The Problem with the Visionary Leader
The graduate student was talking about how to make a next vocational move into a judicatory staff position in her region, and creating a core group of pastors and other leaders who could learn some new and emerging ways to imagine church together, using Theory U, systems thinking, and other emergent models.
That set me to remembering my own experience a quarter of a century ago, when I began my work for the Presbyterian Church in the St. Louis area. Systems thinking was just breaking into our awareness at that time, and very soon after I arrived I gathered a group of leaders to study Ed Friedman’s newly published book, Generation to Generation. That group soon became a support and learning group, and also became the foundation for the conflict team for the presbytery. From them emerged the model of conflict utilization advocated in these columns and based on my book, Hope in Conflict.
As I thought of the parallel between my experience then and this student’s future hopes, I realized that my programs of clergy support and conflict utilization did not continue in that presbytery after I left. I wondered what that was about and how my student might approach the work differently.
One difference between my approach then and the student’s now is that I was working from the model of the “visionary leader” current in church circles at that time. Even Ed Friedman advocated for the visioner at the head of the organization. The visioner model was embraced by pastors who had been content to be competent administrators or enlightened managers of their congregation’s business (for examples of those models from that earlier era, see my little book on church administration—Work of the Church (Judson, 1987)).
But now, the era of the visionary leader is over, and this student, of the generation born after 1970, will approach the work as a collaborator, making it a shared leadership project. Instead of selecting and casting a vision for the organization, the new collaborative leader will work to “help the congregatioin see” for themselves who they are and what they are called to become (Scharmer, Theory U, Berrett-Koehler, 2009) by asking honest questions, making wise observations, and gently nudging the system to be open to change. She will more naturally gather the vision from the stories and passions of the group rather than seeing the vision as the primary responsibility of the designated leader. Models of open conversation and discernment will be much more likely to create a sustainable program of leadership development and system transformation than what I worked for in the late 1980’s.
Actually, I’ve tried the vision thing in several settings, and it never really worked that well. In some situations it led to more resistance to my leadership. In others no real second-order transformational change happened in the system, because it was my vision, not theirs. That could be why, when I left Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, the system returned to its original, default state, like a stretched rubber band.
No doubt, a quarter of a century from now, that my young graduate student will look back at the experience and recognize where the glitches and blind spots were; but the chances of that work catching and carrying on are better than mine were, “way back when.”