Since this essay is autobiographical, I should probably start with some autobiography. I am currently 37 years old, white, male, queer, married, and the father of a son, who is seven. I am currently employed full time as the library director at a small university; I have been the director of one library or another for the past 10 years. During this same period, I have found myself in leadership roles on a variety of community boards and committees. For a little less than a third of my life, then, I have been conscious of myself as a leader. For the first third of my life, the thought of being a leader never crossed my mind. I grew up always being the youngest: I was the younger of two siblings; I was the youngest of eight cousins; although my neighborhood was full of children of various ages, there was a large enough gap between my cohort and the next youngest that everyone I played with regularly was my age or older. The world I lived in was one I inherited from others, and I understood growing up primarily as growing into my place in that world. For the middle third-or-so of my life, my chosen role in most groups was the loyal second-in-command. Leadership was something I facilitated, not something I exercised myself. Up until the point I was put in charge of a library when my predecessor had a stroke, the thought that anybody would want me at the top of an org chart would have struck me as crazy. At times, it still does.
For this reason, I am ambivalent about the trait approach that Northouse presents in Chapter 2 of Leadership: Theory and Practice. On the one hand, I do not seem to be a born leader. If anything, I am a born follower. I tell people that I’m a natural traditionalist — I like to know my place — who has been forced by circumstances to be nonconventional. Similarly, even when I do not seek out positions of power and influence, individuals and groups often put me in that role. So, on the other hand, this pattern could in fact represent the existence of innate leadership traits in my personality. Certainly, on my self-assessment on the Leadership Trait Questionnaire, I responded “agree” or “strongly agree” for 7 out of 10 traits, with “neutral” as my most negative self-rating (for Self-assured, Determined, and Outgoing). I usually prefer to view these characteristics as virtues instead of as traits; I affirm, and have observed, that whatever people’s natural tendencies, their behavior can change through a process of formation. The years that I have been a leader are the same years that I have identified as Christian and worked hard to grow in maturity. I do not think that this temporal correlation is a coincidence, or that the causality goes in only one direction: becoming a more mature Christian has improved my effectiveness as a leader, but it is also the case that the responsibilities of leadership have spurred me to become more disciplined in my faith.
This change over time makes me more comfortable with the skills approach that Northouse presents in Chapter 3. It would be interesting to see the Skills Inventory applied in a longitudinal study, to see if individuals’ technical, human and conceptual skills increase with leadership experience. It is possible that my relative scores of 23 for Technical, 30 for Human, and 26 for Conceptual reflect the specifically executive nature of my work leadership experience, as well as the collegial and deliberative nature of my community leadership experience. I certainly remember having more patience for being responsible for technical details earlier in my career. These days, I have a personal interest in the nuts and bolts of operations and technologies, but in a leadership capacity, I care much less about how things get done than that they get done. My attitude has always been that my job is to stay out of the way of other people’s good work, but increasingly, I am more resentful of situations where I do have to hold someone’s hand as they complete their tasks.
This preference is reflected in my response to the style approach that Northouse presents in Chapter 4. When I took the Style Questionnaire, I scored 38 on task behaviors and 46 on relationship behaviors. This lopsided result makes sense, because I have found that the only way I know how to lead effectively is to use a model of leadership as discernment: a problem is identified, and the leader guides the other individual(s) through the process of identifying a solution to that problem. The problem can be narrowly defined (e.g., how do we make sure the books stay shelved in the right order?) or broadly defined (e.g., how do we ensure that the students have access to the information they will need for their studies?). The fancier kinds of broad solutions sometimes get the label of “vision,” but I am suspicious of that label in most cases, because it tends to become an exercise in imposed uniformity instead of diversity. For me, leadership is best understood as a facilitated dialogue between the members of a group. Judith Berling concisely describes the nature of dialogue: “One cannot engage in a genuine conversation without opening oneself to the views of the other; a conversation entails both mutual influence and mutual criticism” (Berling 13). I have found that this mutual influence and criticism allows the consideration of a wider range of solutions to any given problem, increasing the chances of identifying the one that is the most adaptive.
In the context of explicitly spiritual guidance, Duane Bidwell offers a good framework that truly respects differences, instead of denying them or framing them as barriers. This framework transfers well into a consideration of leadership in general. In his book Short-Term Spiritual Guidance, Bidwell advises: “Avoid diagnostic labels and pathologies…Emphasize people’s existing strengths and resources…Find exceptions to the difficulties people face…Establish clear and specific goals…Negotiate rather than impose goals and solutions…Focus on the present and future…Affirm small changes as a means to bigger changes” (Bidwell 28-33). Given this orientation, it makes sense that I responded poorly to the situational approach presented by Northouse in Chapter 5. I scored horribly on the Situational Leadership Questionnaire, probably because I have trouble grasping the idea that good leadership could consist of diagnosing a situation and then imposing a prescribed solution. In my view, a leader must recognize the different personalities, interests and experiences represented by the voices in a group’s conversation. Leadership is shortsighted when diversity is suppressed in the name of unity and certainty. However, goals must still be set, and tasks must still be completed, even though these processes may be unclear or contested. Leaders must nurture solidarity among the members of their group, if not unity (Mannion 143).
Because of my concern for solidarity, it is probably unsurprising that I scored extremely high on the Least Preferred Coworker Measure, which is part of the contingency theory that Northouse presents in Chapter 6. This measure suggests that I am highly relationship-oriented, supporting the results from the previous instruments. However, this model claims that I would most commonly be effective when leader-member relations are poor; only when tasks have low structure and my position power is weak should I be effective when leader-member relations are good. This claim strikes me as counterintuitive, and yet, it is true that some of my most effective leadership has been when I have walked into ugly situations, while I have frequently gotten restless in settled situations. Perhaps my relationship orientation allows me to overcome or repair poor relations. Perhaps, also, I get bored when relations are too good, because then all that is left to work on is perfecting tasks or preserving personal power, neither of which appeal much to me.
The preceding observations about my engagement with various leadership models should hopefully provide context for the fact that I resonated most strongly with leader-member exchange theory (which Northouse presents in Chapter 8) and path-goal theory (which Northouse presents in Chapter 7). Regarding leader-member exchanges, it has been blatantly obvious to me from my first days as a leader that I cannot help but pursue the development of an in-group identity as a top priority. To be sure, my aim is to gather every single member of the group into that in-group — for me, “my people” is not a cute way of referring staff or constituents, but a quite literal description of how I view my relationship to them — but for those members who prefer to be minimally involved in a group identity, I do not feel bad that they do not receive more than the explicit or implicit quid pro quo of membership. Of course, I set a pretty high baseline quid pro quo, when it is in my power to do so. After all, they are, all of them, my people.
It is with path-goal theory that things get really interesting, from my perspective. When I took the Path-Goal Leadership Questionnaire, I fully expected to score highest in the Supportive and Participative modes, since I am all about the relationships. However, Supportive was my lowest-ranking mode, at “common.” Participative was on the high end of common, but so was Directive, which surprised me. The biggest surprise, though, was how high my Achievement mode was—far above the other modes. I do not think of myself as a leader who demands superlative performances from folks; the phrase “continuous improvement” sends chills down my spine. What I realized, as I sat with the results, is that I have thought of a focus on achievement as representing constant dissatisfaction with people, when in fact, in my case at least, it represents constant confidence in people. I expect high achievement not for my sake, but for their sake: individually and collectively, I want them to see all the cool and exciting and valuable and dependable things they are capable of. I am in fact often directive about assigning challenging projects. Contemplating this behavior returns me to Bidwell’s recommendations to emphasize people’s existing strengths and resources, establish clear and specific goals, focus on the present and future, and affirm small changes as a means to bigger changes.
Put together, the value I place on leader-member exchanges and my focus on achievement represent a belief that nurturing the development of group virtues is always a necessary component — and sometimes a necessary prerequisite — of accomplishing specific goals or answering specific questions. Here, my practical experience of leadership continues to intertwine with my theology. I agree with Rose Dougherty that "our being in relationship with others, moving toward fullness in God together—is the way things really are. This is our shared reality, despite experiences to the contrary such as loneliness, betrayal, and war" (Dougherty 8). As a leader, I recognize that group conflict, or merely subpar performance within a group, does not erase the reality of God’s work in the world. The task of a leader is not to create success, but to discover the promised success that is already showing its new growth, and to help it grow a little bit more in the time available. I have an extremely low anthropology — I am not sure it is possible to have much experience as a leader and still hold to a high anthropology — but my dubious assessment of humanity, paradoxically, is what allows me to have hope for improvement, because I can always see how most people could actually be so much worse than they are.
Up to this point, I have not talked about transformational leadership, which Northouse presents in Chapter 9. It is a model that I am deeply suspicious of, for much the same reason that I am suspicious of people who talk about creating vision: namely, the danger of imposed uniformity. Also, given that I believe in emphasizing existing strengths and resources, and in facilitating small changes on the way to bigger changes, “transformational” is a label that raises red flags for me as pushing a philosophy of change that is total and sudden. As I mentioned above, I am not a radical; I am a traditionalist at heart, with a low anthropology. Any talk of accomplishing “great things” gives me the same kind of chill as “continuous improvement.” Further, the transformational model does generally not take into account two of the observations of our readings in Studying Congregations: that groups exist within ecologies of other groups, and that groups have firmly established cultures and identities. Transforming a group, in ecological terms, is like introducing a mutation into an organism — it may or may not be adaptive. Transforming a group, in cultural and identity terms, is an existential challenge. True transformation is rare for a reason and does not strike me as a desirable goal for every Jane or Joe Leader.
All the same, I do place a high value on achievement, and enough achievements piled together start to look like a transformation. For this reason, I greatly appreciated Leadership without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, which I read for the leadership praxis earlier in the year. The main message I took away was that effective leadership depends not on abstract principles or innate characteristics, but on the skilled use of specific levers of power and/or influence in specific environments. Leaders must be in some sense authorized by the group; they must not overestimate the extent of their constituencies, and thereby misunderstand their role in the group. Successful leaders may have clear formal authority, or informal authority such as a strong positive reputation in the community. According to Heifetz, leaders rely on power given to them by constituents in exchange for relieving those constituents’ burden of problem-solving. Whatever formal authority a leader may or may not have, without the support of constituents, they lack the power (including influence as a form of power: persuasive vs. coercive power) to effectively exercise leadership. With this support, leaders can deal with the inevitable resistance within the group in an authoritative but not authoritarian way.
Working through resistance is a central aspect of how I approach leadership in practical ways. As Dr. Mahan mentioned in class, to achieve a desired outcome without the group’s internalized acceptance is not success, because the outcome will not outlast the leader’s tenure. It is therefore important to listen to what group members are really saying with their words and actions. In the context of spiritual guidance, Dougherty observes that “resistance may show itself in various ways" (Dougherty 71). Howard Rice further observes: “An argument over what seems like a technicality may be the person’s only way to express his or her anger…Shy persons may respond differently…They do not openly subvert the process…but they may hinder implementation of the results” (Rice 150). These same dynamics are found in settings that are not explicitly spiritual. A leader must recognize these various types of resistance, and be prepared to address them. At this point, Bidwell’s recommendations to find exceptions to the difficulties people face and negotiate rather than impose goals and solutions come into play again. However, despite their best efforts, a leader may be unable to help group members overcome their resistance, and “may need to help them say…that they want a break" (Dougherty 71). The leader must recognize the limits of their role, in order to not limit the authenticity of the diverse voices in the conversation. One major weakness of the transformational model is that it typically cannot view such breaks as anything but failures. Heifetz fortunately takes a broader view, in his five “strategic principles of leadership”: “1. Identify the adaptive challenge…2. Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work …3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions …4. Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand …5. Protect voices of leadership without authority” (Heifetz 128). These five principles align quite nicely with Bidwell’s seven recommendations that I have been referencing. I see this alignment as validation of the possibility of allowing secular and spiritual models of leadership to inform each other.
This mutual influence between models is especially important when considering questions of identity within groups. I have found that a secular approach to respecting diversity can often backfire. Even well-intentioned leaders working with group members who are coming from less privileged places can easily objectify or dehumanize them. Often people who are poor, queer, of color, or otherwise marginalized are used to being treated as specimens or puzzles. They often experience their mere existence as problematic for the more privileged. Consciously or not, leaders can reinforce this dynamic of objectification as they play out their part in a system more concerned with the proper execution of policies and procedures than authentic relationships between unique individuals.
I have covered a lot of territory in this essay, and I worry that I have not been specific enough in examining what kinds of settings my approach to leadership would work best in, and in what kinds of settings it would not work particularly well. I think the key limiting factor is my strong preference for high-value leader-member exchanges and a personal role in guiding members to high achievement. There is both a numerical ceiling and a numerical floor, in terms of group size, past which this approach becomes highly problematic. I am not sure exactly where it is on either end, but I do know that my “sweet spot” appears to be the direct leadership of 12-18 people, with indirect leadership of another 10-30. If the numbers grow too large, I cannot maintain the individual relationships that my preferred approach requires, and reconciling factions into a group with true solidarity becomes trickier. If the number drops too low, there is not enough energy or opportunities to tackle meaningful and challenging goals, and the question of a sustainable group identity is kind of moot. My sense at this point is that the floor is more problematic than the ceiling; I seem to be able to adjust to the idea that there might larger numbers of members that I am indirectly interacting with, through a smaller layer of members that have their own areas of direct responsibility. We will see how it turns out. After all, it is necessary affirm small changes as a means to bigger changes, and I know that I have existing strengths and resources to build on.
Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. Studying congregations: a new handbook. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Berling, Judith A. Understanding other religious worlds: a guide for interreligious education. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004.
Bidwell, Duane R. Short-term spiritual guidance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
Dougherty, Rose. Group spiritual direction: community for discernment. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.
Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
Mannion, Gerard. Ecclesiology and postmodernity: questions for the church in our time. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006.
Rice, Howard L. The pastor as spiritual guide. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1998.