Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Don't pick the Fastest Lemming

A central part of my job is helping discern people's callings to particular jobs, with search groups. Very often “leadership” is high on the list of essentials. I uderstand why. Everyone is more or less disorientated in a fast-changing world. People look to clergy to help them through the shifting sands, fog, smoke and mirrors. What many busy people want much of the time is a messianic figure who will turn out and fix things for them. This is the age of the quick fix. Sadly some of the most intractable problems communities face didn’t arise like this and won’t go away without costly and potentially time-consuming social and personal transformation.

The temptation is to pick what seems the most obvious candidate — the competent performer to get things done. But what if the problems are not technical problems? One of the limitations of the Anglican Covenant, peace be upon it, is that it is basically a lawyer’s solution to a broader problem — an attempt to solve mutual incomprehension with aspirin — a quick fix to a chronic cultural issue. People would grow more if they engaged with it humanly and spiritually as well as trying to fix it legally; but maybe all we can manage for now is a bit of paper.

The best leader is the slowest, not the fastest lemming, the oddball who slows down, stands aside, and wonders why. She can be of far more value than the sleekest, zippiest rodent. Appointing to technical criteria is a good discipline for preliminary screening and showing up the issues to discuss at interview. Once that stage is reached, however, you need to look for the person's inner security, personally and spiritually, how well they know where they stop and others start, their sense of perspective, their eccentricities, and the factors that make them the slowest, not the fastest Lemming. Otherwise all you get is the greyest, sleekest überLemming who seems to lead the pack, and we all end up in the drink.

The race goes not to the fastest Lemming, but the one who comes back up the cliff. Discuss?

16 comments:

John McLuckie said...

I agree. One of the best pictures of leadership I ever saw was one of the 'slowest'. He was the head gardener at the college where I worked and his approach was a simple one - he concentrated daily on making sure there were fresh flowers throughout the building and left his more than competent team to do the other stuff. By doing this simple job, he maintained the profile of his department and, more importantly, had time to build relationships because he went to the places where people gathered and was in a good place to hear what was going on. His other 'slow' task was to refuse to water the lawns on the grounds that the grass would grow again and it was a criminal waste of water.

Steve Hayes said...

You sound very Orthodox.

Erika Baker said...

I suppose it depends on how you define leadership. Your go getting über-leader isn't really a good example for leadership. I think these days a good leader is someone who recognises their own limits and the strengths of other people and who is good at encouraging everyone to play their part. A good leader is a good team builder. Whether she is slow or fast is maybe not quite so relevant?

Lyndon said...

I believe the kind of leadership quality you are describing fits under the description of prudentia (i.e. prudence). Aquinas thought it the chief virtue of practical reasoning. “In order to perform an act well,” Aquinas instructs, “it is not merely what people do that matters, but also how people do it, namely that they act from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion.” Amen to that.

Ray Barnes said...

The problem from a lay point of view is that it is all too easy to get led astray by the more charismatic lemming and realise after you are half-way over the cliff that it was a bad choice.
20/20 vision is a valuable and extremely rare gift.

Michelle Denise Norton said...

Amused + agree.

Derek Lancaster said...

I agree with Erika. Leadership, in my view, is primarily about engendering, encouraging and enthusing people with a vision. In the case of the church, a vision that is Kingdom-shaped.

It's a rare gift to able to tread the line between keeping up a forward momentum and becoming over-directive, though, and even harder to do it well with volunteers rather than staff at work.

Anonymous said...

Nope. Don't agree. If you mean resilience,sure. Lord knows the priesthood is a tough job for which he/she and his/her family will need all the resilience to be had.
Yes, charismatic types are scary, especially for those of us of the Anglican/Episcopal persuasion, but to fill the clergy up with strictly the contemplative variety would be deadly.
My father-in-law,the Methodist minister, used to say,"Ministers come in two types: ham or eggs." I say we need some of each, think Archbishop Tutu.
Vashti Winterburg

AdrianC said...

The best leaders I have experienced are those who can move forward whilst not being so far forward that they cannot have a conversation with those they are leading. Not sure how that works with the lemming image - are there other lemmings coming back up the cliff?

Fr David Cloake said...

Oh dear ... that's me knackered then. That said, my paraglider is my insurance, though sadly I can never gain sufficient height to ever hope of reaching Heaven. A lemming frosted purgatory for me then!

Archbeship Anthony said...

An Interesting Debate. When I worked at the Co-op I was not the fastest Till Operator, most Customers appriciated this but there were a few that didnot. A good leader is also Honest and is Diplomatic and I agree with Erika, saying a good leader is someone who recognises their own limits, strengths of others, etc and Derek about encouraging and enthusing people with a vision.
Many Thanks

Ann Memmott said...

Interesting study a couple of months back that looked at leaders who were considered to be world class. They realised many had originally worked for one particular leader and been mentored by him. They asked him what his secret was - was it amazing knowledge, incredible intellect, hard-hitting personality? Nope. It was that he asked people how they were, and really cared about the answer, and treated them as people, not as unit of production. And that's what he taught those other leaders.

Jesus had the knack. He even summed it up: Love one another.

Maybe we need less lemmings in society and more people trying to help others up the cliff?

Vinaigrette girl said...

VG here.

I reckon you're in a good place to ask your searchers what *they* meanby "leadership" and what they're looking for when they unpack that concept. We *have* "a leader", who is Jesus Christ. Everything else is Something Different.

Head, desk: desk, head.

Anonymous said...

strange model of leadership. The phrase about deck chairs and Titanic come to mind. Or is more a case of 'birds of a feather' - self justification. Or, if there is a brighter light - put it out can't have someone who will put me it the shade!!!
My thought is this after the 'Lemming debate' - if there is a crisis don't seek anything from an anglican priest they are in a meeting (cf the good samaritan). Rather after the disaster, all the clearing up is done, people, communities rebuilt then these 'priests' appear after the hard work in done.
Leadership is not either or, it is both and - i.e. flexable to the challenge that is faced not entrench in narrow dogma

Wilson Brake Service said...

Well, we need a lot of those slow but critical thinking lemmings in our society today.

steve collins said...

the fastest lemming is coming back up the cliff with everybody else's money. "if the rest of you end up in the drink that's your problem. that may not make me the best leader, but it makes me the best leader for me."

and that's the real difficulty, because our systems amply reward that behaviour.

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