The Leader and Imaginative Gridlock

By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning

I’ve been working with a couple of organizations that are “stuck” but motivated enough to get moving toward becoming “healthier,” clearer about their mission, and more effective in how they carry it out. As I witness the process of working with the leaders and employees of both organizations I’m reminded of some fundamental truths about systems. First, while motivation is a necessary component for bringing about change, it is not sufficient for moving toward health and effectiveness. For example, if the motivation is to simply ease acute anxiety or pain, a system will settle on pragmatic “instant” solutions that will ease the symptoms, but not effect changes necessary for progress.

Once the pain (the symptom) eases, the temptation is to ignore working on the fundamental issues that will move the system toward health. That’s logical since working toward health often brings about more, or different, “pain.” Any system that lacks tolerance for pain will always settle on being medicated rather than go the “no pain, no gain” route.

Second, the role and the function of the leader is key. I’ve witnessed two common leadership liabilities in these organizations. In one, the leader has a pattern of “adapting to weakness.” Specifically, rather than moving toward the most mature persons in the system, inviting their input, and giving them permission to act, the leader tends to give over-attention to the most fearful, anxious, and needy in the system. In this case, it was a group of persons who were self-identified “victims” seeking “protection” and “privileges.” The natural tendency of this group to “herd” and “glum together” was perceived by the leader as a “voting block,” when in fact, it was the leader’s coddling and over-attention to the “needs” and feelings of this group that empowered them to impede progress.

In the other, the leader lacked an appreciation for the tenacity of the destructive forces in the system, and failed to appreciate the necessary corrective function that the leader must provide, namely, to inhibit those forces’ capacity to sabotage progress toward a vision. Admittedly this is tough to do, as those “forces” often are manifested as personalities in the organization.

Third, both organizations exhibit what Edwin H. Friedman called “Imaginative Gridlock.” Friedman identified three characteristics of imaginative gridlock:

The Treadmill Effect. Both organizations are very busy doing the same things and following the same procedures they’ve been doing for years, and which has gotten then stuck. Yet they seem to have an inability to get off the treadmill. Breaking patterns of behaviors and practice is proving to be a huge challenge to both organizations. It seems it’s just easier to run in place and get nowhere than to get off the treadmill, change their ways, and make progress.

A focus on answers. It’s always amazing how quickly the call for answers comes when acute anxiety is present. In one organization this happened in the first meeting! They weren’t interested in exploring what “the problem” may be or what their part in it was. They wanted to know not only what I was going to do, but how I was going to do whatever it was that would help them get out of their stuckness (I jokingly had to remind them that a consultant doesn’t actually “do” anything).

In the second organization one person kept pushing for “data.” That’s a sure sign of imaginative gridlock: an inability to move toward adventure, vision, and imagination rather than a search for certitude. When certitude is your highest value, boldness goes out the window as a resource. The fact is that innovators, visionaries, and trendsetters don’t work off of “data.” They move on imagination fueled by vision, and are not impeded by the calculated risk that comes from any bold venture.

The polarization of false dichotomies. The third characteristic of imaginative gridlock is “either-or thinking.” When the mind is anxious it cannot be imaginative. It tends, therefore, to create false dichotomies and to polarize concepts, options, and opinions. And then it doesn’t take long to begin labeling and personalizing issues, leading to an inability to listen and dialogue. In one organization the result has been the formation of “factions” or “camps.” Once someone became identified in a “camp” his or her opinions and thoughts were always discounted by another faction—regardless of the merit of the content.

Change comes hard to organizations, but even harder to systems that suffer from imaginative gridlock. In these cases it’s necessary to focus on changing the way the culture thinks first, and then work on change. As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

Are you interested in learning more about leadership from a systems theory perspective? See our Leadership in Ministry Workshops, part of our Pastoral Excellence Programs.

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).

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

 

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