Friday, September 14, 2007

Response to a Comment on Yesterday's blog

I normally do not respond to comments left on this blog, but I would like to comment on an anonymous and good response to yesterday’s blog. It is a great joy that we can interact and learn from one another – so I offer my small contribution to this well thought-through response. The measure of success in leadership that yesterday’s response to my blog proposes - the quality of relationships build with God and others - is precisely the transformation of leadership values that Nouwen hopes for and proposes in his little, provocative book. A close reading of Nouwen will reveal that he does not propose that leadership should not be relevant, spectacular or heroic: it is the desperate temptations to be relevant (in Nouwen’s Dutch-informed sense of writing – a desire to play to the whims and movements of the market), spectacular and powerful that he identifies as the main temptations for those who lead. These are the temptations that often lead to the kind of dysfunctional and ineffective leadership that all of us have witnessed too well. For Nouwen obedience to God equals effective Christian leadership, authentic leadership in the Name of Jesus – and this could end up being very relevant, quite spectacular and full of the right kind of power – but those leadership results are ultimately the work of God. Nouwen’s genius lies in his understanding that authentic leadership cannot start with those desires – it has to start with the determined commitment to follow God – and to leave the effects of that leadership to Him. For too long have we located the phenomena of leadership solely in the person of the leader. I would propose that leadership is much more complex that the desires and actions of one person (as good, needed and intentional as they might be) – at minimum any talk of Christian leadership should include the serious consideration of the empowering presence of God, the community, context, organization, mission and followers. Nouwen proposes in a very simple way, based on his reading of the last chapter of John’s Gospel (21), that the phenomena of leadership includes and depends upon these above-mentioned constituents.

Does Nouwen’s small book on Christian leadership address all the philosophical or Biblical elements necessary to construct an adequate theory for Christian Leadership? I do not think so. But this book, written in the early 1980’s does open the door to start to examine what a communal, values-based approach to leadership could look like. Nouwen is no longer alone in his call to a values-based approach to leadership (one could consider the work of Robert Greenleaf, Richard Barker and even the most recent writings of Bernard Bass for a few examples of this). Leadership scholars world-wide has proposed that a shift is occurring in our understanding of leadership and that this new, emerging, post-industrial paradigm of leadership has helped leaders to start to think of leadership as something that is done in community instead of the acts of one privileged and empowered individual. This paradigm shift from extreme individualism to perspectives in communal leadership is a global phenomena and is contrasted by Jean Lipmen-Blumen (Thorton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Drucker School of Leadership) with the individualistic, competitive leadership approaches of the past: “…we finally began to reexamine more critically our traditional concept of leadership. It is based on an outmoded ego ideal glorifying the competitive, combative, controlling, creative, aggressive, self-reliant individualist…”

I fully agree that Bruce Winston’s concept of Agapao love as the prime motivator of Christian leadership, is the closest we have come so far to describe this values-driven approach (and in my reading to the concepts Nouwen describes): doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time, to the right people will result in authentic Christian leadership that might very well turn out to be spectacularly relevant and powerful – but those results are God’s work, our work is to be obedient to the call to lead in the Name of Jesus.
I would also confess that Nouwen's three temptations: the temptations to be the person of the hour that is known for his spectacular and powerful personage and leadership are all temptations that I can deeply relate to.
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)