their own strengths and weaknesses.

It is important that we learn how to not be blind to the shadow sides of our leadership qualities, and to find our own source of inner light so that we can transform our weak spots into new strengths.

Hacking into Congregational Leadership

I’ve seen a disconnect between generations in our congregations when it comes to leadership.  Baby Boomers, who populate the majority of our leadership positions, ask me how they can recruit more younger people for their volunteer positions.  Younger Generation Xers and Millennials have a lot of energy and ideas, but often feel marginalized or even invisible because the existing leadership aren’t ready to really perceive them as leaders or even to take their ideas seriously.

This experience is not unusual, and not limited to young adults.  People whose culture or economic status are not in alignment with the congregational norms also experience this kind of marginalization.

I recently attended a workshop with other UUA field staff members:  The Vision and Practice of 21st Century Faith Formation.    (We are learning to adapt and use technology to curate and share programming and to create learning communities.)  Supporting our younger adults as they try to participate in congregational leadership is a concern that we all share.  As we were ideating (similar to brainstorming), Ian Evison mentioned the book Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results written for young adults’ work lives.  We had an aha moment…that is what they are also experiencing in our congregations!  We create firewalls but don’t offer passwords…thus the need for potential leaders to “hack” their way into leadership.

You may not think of our congregations as having “stupid rules” but we often do have some institutional systemic issues that resist anything innovative.  Most institutions gravitate toward hierarchical, command-and-control structures that serve to perpetuate the institution.  The younger generations are more interested in serving something greater than the congregation itself:

It’s not that our young adults don’t want to serve, rather they want to serve in a way that they find meaningful and that makes a difference in the world.  If we can shift our congregations from command-and-control institutions to institutions with a clear mission of serving needs beyond the church walls, we can be more permission-giving and create openings in our faith communities that engage the gifts and passions of those under 40 so they don’t need to hack their way in.

It’s How You Respond That Matters….

In my birthplace of Western Michigan, there was a kerfuffle involving a senior class group action.  A large group of graduating seniors of the semi-rural community of Kenowa Hills decided to ride their bikes to school and were immediately suspended by the principal.  As an avid bike-rider, I was immediately outraged, as were many others across the country as the story spread.

The next day, without the same publicity, the principal apologized, realizing that she overreacted.  She visualized her students riding on roads that she perceived were dangerous, without fully processing the information that they had a police escort and other safety precautions.

Leaders often make decisions when they are triggered by flight-or-fight situations that activate the amygdala…what I tend to call the “lizard brain.”  This is human nature.  We are blessed with brains that have higher reasoning functions, but in times of anxiety, these are trumped by our lower mammalian and reptilian functions.  It sounded like the principal’s initial reaction was out of a visceral fear for the students’s safety that triggered her fear reactions.  The local TV station quoted her saying: “If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and …Fruit Ridge (roads), then maybe that’s my responsibility.”  Her initial gut reaction should not be a cause of shame or irredeemable consequences.

When I was an engineer working in industry, we had a saying… “We all make mistakes… it’s how you respond that matters.”  Good leadership formation involves developing a sense of humility so that we can gracefully learn from our mistakes.  I use the religious language purposefully — grace can manifest as undeserved forgiveness.  As leaders, we should strive to embody the lovely litany of atonement by the Rev. Rob Eller-Issacs:

We forgive ourselves and each other;
we begin again in love.

#637 – Singing the Living Tradition