Checking Your Leadership Assumptions

Checking Your Leadership Assumptions

By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning

Effective teachers always check students’ assumptions and help them uncover their prejudices. Assumptions and prejudices cause students to “pre-judge” ideas, concepts, and truths and, when unchecked, can block learning since learning requires the accommodation of the new to the old: adding new knowledge to existing knowledge; dismantling old structures in order to build new ones, or giving up beliefs in order to embrace new truths.

The challenge with assumptions is that they tend to function outside of our awareness. They filter our perceptions and interpretation of experiences without our realizing it. We’ve all had moments of coming to realize how mistaken we were with a first impression, or, a mistaken interpretation of a conversation or experience. On occasion, we may find ourselves thinking, “How could I have been so wrong about that?”

Leaders, like learners, need to check their assumptions in order to be effective. Bringing our assumptions (sometimes called “blind spots”) to the surface is part of being self-aware, a key quality for leaders. Even the most intelligent and competent of leaders can be hindered by their blind spots.

Here are assumptions common among congregational leaders:

That the system cannot change without your help. The sources of this assumption may span from a need to be needed to unbridled hubris. Leaders who function out of this assumption tend to be overfunctioners and may suffer from a messiah syndrome. One paradox here is that if church and pastoral leaders buy into this reciprocal relationship, the congregation looses its ability to take responsibility for itself, and its growth, as it becomes more dependent on the overfunctioning leader. Needless to say, this assumption is a certain path to burnout.

That you do not need to deal with people’s emotions (anger, fear, anxiety). While it is not appropriate to take responsibility for other people’s feelings, effective leaders do not ignore the reality of other people’s experience of emotions. Leaders tend to be too quick to rely on rationality and logic to make a case, introduce a cause, defend an opinion, or respond to critics. Most of us would rather not have to deal with the emotional side when dealing with every issue that arises, but the fact is that the answer to “What is really going on here?” has more to do with emotional process than with matters of rationality.

That dealing with personalities is the key to addressing problems and conflict. An overfocus on “personalities” tends to personalize issues (create “identified patients” and scapegoats), make problems personal, and gives a myopic (and inaccurate) understanding of situations. Leaders who take a systemic perspective look beyond the filter of personality and strive to understand what is going on in the system as a whole, They try to discern what is going on in the emotional field, gain insight from multigenerational transmission dynamics, assess their own functioning from their family of origin dynamics, and assess how the “personalities” are acting out of their positions in the system.

That your repertoire of strategies, approaches, techniques, models, interpretation, and problem-solving is the best way to go. As much as we all wish otherwise, we have the tendency to go with the quick fix. The path of least resistance is always attractive. Many leaders tend to rely on the pragmatic techniques and strategies that have served them well for solving problems in the past. Thinking is hard work, and most people don’t put much effort into it. When faced with a new problem our assumptions will try to shoehorn a solution into a problem for a quick fix; rather than spend the energy understanding the issues and the nature of the problem. A leader who does not take the time to check his or her assumptions may get willful in insisting on a favored strategy, technique, or model when addressing a new problem. That’s a quick path to getting stuck.

That the projects that are of most interest to you will be the most beneficial for the system. This is a big one for congregational leaders, and one that will guarantee both ineffectiveness and a crisis brought on by misunderstanding and sabotage in response to willfulness. Sometimes this is part of the “bag of tricks” syndrome. A pastor or staff member will impose personal predilections of style, programs, or projects on a congregation will little thought about its “fit,” appropriateness or the readiness of a congregation to embrace it. There are plenty of examples, but a common one is characterized by the “worship wars” that ensue when pastors or staff push the start of a “contemporary worship service” onto a congregation, fully and sincerely convinced that it will be good for the church. What often is most apparent to the congregation, however, is that the push is more about what a pastor or staff wants (or likes) than what is most beneficial for the congregation.

See Robert J. Marshak, Covert Processes at Work (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) for a good treatment on how prejudices and blind spots (covert processes) can hinder change in organizations.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

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