We all carry around mental models of leadership. Those models — or mental maps — are often transparent to us. One of the great values of education, experience and reflection is to make our assumptions visible. Until we take that step and move closer to something like a hermeneutic of suspicion, we are merely colonized by what has gone before or what is, without any ability to stand apart and imagine a different future. Moreover, our current maps of leadership may prevent us from recognizing new forms of leadership as they arise. That makes change difficult.
I want to consider maps and models of leadership as social constructs that both empower us and hold us back. Then I’ll use the work of Wilfred Drath to form a question about leadership and the potential of creative partnerships, collaboration across boundaries as founding missional engagement in our communities. This will have implications for the ongoing conversation about leadership and mission as well as for our practice of mission in a post-colonial and pluralistic landscape. Moreover, our ability to imagine a new way forward will determine our viability as a movement in this new location.
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The dominant mental models of leadership in the west have been shaped by narratives about individuals, generally men, and generally white men. They offer incomplete understandings of how leadership works because they rest on a story compiled from a narrow set of voices and experiences. This has kept the public from recognizing and validating alternative models of leadership. The old adage: if you are a hammer, all you see is nails.
Theories of the last fifty years have done little to challenge our mental models. However, recent research on leadership, mostly done in applied psychology and management, has shifted its focus from defining leadership as a behavior, to defining it as a relationship, and in some cases as a communal process or activity. But most accounts of leadership still tend to emphasize traits, styles and contingency theories in an effort to formulate what makes X rather than Y a “good leader.”
Joseph Rost, at the University of San Diego, remarks that these theories of leadership reflect the values and assumptions of the industrial model of organizing that has dominated the 20th century. They have been “management oriented, personalistic in focusing only on the leader, goal-achievement-dominated, self-interested and individualistic in outlook, male-oriented, utilitarian and materialistic in ethical perspective, rationalistic, technocratic, linear, quantitative and scientific in language and methodology” (1993, p. 27).
This list is in striking contrast with a post-industrial sensibility. Rost lists among these “collaboration, common good, global concern, diversity and pluralism in structures and participation, client orientation, civic virtues, freedom of expression in all organizations, critical dialogue, qualitative language and methodologies, substantive justice, and consensus-oriented policy-making process” (1993, p.181). A few years ago I read Drath and Paulus and their monograph, Making Common Sense (1994). They write that the old understanding of leadership rested on a set of assumptions about human nature and motivation. The dominance-cum-social-influence view assumes that humans are naturally at rest and that they need a motivation force to get them going. The meaning-making view assumes that people are naturally in motion, always doing something, and that they need, rather than motivation to act, frameworks within which their actions make sense.
The mind only takes pictures
using the film with which it is loaded. R. Rohr
This view.. or map.. developed by Drath and Paulus is constructivist. Opina and Schell write that they are particularly interested in constructivist theories. That is,
“the work of leadership theorists who recognize that as members of society we construct our social world together. This occurs, these constructionists assert, by assigning meanings to our interactions and to the products of those interactions, a process we call meaning making. According to constructionists, human behavior must be understood by taking the point of view of those experiencing it, because they are the ones that give meaning to that experience, as it takes place in a precise context. We believe that constructionism is a valuable resource for understanding leadership, because it suggests that leadership, as a form of human behavior, is a social construct. In order to understand leadership with these lenses, we can observe leadership as something that emerges as people make sense out of their every day lives, rather than merely observing the individual who is given or takes the role of a leader. (Perspectives on Leadership, 2001)
Opina and Schell admire the work of Drath and Paulus. One of the advantages of this alternate map is that we can separate the power dynamic from authority. Drath and Paulus write, “When we no longer see dominance and social influence as the basic activities of leadership, we no longer think of people in terms of leaders and followers. Instead, we can think of leadership as a process in which an entire community is engaged. This enables us to disentangle power and authority from leadership. Authority is a tool for making sense of things, but so are other human tools such as values and work systems.”
More recently Wilfred Paulus wrote, The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadership. In this work Paulus proposes that leadership is a process related to shared work and shared purpose, and that there are three leadership principles that arise from this understanding. We always work out of one of these three assumptions about leadership and its ends. (I’ll get to some implications for the survival of the church at the close – the dominant working principle that we choose in our faith communities really will help or hinder us in this postmodern location, where complexity is skyrocketing and narratives are local).
The first principle is personal dominance. The leader assimilates differing worldviews where they exist, and bends or blends them together in order to create the capacity to accomplish a task. The wider the difference in worldview, the less likely that personal dominance can assimilate them, which leads to limits to the capacity of the first principle to make sense of leadership in certain contexts.
The second principle is interpersonal influence. This principle increases the range of differences that can be included in the leadership process by allowing a negotiation of influence that results in the identification of a person whose view is wide enough of flexible enough to accommodate different views. Differences are retained, but they are relativized in relation to an encompassing view.
But what happens in a context in which worldviews are held as equally important and equally valid? What happens in a truly pluralistic context where what is not wanted is the assimilation of the accommodation of some views to a controlling or encompassing viewpoint? In other words, what happens when traditional boundaries have collapsed and interaction and even decision making is occurring on a global scale? How then will leadership tasks be accomplished?
This is the question that interests Drath in The Deep Blue Sea, and this question should interest us also as we increasingly imagine mission in the context of the kingdom and not merely the church (and four walls) and as Christendom becomes history. As our relational networks expand and as we begin to imagine new and creative partnerships for community transformation that cross traditional boundaries, we also need to reimagine leadership.
How do we genuinely invite collaboration across boundaries of faith and philosophy?
How do we generate learning conversations across cultural barriers?
How do we genuinely welcome the other, so that we can continue to learn and benefit by wider knowledge and experience?
Drath argues that “leadership development in a community or organization is the process of developing the capacity of the whole to make leadership happen for everyone, no matter how any individual person makes sense of leadership.” Compare this direction in making sense of leadership to the work of Peter Block in community building – transformation of neighbourhoods versus transformation of individuals. The focus moves from individuals and their competencies or efforts to the whole. The view is holistic, having much more in common with “shalom,” and has shifted from an inward focus to outward.
Drath notes that this “third principle” does not clearly exist yet, but is on the horizon and is intuited by many who work in contexts where there are multiple worldviews. Drath writes that bringing this third principle into being will require three approaches.