August 2013

Lessons in leadership

Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is greatly excited by compelling principles of leadership emerging from two divergent areas – that of cosmology and community organising.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

Rudd or Abbott? Post September 7 we will continue to discuss leaders and leadership because we are a species fascinated by leadership. Consider the presence of 986 million documents about leadership on the internet, the ‘trending’ of leadership speculation on Twitter, and the plethora of articles on Pope Francis’ leadership style.

I am greatly excited by compelling principles of leadership emerging from two divergent areas – that of cosmology, the science of the evolution of the universe, and community organising in which I’m involved through the Sydney Alliance.

Community organising is a movement which brings together various community groups, faith communities and unions to enhance civil society in a particular locale. Put simply, it’s a process which gets people to work together to solve their own problems and change the world for better. Before entering politics, Barack Obama was a community organiser in Chicago.

The core principle community organising is relationality. Cosmology tells us that the universe is relational and that nothing – both on the macro and the micro sub-atomic levels – exists independently of its relationships. So too for us; we’re relatives with all creation. What’s the difference between Tony Abbott and a gorilla? – participants were asked at a recent workshop. The answer: three per cent. We humans share 97 per cent of genetic material with a gorilla. Prince George and a fruit fly share 60 per cent, and you, dear reader, share 50 per cent of genetic material with a cabbage!

Relationships, we know, are the fabric of life. They energise us and grow us. An organisation is a web of relationships rather than a machine, no matter how well-oiled. A leader’s capacity to form and enhance relationships is more important than any task, function or role she or he may have.

The leader has to be more host than charismatic hero – more Babette than John Wayne. Margaret Wheatley’s classic, Leadership and the New Science encourages leaders to host and enhance relationships with all and sundry. What creativity, she asks, might emerge from a new relationship between a janitor and the chair of the board? What wisdom might emerge, we might ask, if more women and married people worked within the Vatican Curia?

It’s never what a leader does, but how a leader does it that’s more important. Consider for example if, instead of its heavy-handed secretive tactics, the Vatican had approached the women religious of the United States and simply said something like, “The Church and the world are grateful to you for your years of dedicated service as spiritual guides, teachers and welfare workers, and we greatly admire your commitment to justice. But we’d like to talk with you about some issues which are causing us some concern? Your place or ours?” One can dream.

For a number of years relations between Caritas Internationalis and the Vatican have been strained. In 2011, no reasons given, the Vatican blocked the re-election of the Secretary General, Lesley-Anne Knight. Yet something may be shifting. In one of his first moves, Pope Francis invited all Caritas Regional Directors to the Vatican to listen to their concerns. Dialogue rather than monologue, listening rather than lecturing go a long way in mending soured relationships and building trust.

In a recent article in Eureka Street, Jesuit priest, Andrew Hamilton, a keen Pope Francis observer, noted that any good leader has to have three intelligences – emotional, symbolic and rational – all described in relational terms.

Emotional intelligence, he says, is the ability to see people, not simply as the objects of policy or as problems, but as persons each with their own face and life story. Currently, there seems to be a dearth of emotional intelligence in our leaders in regard to asylum seekers.

Hamilton describes symbolic intelligence as finding the right words, images and gestures that move others to a reflective response. Francis seems to have these first two intelligences in spades, as did Kevin Rudd when he offered the national apology to stolen generations in 2008.

Many commentators noted that as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard had a gift for developing relationships within caucus, yet couldn’t relate easily with the electorate. By contrast, first-term PM, Kevin Rudd is said to have been deposed because of his bullying leadership style, yet continues to relate well with diverse groups within the community – the relationship being so intimate that he sent a photo of his shaving cut to his 1.3 million Twitter followers!

A leader exercises power, but cosmology tells us that the energy or power of the universe is not in the individual, in particles or planets; it is in the relational space between them. I can enhance the relational space between like-minded people and form a clique or a lobby group, but what if, as a leader, I genuinely endeavoured to enhance the relational space with non like-minded people?

A key means to enhance relational space, says community organising, is through a one-on-one relational meeting. The Sydney Alliance claims that a one-on-one relational meeting is perhaps the most powerful, effective ‘political’ tool a leader – any leader – has at his or her disposal.

This sounds counter-intuitive in a digital age. But since joining the Alliance, I’ve chosen to meet some people face-to-face rather than email or phone them. Of course it takes time, and you have to be very selective, but it pays off because it builds trust and relational power – a key aim of community organising.

Another leadership principal of community organising is power with not power over. “Power”, so often used pejoratively, is simply the ability to act. Power is the capacity generated by our organisational relationships. All the Independent MPs during the Gillard Government spoke of how good she was at strengthening the relationship with them. It was for mutual self-interest which enabled significant legislation through the parliament.

Power with can readily deconstruct to power over. The Quaker educator Parker Palmer believes that leaders have the power to project either shadow or light. By failing to be reflective, doing their own inner work and looking at their shadow side, leaders can delude themselves that their efforts are always well-intended and that their power is always benign. Community organising says that power without love is tyranny and love without power is sentimentality.

Known as the iron-clad rule, never do for another what they can do for themselves, is a third leadership principle I see in community organising. A leader shouldn’t think for people nor should they give easy solutions. Many of us would have had the experience of going to a leader simply to share the challenges in our role and getting solutions and unsolicited advice, rather than the desired listening ear. An advice-giving-answer-giving leader disempowers. We grow more from a leader’s faith in us rather than advice to us.

Sometimes leaders forget the cosmic principle of autopoiesis. This refers to the ability of all creation for self-organisation and the ability of each entity to become itself. Leaders can easily be seduced into thinking that nothing will happen unless they do it.

Leaders don’t have to do all the doing, but they do have to enable the flow of information. Information is to an organisation what oxygen is to a body. Confident leaders create space where ideas and information flow freely. Withholding information may be necessary for security or confidentiality concerns, yet often it’s an exercise in power over. Just ask Australian Bishop Bill Morris how he feels about his treatment by Rome – reasons not given, reports not seen. Such lack of due process and the unnecessary withholding of information erodes trust.

Years ago I questioned the leader of my organisation why he had removed Paul Collins’ controversial book Papal Power from our library. He lamely replied that Collins’ book was only presenting one side of an argument. A more adult response might have been to include books which presented another side. Leaders don’t have to think for us.

A fourth leadership principle from community organising is that you deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. It is hard to accept reality – the suchness of life. Reality doesn’t wait for my permission nor adjust to what I think should or shouldn’t be. Good leaders are realists. Strategic planning is important but instead of saying, “Here’s the ideal. Let’s go for it,” the leader needs to say, “Here is the reality. What can we do with it, given our vision and ideals?”

Andrew Hamilton suggests that leaders with rational intelligence accept the complexity of reality and recognise what matters, who matters, and what’s to be done.

Leaders often carry our unrealistic hopes and expectations. In years past at chapter elections, religious congregations used to name the qualities they would like to see in their leader. So idealistic were these lists that Jesus need not apply!

Instead of searching for the perfect leader we might do better to see in what ways we ourselves can exercise leadership, perhaps by looking to community organising and to nothing less than the cosmos. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott could well do the same.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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