By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
Leaders approach their work in many ways. They use various frames of references to inform how they go about their work. Some, for instance, focus on the concept of “leadership style.” Others lean toward the leader-as-manager approach while others take the leader-as-visionary track. We can also talk about the “job” of the leader, or, the task, function, role, work, position, mission, charge, etc. But how would you answer the question, “What is the goal of the organizational leader?”
Murray Bowen wrote that the goal of the therapist was to “reduce the level of anxiety, to improve the level of responsible open communication within the family and to reduce the irresponsible, underground communication of secrets and gossip to others.” He wrote that therapy also involves “a slow process of differentiation between emotional and intellectual functions and slowly increasing intellectual control over automatic processes.”
If we can interpret that message related to leadership in organizations, then four goals of leaders are to:
Work at reducing the level of anxiety. Leaders cannot directly reduce the systemic anxiety of an organization. In fact, to try to do so directly winds up being manipulative and willful and only manages to increase anxiety. But leaders who can function as the non-anxious presence by regulating their own reactivity, and managing their own anxiety, can help systems self-regulate.
Reduce irresponsibility. Reactive organizations often cultivate irresponsibility through groupthink, herding, and an overfocus on “togetherness.” One goal of the leader then, is to focus and cultivate individual responsibility: challenging people to say what they think as individuals and holding people accountable for their performance.
Improve open communication. One of the most effective ways to promote health in an organization is to open up the system’s patterns of communication. A by-product of reactive, anxious systems is secrecy, mistrust, and gossip. When I became administrator in one highly reactive system I focused on this goal immediately. I intentionally flooded the system with communications from my office (it didn’t take more than a couple of months for the employees to playfully refer to me as “The Memo King.”), I announced that I didn’t keep confidences or secrets, and I held people responsible for what they communicated or failed to.
Develop a culture of intentionality. Reactive and stagnant organizations often lean toward inertia. They go about their work in automatic, habitual, unthinking ways. Even if a practice doesn’t “work” they’ll keep doing the same thing over again merely because, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Intentionality means that everyone is mindful about why and how things are done. There is no such thing as “a little thing,” details matter, and yes, neatness counts and spelling counts.
As Bowen pointed out, this is “a slow process.” So one final goal for the organizational leader is a willingness to stick it out and see it through. Change comes slowly to organizations, and it doesn’t happen without leadership.
Opportunities at the Center for Lifelong Learning to learn more about conflict and leadership:
Change, Organization, and Generosity in Smaller Congregations
The Leadership in Ministry Workshops
Learning to Read the Signs of Church Conflict
The Hidden Lives of Congregations, an online course
Colloquy for Mid-Career Clergy
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 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).