Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

Humble Leadership

Father and son have teamed up to write this newly released book on leadership. I have enjoyed reading Edgar’s previous books (see here for example), so it was with much anticipation that I began reading this one. The verdict? So far, so good. Nothing revolutionary as such, but nevertheless, a compelling reminder for all who assume leadership roles.

They begin the book by claiming that “leadership is always a relationship, and truly successful leadership thrives in a group culture of high openness and high trust. ” With this in mind, they note that traditional twentieth-century culture of management can be described as a transactional set of relationships among designated roles that unwittingly creates conditions of low openness and low trust and can, therefore, make truly effective leadership difficult.” They go on to paint two different pictures; on the one hand:

The good news: employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, ambidexterity, innovation . . . all of this can flourish in the rapidly changing world when the fundamental relationship between leaders and followers, helpers and clients, and providers and customers becomes more personalized and cooperative. (emphasis mine)

On the other hand:

The bad news: continued deception, scandals, high turnover of disengaged talent, safety and quality problems in industry and health care, all the way to corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of industry and politics, driven by financial expediency and the obsession with retaining power as primary success criteria . . . all of this will continue to happen as long as leader-follower relationships remain impersonal, transactional, and based on the roles and rules that have evolved in the current culture of management that still predominates in our hierarchical bureaucratic organizations. (emphasis mine)

It is not hard at all to think of examples of leaders who are obesessed with “retaining power” and who do not see the advantages of a “more personalized and cooperative” relationship with their followers. Furthermore, they would be unlikely to agree that “[l]eadership can come from group members as often as from designated or appointed leaders” since they can’t distinguish between what I’ll call formal and fixed leadership vs. functional and fluid leadership. Otto Scharmer in his recent book, The Essentials of Theory U, argues that the

problem with leadership today is that most people think of it as being made up of individuals, with one person at the top. But if we see leadership as the capacity of a system to co-sense and co-shape the future, then we realize that all leadership is distributed—it needs to include everyoneTo develop collective capacity, everyone must act as a steward for the larger eco-system.” (emphasis mine)

Edgar and Peter assert that there focus is “not on the individual and the desired characteristics of that emergent leader, but on the relationships that develop between that person and the potential followers”. They note that these potential followers will always be part of a team, so their “focus will also be on the relationships between them” and as such, “group dynamics and group processes will always be intimately involved with leadership.” Consequently, understanding, navigating and managing the relational dynamics are vitally important skills that a leader needs to develop. To this end, the Scheins propose a continuum of relationship levels:

  • Level –1: Total impersonal domination and coercion
  • Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships
  • Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams
  • Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments

They argue that in our fast-changing and interconnected world, we need a new model of leadership “based on more personal Level 2, and sometimes even Level 3, relationships and group processes.” The rest of the book gives several examples of how various organizations have transformed their leadership approaches based on this new model, as well as how to handle the concomitant challenges.

I will blog more about the book when I am finished reading it.


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In a recent McKinsey blog post, the author writes: “Disruptive times call for transformational leaders to let go and become more complex themselves to navigate effectively.” He goes on to say that leaders must be more agile and more complex by “building a bigger inner self so complexity feels simpler and allows us to move with greater purpose, clarity, inner calm and impact.”  He suggests several practices that can help in this regard:

  1. Pause to move faster. Pausing while remaining engaged in action is a counterintuitive step that leaders can use to create space for clear judgment; original thinking; and speedy, purposeful action.
  2. Embrace your ignorance. Good, fresh ideas can come from anywhere … listening—and thinking—from a place of not knowing is a critical means of encouraging the discovery of original, unexpected, breakthrough ideas.
  3. Radically reframe the questions. One way to discern the complex patterns that give rise to both problems and windows of emergent possibilities is to change the nature of the questions we ask ourselves. Asking yourself challenging questions may help unblock your existing mental model.
  4. Set direction, not destination. In our complex systems and in this complex era, solutions are rarely straightforward. Instead of telling your team to move from point A to point B, join them in a journey toward an image of the future that sparks inspiration. Lead yourself and your team with purposeful vision, not just achievements.
  5. Test your solutions – and yourself. Quick, cheap failures can avert major, costly disasters.

Such practices might also be helpful in an ecclesial context as well: what do you think?

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In the course of searching for videos featuring Julie Canlis, whom I was introduced to through her outstanding book, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, I stumbled across this wonderful video, Godspeed: The Pace of Being Known, about her husband Matt and his odyssey of learning how to slow down. We hear him confess at the start of the video, “I’ve been running most of my life, running through life to get somewhere else. But the thing about running is that you miss things, many things. And if I kept running, I was going to miss everything.”

Watch video

And then Matt went on to divulge: “When I was running it was easy to stay hidden to avoid being unknown. One professor knew this—Eugene Peterson. He said, Matt, if you want to be a pastor, go find a parish, go find a fishbowl where you can’t escape being known and where you lose the fear of being known.

“I think what I realized is that nobody in America gets listened to very much,” notes Peterson, who told Matt if he wanted to really wanted to walk like Jesus, he had to leave America.  As things turned out, Matt and Julie were invited to study in St Andrews, Scotland. “That’s when everything began to change …” and the video chronicles his journey of learning how to walk instead of running.

Upon arriving in a small village in Scotland, Matt “learned that I wasn’t there to give people the the good news, I was there to be a part of their lives … I ended up learning more about them and they about me than me communicating the truth they needed to hear.” Eugene Peterson observes that “People are not used to being intimate in any verbal way, there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear …”

For me personally, I actually yearn to be known, to love and to be loved. But everyone else is running and they have little time for me to know and love them, let alone they wanting to know and love me. This is sadly true in our programmed, consumerist religious offering we call church. What I long for is Slow Church, where we gather to share our stories, a meal, our lives. O God, when shall this aching void be filled?

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Today, I am at home sitting and reflecting. If I was a good Christian, I would be at church. But today, something deep inside me is gnawing away; my heart is heavy—weighed down with disappointments, disconnection, disillusionment. How vast the distance and dissonance between my head and my heart!

What I find discouraging is how little time we make for each other, and sadly, this is even true for those who call themselves disciples of Jesus. Which is strange, given that Jesus spent a lot of time with his disciples. As Eugene Peterson reminds us, “spirituality has to do with life, lived life”, and yet, how little our lives intersect with each other. For most Christians, going to church on Sunday to receive a dose of spiritual nourishment is their primary idea of what the Christian life entails. Sigh.

Peterson acknowledges that preaching and teaching are not to be discounted, but avers:

… there are other ways of using words that are just as important, if not as conspicuous: questions and conversations, comments and ruminations, counsel and suggestion. It is a quieter use of language and mostly takes place in times and places that are not set apart for religious discourse. It often conveys as much in what is not said as in what is … But conversation, as such, though honored by our ancestors, is much neglected today as a form of Christian discourse. If we are to be in touch with all the parts of our lives and all the dimensions of the Gospel, conversation requires equal billing (although not equal authority) with preaching and teaching. (The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends, pp. 19-21)

I would venture to say that conversations can carry equal authority as preaching and teaching, albeit in a different sense. After all, preaching and teaching are not the only forms of “Word ministries” that the Bible speaks of:

Preaching is not the only ministry of the word envisaged or mandated by Scripture. To isolate preaching from other ministries of the word or to claim that it is the sole ministry of the word is ‘to make preaching carry a load which it cannot bear …

… the New Testament expect[s] … all believers to be engaged in word-based ministries of encouragement and discipleship within the church family.

[There is a] close affinity and integral interrelationship between preaching and other ministries of the word.

Jonathan Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament (NSBT 42); IVP, 2017.

WANTED: spiritual friends and conversation partners for the journey!

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I recently and gratefully stumbled across Fathom, a new online magazine. In particular, I deeply resonate with their vision:

Fathom wants to sink deeply into the Christian faith. And we think curiosity and conversation are just the things to draw us into the depths. We ask questions, express wonder, linger over ideas, listen to opinions, and hear people’s stories.

Indeed, curiosity is the theme of the inaugural issue and in the lead article Beautifully Unsatisfied, Brandon Giella writes:

At Fathom, we want to listen. We want to listen to you who agrees, to you who disagrees, and to you who are “very different from us, who say things we don’t get and believe things we don’t understand,” because this is a trustworthy space “for us to get curious in an attempt to understand.” This is a place of conversation, of both listening and responding.

Shouldn’t this describe our church gatherings? A space/place of “both listening and responding”? And yet, most Christians would rather seek refuge in certainty and answers without the process of exploring the questions and being open and curious to the possibilities. Of course, there is a time for settling on some answers, however tentative or tenuous, but we shouldn’t rush the process:

We want to be a place where we can get lost in the cave together, but not forever. An open mind is the same as an open mouth—it’s meant to close on some things.

We want to ask questions and find answers. Though we may not find much—many questions don’t have answers—the swimming is as important as the finding.

Let’s go “swimming”!

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“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

 – e.e. cummings

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.

This is the question that Edgar Schein asks in the Introduction to his interesting and helpful book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, which I recently finished reading.

As one whose childhood curiosity has not lost its fervor as an adult, I am flabbergasted at how some people can be so disinterested in other people’s lives. Further on, Schein writes: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” (emphasis mine)

In our Internet age when information on almost anything is available instantly, the problem of prescriptive pontification is even more prevalent, so Schein is surely right when he says, “we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

How does this have any bearing in a Christian context?  A lot. Paul the apostle instructs us to be mutually accountable to one another as disciples, in his repeated exhortation to “one anothering”. It is through genuine care for and curiosity in others through open conversations that we can disciple one another. Such authentic conversations lead “to a relationship [that is] sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, ‘I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you.’”

For those in professions or leadership, the lack of curiosity can make us seem aloof or disinterested. The author gives an illustration from an incident involving his wife (emphasis mine):

When my wife Mary had her first bout of breast cancer in her 50s, we were sent to an oncologist who immediately conveyed to her an interest in her total personality and life situation through body language (intense attention and eye contact), through taking lots of time with questions, and always responding sympathetically (Humble Inquiry attitude). He asked her several general and personal questions before zeroing in on the medically related issues. My wife felt respected as a total human being and, therefore, felt more open in voicing her concerns about treatment.

What was striking was his questioning us about our other life priorities, which made Mary feel she could trust him totally.

Schein also explains the importance of leaders willing to listen to their subordinates, “[e]specially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial.” While church is not a “high hazard” arena in the same way, that is not to say that there aren’t similar problems. Schein goes on (the emphasis is mine):

… a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.  When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates, and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

Sadly, we have seen far too many situations in churches where leaders chose to ignore concerns that members brought before them, and the results were devastating and tragic (think domestic abuse and child molestation).

Schein employs the Johari window to illustrate the complexity of communication in relation to our Socio-Psychological Self:
We all begin with our open self as we engage with another person. Schein explains that “As we converse with others, we send a variety of signals above and beyond the intentional ones that come from our open self. … Much of this information is passed without our being aware of it, so we must acknowledge that we also have a blind self, the signals we are sending without being aware that we are sending them, which nevertheless create the impression that others have of us.” In order for us to gain self-awareness into those areas that constitute our blind self, we can ask for honest feedback—something which most of us are loathe to receive and afraid to give.

Of course we also have our hidden self that we are hesitant to reveal for various reasons. The dilemma is we “realize that in a relationship-building process the most difficult issue is how far to go in revealing something that normally we would conceal, knowing at the same time that unless we open up more, we cannot build the relationship. … The reluctance we display when someone asks us for feedback mirrors the degree to which we are afraid to offend or humiliate. We duck the issue by trying to emphasize positive feedback, knowing full well that what we really are dying to hear from others is where they see us as wanting or imperfect, so that we can improve.” (emphasis mine)

In the course of a conversation, as we alternatively (and cautiously) ask and tell, the degree to which we open our door is dependent on how much we perceive the other is revealing. Schein goes on to say that “If these early revelations and questions are acknowledged and reciprocated, the relationship develops and allows ‘going deeper.’ But it has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process … before the relationship gets to the personal feedback stage, and even then it probably works best if it stays on task-related matters. Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.” (emphasis mine) Because most of us are rather adverse to receiving honest feedback, this is an area I will explore further in the future (as I indicated at the end of a previous post), based on the insights from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).

Schein summarizes:

Now imagine the conversation as a social seesaw with two people getting to know each other, a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest. Gradual self-exposure will occur either through answers to Humble Inquiry or by deliberate revelations. If these early self-revelations are accepted by the other, then gradually more personal thoughts and feelings are put out as a test of whether the other will still react positively to them. In each move, we claim a little more value for ourselves and thereby make ourselves a little more vulnerable. If the other person continues to accept us, we achieve a higher level of trust in each other. What we think of as intimacy can then be thought of as revealing more and more of what we ordinarily conceal. (emphasis mine)

Or, in reference to the Johari model again: We can reveal our hidden self through self-disclosure so that we can be more authentic. We can solicit feedback to help us discover our blind spots and become more self-aware. As we become more self-aware, we can uncover more about our unknown self through self-discovery, other’s observations and through shared discovery in an interpersonal and/or communal context.

The principles and practices of Humble Inquiry thus “functions as an invitation to be more personal and is therefore the key to building a more intimate relationship.”

Yes, obviously there are risks and hazards in expanding one’s Open Self. But the rewards of more genuine and intimate relations is worth it—at least for me. The challenge for me always is finding others who are willing to journey with me into the Blind, Hidden and the Unknown in our interactions.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

As The Who sang, Can you see the real me, can you?

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Judge Not?

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1-2; ESV)

I’ve been musing on Matt 7:1-6 which was the sermon text last week at our church. If one has been a Christian for any length of time, one will know that the mantra of “Don’t judge me!” is often bandied about anytime loving admonishment is attempted on an errant believer. Of course, this sentiment is also very prevalent in society at large as a protective mechanism to deflect any and all concerns one might wish to call out regarding another’s moral behaviour or manner of living.

We all naturally bristle at self-righteous people who go around pronouncing accusatory barbs with an air of superiority and in an unloving, critical spirit, but if we’re honest, we have to admit to doing the same at times.  As such, this passage from the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” warrants a closer look.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the English word “judge” automatically evokes a negative understanding. In fact, one version (CEV) translates verse 1 as: Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. However, the semantic range of κρίνω is much broader and encompasses these meanings: “discern, evaluate, separate, decide, distinguish, give preference, to approve, to interpret” in addition to “judge”.

As usual, context is determinative of meaning, and in the passage before us, it seems to me that what Jesus is teaching may be better stated thus: Be careful how you discern and evaluate another person’s actions—judge them fairly and not in a condemnatory spirit, for you wouldn’t want others to evaluate you unfairly. God alone has the right to judge, so do not presume to act for Him, lest you be judged by Him! With Matt. 7:1,2 serving as a thematic heading to the larger passage (7:1-12, with vs. 12 serving as a summary and conclusion, both in its nearer and larger contexts), the theme of discerning/evaluating carefully/fairly runs consistently from the example given in 7:3-5, through to the  exhortation in 7:6 to not be undiscerning (obviously we need to “judge”, i.e., undergo a process of discernment in order to know who are “dogs” and “pigs”).

That said, we are indeed to be careful not to usurp God as the only rightful Judge (Rom. 14:10-13). Interpersonal relationships, especially in the community of God’s people, are always challenging. We are not to criticize, condemn, or complain about others, but at the same time, as a body of believers, we are commanded to carry out the “one another” exhortations. Part of this will entail loving correction based on careful and fair evaluation of the behaviour or situation. This is the tension we must live with, but thankfully we have the Spirit within to empower and guide us, as well as the mirror of the Word to remind us of our own failures and faults, so that we might speak the truth in love in all humility and gentleness.

I plan to write another post giving practical tips on giving and receiving feedback.

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