Persons who step up to leadership tend to be motivated, smart, and sincere in their desire for success, for themselves and for the organization. Some leaders are go-getters who want to fix a system (and the people in it). They want to create a successful organization and will take on the challenge of "changing the system." When they've had success in a previous context they will tend to enter a challenging dysfunctional system with the confidence that they will be able to duplicate the successes made in one context in another. The liability here, of course, is the tendency to focus leadership on the personality of the leader and failing to take into account the reality that (1) not all systems are created equal, and (2) leadership is as much a function of the system as it is of the individual designated "leader" in the system.
The corrective to the perils of a personality-focused leadership is the appreciation that leadership is always contextual, and, context matters a lot. Not all systems are alike, though systems tend to be "of a kind." A biological family system is not the same as a congregational relationship system, even if the church is made up of families. A for-profit business is not the same as a non-profit organization, even when both provide the same service. A theological school is not a church community, even though both share similar beliefs and practices. Effective leaders understand that the function of leadership is as much (if not more) a product of the system than of the personality of the leader in the system. Therefore, leaders must understand the context and type of system they are in.
Two recent conversations with highly motivated but frustrated leaders underscored the importance of understanding one's system. Both are smart, experienced, and confident leaders. Both have had successes at former contexts in similar systems (one a non-profit organization and one in an congregational context). But both are very frustrated at the slow pace of change they are making helping their organizations succeed. Both express a feeling of being stuck and facing problems they are not able to "fix" for the first time. One said, "It feels like pushing against Jello around here." The other said, "At this point I'd settle for us just being a healthier place."
These leaders were facing the particular challenge of trying to lead chronically anxious systems. These types of systems are structured with chronic anxiety as an integral part of their homeostasis and patterns of emotional process. They come about when their structure: (1) makes someone in the system responsible for someone else's functioning, (2) has triangles as a patterned way for emotional processes, and (3) is designed so as to inhibit the effectiveness of the leader. At best, these systems lack the internal resources to improves, and, at worst, they are highly resistant to change and tend to have a perverse devotion to their dysfunction. Any leader with Messianic leanings will become prone to burnout in such systems.
Does this mean these leaders should just give up on their systems? No, I still think the presence of a mature and effective leader remains one of the most significant factors in helping a system function better, if not realize success. But it can help to adjust one's assumptions, perspectives, and functioning as leader in an chronically anxious system stuck in its dysfunction. The challenge for leaders in this context is to adjust their leadership functioning without accommodating to the system.
In what ways might high-performing leaders adjust their perspective, expectations and functioning in a chronically anxious system? Here are some ways:
Leadership is a product of a system, more so than a function of one individual's personality, skills, or competence. As such, leaders do well to understand the nature of the system they lead and the context in which it resides. In this way, leaders can move toward being more effective by providing the leadership function the system actually needs through adaptation rather than accommodation.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.