A sharp student in my systems theory class was struggling with the idea of how trying to bring about change in a system is not willful. He had accepted the idea that a leader's job is not to “change the system.” But he was trying to reconcile that idea with the fact that leaders do bring about change in systems: organizational, developmental, change for the better, change toward maturity, change of perspectives, etc.
The question came to a point during the “Leadership Lessons from the Dog Whisperer” presentation. Watching Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, enter a system and bring about dramatic change in the owners and their dogs gave my student pause about the assumption that the leader's job is not about bringing about change. Yet, here was Millan, entering a system, and doing exactly that, much to everyone's relief.
I think we can learn much about the relationship between change and leadership from Millan's approach. When entering a system in reactivity Millan's goal for change is to restore balance and purpose to a system according to its nature. Millan understands the nature of the dog (a pack animal) and the natural system in which the dog's emotional field operates (the pack). He is able to identify how the dog's functioning is off-center within the new emotional field of a human family. Typically, he enters a systems in which: (1) there is a lack of the presence of a pack leader (the human has failed to provide the leadership function), and (2) there is a sense of a loss of purpose in the dog.
When Millan is able to restore balance (reestablishing who is the leader and who is the follower) and purpose (a sense of place and clarity of mission) to the system, positive change comes about. That change, however, is a reestablishment of homeostasis according to the nature of the system. He does not try to change the dog into a human family member; he does not try to change the family into a canine pack; he restores balance according to the nature of the system. When that happens, people and dogs can change how they function in the system.
Insights on Change and Leadership
Here are some insights, then, for leaders about the matter of change:
Respect the nature of the system.
A congregation is not a family, nor is it an organization—in its nature it is a community of faith. A seminary is not a community, nor is it “church.” A social club is not a community. Therefore, the change a leader brings are those consistent with the nature of the system and its purpose. Leaders do not try to change the system into something it is not. Congregations will always get dysfunctional when they (1) forget their nature, and (2) neglect their purpose (mission). Leaders bring appropriate change when they understand and respect the nature of the system and help the system remember and live into its purpose and mission.
Change comes about as a product of Self, not technique.
Millan's amazing capacity for bringing about change in a system flows from his self, which enables him to be a non-anxious presence in a highly reactive system. While he trains dog owners in various techniques the real change happens in the relationship between owner and dog (an emotional repositioning within the emotional field). Millan's non-anxious presence helps moderate reactivity and mediates the anxious triangles in the system which, in turn, allows for a shift in the emotional process in the system.
Do not take responsibility for the outcome.
Millan models an appropriate coaching posture. He does not take responsibility for the outcome. He “rehabilitates dogs and trains owners” but he does not “will change” nor takes responsibility for the outcome once his work is done. This posture is very difficult for leaders, perhaps especially for pastoral leaders who invest much of self into their congregational ministry. One consistent point of stuckness for pastoral leaders happens when, upon deciding to leave the church system (whether anticipating retirement or moving on to another call), their focus, energy, anxiety, and projects focus on working at ensuring good outcomes for the church they are leaving after they are gone. The more helpful posture is focusing on leaving well and giving up trying to manage or ensure the future of the church. Simply put, once a pastor decides to leave, that church's future is not his or her responsibility.
Understand emotional process and work within its sphere of influence.
The most helpful insight in all this may be the necessity to understand the emotional process of a system and to work within its sphere of influence. Once a leader enters a system he or she becomes a part of the system (as Edwin Friedman put it, the leaders is “grafted” into the system). Any change a leader tries to bring about needs to happen within the influence of the system's homeostasis, the dynamics of the emotional process (including multigenerational transmission), and the leader's position and function in the system. This is why we challenge clergy to appreciate that it takes five years before they can “do that vision thing.” It takes that long being in the system to understand its culture and emotional process well enough to begin to understand what changes a leader can work at bringing about that are congruent with the nature of the system and authentic to its purpose.