one brainI often use General Motors as an example of the top-down model of organization and leadership that is the opposite of what our congregations need to be nimble and vital (and I might add, attractive to Gen-Xers and Millennials). Today’s story from Bloomberg “GM Recalls Stalled in 10 Years of Committee Alphabet Soup” exemplifies how–even though GM has rallied since the bailout back in 2009–GM still has a culture that stifles communication and slows response time.

Inherent in the GM culture is the foundational notion that the brains are in the boardroom, and the rest of the organization’s role is to receive commands and send back reports.

Brian Johnson, an auto analyst for Barclay’s states some of the results of this model:  “The committee culture of the old GM was rooted in organizational paralysis and characterized by a lack of accountability.”  “I’m amazed that even the government bureaucrats couldn’t understand GM’s plodding processes.”

Tom Stallkamp, a former president of Chrysler, adds that top executives often don’t hear about internal recall investigations, especially since there is inherent tension between engineers and safety/quality folks as they chase reports back and forth.   Speaking as an executive he says: “If you tried to react to every single issue coming in, or every dozen issues spread over a dozen cars, you’d go crazy.”

My short hand for this style of organization is “one brain, many hands.”  It’s also been described as a “spider” organization in the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman et al.

“Spider” organizations are very structured and invest most of the power and authority in the “brain” or top leadership. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • lots of committees with no one willing to staff them
  • committees that have people willing to staff them, but there is no energy at the meetings
  • a requirement for committees to send reports to the board, but they seldom do
  • committees that have had the same chair for over 5 years
  • turf wars
  • silos between ministries
  • annual reports from committees that show little difference from year to year
  • understanding of the mission is held only by a few people in leadership

“Starfish” organizations look to share power and authority (with accountability) throughout the organization. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • A clear sense of mission throughout all of the leadership, including those on committees and task forces
  • Attention to alignment with the mission as well as accountability structures
  • leaders who reinforce that sense of mission through annual goals based on strategic planning
  • committees where some people plan, and task forces where other people can just “do” without showing up to a committee meeting
  • a permission-giving culture that encourages and supports new ministries that are in alignment with the mission
  • good communication between leaders of various ministries that don’t need to go through the board

Another handy checklist for your congregation might be this list of qualities of growing and stalled congregations developed by http://waytolead.files.wordpress.com/

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.