I know that many of us are weary about jargon, particularly management or organisation jargon. Hence I am nervousness about this post.

However, while they have the ability to put us off, new words can also potentially open up new vistas, meaning and possibilities. It is in this spirit that I introduce the term ‘reflexivity’.

I believe that ‘reflexivity’ is an important concept for anyone interested in exploring a more human or relational form of leadership and organising.

Here’s my take on what it means:

Someone is said to be ‘reflexive’ if they are able to notice the actions and reactions of self and others in relation to oneself, and to use these observations to guide and coordinate continuing conversation and future action. It is the ability to be aware of our ‘world-view’ and the impact/consequences of this in our interaction with others. In this sense, it is an appreciation that identities, relationships, and cultural practices are interconnected to our and others’ actions.

When we practice reflexivity we make choices about how we will think and act. We become responsible and accountable for our choices, our actions, and our contributions to a relational system. It is the ability to ask ourselves what kind of social world we are co-creating by the way we think, talk and act.

In his book “Making social worlds: A Communication Perspective”, Barnet Pearce, who I’ve had the great privilege of listening to, gave this example:

Arthur and John are fighting. Arthur may ask either linear or reflexive questions.

Linear questions:  How can I defeat John? How much will it cost me to defeat him? What resources do I have available to me? Is it in my best interest to risk these resources in order to beat him?

Reflexive questions: What kind of person will I become if I win this fight with John? Regardless of who wins, what kind of social world are we creating by fighting? What will it cost me if I defeat him? What will I miss most when the fight is over?

My friend, Kevin Barge, has helpfully suggested that reflexivity takes on three distinct forms:

(1) Descriptive reflexivity:  An explanation of the interrelationships among action, meaning, and context within a human system.

(2) Self reflexivity:  A discerning awareness of how one’s positioning within conversation has consequences for self and other, and

(3) Invitational reflexivity:  A form of conversational engagement that facilitates making self and others mindful of the purposes and consequences of their actions within a human system.

For me, the ability to be reflexive is key to becoming a ‘relational’ leader.

Lessons from post-modernity: “Life is curly – don’t straighten it out”

This is one of my favourite quotes. It’s from Susan Scott who wrote “Fierce Conversations”. For me , this phrase just sums up the post-modern turn.

Looking at theories of organisation, we could be forgiven for believing that organisational life is a nice neat, linear process. Lovely arrows, venn diagrams, flow charts and gant charts. Very, straight forward, a bit like the London tube map.

I’m told that people like the simplicity of models, even though we know that, like the tube map, the reality is actually quite messy.

Some say that ‘positivist’ or linear thinking, which has its roots in scientific/mathematical methodology, is on the wane. I’m not sure. I think it’s just gotten a bit more sophisticated.

Hopefully change is in the air, with what some have delightfully called “the relational” turn.

One such writer, David Boje used the example of a Play called Tamara to illustrate the complex relational nature of human interaction.

All the world’s a stage!

Tamara is Los Angeles’ longest-running play. It takes place in a huge set.

Instead of remaining stationary, viewing a single stage, the audience fragments into small groups that chase characters from one room to the next, from one floor to the next, even going into bedrooms, kitchens and other chambers to chase and create the stories. Apparently, because there are a dozen stages and a dozen storytellers, the number of story lines an audience could trace as it chases the wandering discourses of Tamara is 12 factorial (479,001,600)!

A relational approach to organisational theory moves us to consider that human communities are more like the Tamara play than a modern movie seen and told from a singular perspective.

This approach challenges the modernist leader’s conception that there is a single unified coherent story that links organisational members together (hence, the obsession with writing and communicating a vision statement).

Rather, organisations are more like the audience and members in Tamara, wandering about, chasing different stories, exploring different plots for making sense of their unfolding experience, socially creating their realities and preoccupations.  In this way, organisations are naturally fragmented, complex and polyphonic (many voiced).

If  we accept the notion that organisations are more Tamara-like, than machines, we will do well to move from scientific/mechanistic theories of leadership and organising to ones based on the study of humanity and relationships, eg family therapy!

In this relational paradigm the role of leader is reframed as one who coordinates multiple voices and stories in ways that can help co-create coherence and collaboration in complex human systems.

To take the Body metaphor in Corinthians seriously, leaders will need to develop skills for noticing patterns of relationships amongst people and be able to innovate ways of ‘going on’ by coordinating the connections between its many parts.

They also need to develop ‘reflexivity’ ie, the ability to make sense of how their own behaviour, thoughts, actions and vocabulary shapes their social world. If you want to hear more about reflexivity, I will dedicate the next blog to it, please let me know in the reply section.

Relational practice sounds warm and cuddly but it isn’t. It involves learning how to deal with humanity in all its complexity… emotions, compassion, love, hate, competition, conflict, politics, greed, selfishness, power, etc, etc.

Developing Christian principles for Leadership, Organising and Learning

Part 3: Organisation Development and divine wisdom…

I loved Jill Garrett’s comments in Part 1 of this blog. She wrote:

  1. “…leadership; different styles, language and methodologies will work better in some sectors than in others, but the lasting principles are those founded on divine wisdom.”
  2. “Perhaps we would do better to focus on Christian leadership in every sphere and then encourage people to think about the applications of Christian principles founded on divine wisdom, in their unique context.

The spiritual context of learning

Mike Higton, in the Grove Booklet Series, ‘Vulnerable Learning’ (2006) reminds us that for the Christian, learning is not merely “a call to accumulate ideas or skills”, but, as it was for the disciples, it is part of the process of remaking our identities. It is a spiritual process that involves dying to self, and becoming new creations in Christ.

My sense is that this metamorphosis involves applying “divine wisdom” found in scriptures. My dear friend John Martin came up with the following principles for leadership, ‘organising’ and learning just from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:

  • It is founded on Christ (1 Cor 3:10-14)
  • It is calling us to be “servants of Christ and stewards of the mystery of God” (1 Cor 4:1)
  • It is rich in spiritual gifts (1 Cor 4:8)
  • It is relational and inter-dependent (1 Cor 12: 14-26).
  • There is an implied functional hierarchy but it is a leadership of love and service (2 Cor 10:13, 2 Cor 4:5)

Here are some of my suggestions on how these principles can be applied in the context of Organisation Development:

  • An appreciation of 1 Corinthians 12 recognises the interconnectedness and interdependence of the whole body of Christ and offers a context for developing coherence.
  • We need to value and celebrate diversity of gifts, talents and experiences. However, it is also important to remember that individual perspectives, while important, are partial, as illustrated by this story:

Nasreddin sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side: “Hey! how do I get to the other side?”

“You are on the other side!” Nasreddin shouted back.

  • Given the diversity of human perspectives (dreams, visions, prophecies) a key leadership role is the ability to facilitate coherence through communal methods of sense and meaning making. Another way of putting this is that human systems are polyphonic, that is, multi-voiced. In this context, an important role of leadership is to actively listen, blend and align voices in order to achieve participation, cooperation and collaboration.
  • One way of recognising that people are made in the image of God, purposeful, creative and have talents and gifts is to use ‘strength-based’ approaches. These methods involve encouraging the use of gifts, talents, insights and coordinating these in a way that helps to achieve the organisation’s vision and objectives. By identifying what works well, we create heighten energy and vision for change.
  • Our ‘working’ environment/culture should be one where people can flourish. It should be life-giving and have physical, psychological and conversational spaces that foster a sense of belonging, and encourage relational (net)working and fellowship.

Finally, I have a few questions for you. Sadly no prizes for taking part – merely the satisfaction of knowing that someone might learn from your experience!

Describe a time when you really felt alive, engaged and proud of yourself and your performance.

What role did leadership play in this experience?

How did a leader or leadership practice unleash your capacities; and help you fulfil your calling?

Relational Practice and the issue of Authority: A Parable

Generally speaking, people do not doubt the need for authority or even hierarchy. The latter exists in every human form of organisation. Relational practice is not a political means to invert hierarchy but instead it a call to develop aesthetic and practical skills for managing power within a complexity of contexts in a way that distinguishes between authority and authoritarianism.

I received the following email this morning from my lovely friend Jean Mawer, that illustrates this far better than I ever can!

A DEA officer stopped at a ranch in Texas, and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.”

The rancher said, “Okay, but don’t go in that field over there…..”, as he pointed out the location.

The DEA officer verbally exploded saying, ” Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!”

Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher.

“See this badge?! By the authority vested in me by our Government, this badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish… without let or hindrance, on any land! No questions asked or answers given!! Have I made myself clear…… do you understand?”

The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores.

A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, looked up, and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull…

With every step the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he’d sure enough get gored before he reached safety. The officer was clearly terrified.

The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs…


Developing Christian principles for Leadership, Organising and Learning

Part 2: The importance of philosophy and assumptions about people

The second instalment of this series is over to you!

I would love to hear your views on how the following two bible verses…

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. Gen 1:27

“…I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”. Joel 2:28

… should influence:

1. The culture (“the way things are done around here”) and ethos of a Christian organisation;
2. It’s model/style of leadership; and
3. The way that jobs are designed.

Please post your thoughts in the reply box below.

Of course, as “saved sinners”, Christians, all too often, get it wrong. Our ‘love-hate’ relationship with Christian organisations is brilliantly illustrated by these quotes from the Anglican Common Prayer Book:

“The church is a whore, but she is our mother.” Augustine

“The church is sort of like Noah’s ark. It’s a stinky mess inside, but if you get out, you’ll drown.” Anon

However, there must be good practice out there, that we can be inspired by, and learn from. If you know of any, please do post these as well.

A series of blogs on developing Christian principles for Leadership, Organising and Learning

Part 1:

There comes a point in any human endeavour where people and activities need to be organised. When this happens we need to decide how to organise, and what leadership model to adopt.

However, I suspect that for most of us, it is more likely that we find ourselves in situations where the model for organising and leadership are already in place.

In either case, Christians should aspire to organise and work in ways that are congruent with our beliefs, values, missiology.

My sense is that many ‘not for profit’ or ‘value-based’ organisations have been seduced by commercial management methods. There seems to be a continuing notion/story/myth that this is the professional thing to do. Research has shown that many charities, public authorities such as schools, hospital, civil service and churches have gone this way.

Yes there are things we can learn from the world of commerce. However, it is important to remember that commercial methodology is based on a particular worldview, ie, capitalism. And that any techniques or solutions thereof come imbedded with capitalistic values and assumptions, which we may or may not agree with! In my experience, many Christians:

1. are not (philosophically) motivated by capital.
2. would prefer methodologies that are ‘Apolitical’ (rather than right wing).
3. want to be less individualistic, competitive and meritorious.

An alternative model is relational practice which has at its heart a philosophical commitment to inclusivity; empowerment and ethical practice. It is based on a human developmental process informed by relational attributes such as nurturing, love, connectedness, and expressions of feelings.

This is in contrast to modernist models which are based on “rational values” associated with autonomy, scientific methodology, and independence. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to use reason, and to make our thinking rationally coherent. However, a relational orientation focuses on communal interactions rather than on rational individualism.

In the relational ‘paradigm’, leaders are participants in the communal construction of meaning, purpose and action. Rather than relying on power derived from command and control, they play a key role in sense-making; and motivating people to fruitful and coherent action/s within complex situations.

This series of blogs will explore how leadership and organising might look like as relational practice. I will share these thoughts over the coming weeks. They are meant for discussion, comments, suggestions and re-working. I am hoping that this will be a way of developing these ideas further.

A Micro Mouse Approach to Building Community

The rodent not the pc accessory!

My conversation with a few friends over lunch today really exited me!

It seems we live in a “go large”, “live it large”, “bigger is better”, “big bang” world. At some level, we are all influenced by this mantra.

What if the opposite were true? Perhaps it’s the small things that have a big impact that have more potential for creating and sustaining change. I think someone called this the ‘micro mouse’ approach. If not, I call dibs!

The Church Mission Society was recognised by the Church of England as an acknowledged community in 2009.

Since then CMS have been trying to communicate what this means in practice, to our staff, members, mission partners and supporters but so far with only some success. Using the analogy of aeroplanes, one observer noticed that there was a big gap between the “leading edge” and the “trailing edge”. He was referring to the message of community and the lived reality of our members.

At the lunch table today, some of us were pondering why this might be, and what we can do about it.

As the conversation unfolded, it occurred to us that we may have been going about this the wrong way. We were thinking in terms of grand gestures. What is the big thing we can do? What’s the big programme? What’s the big event? What’s the big communication campaign? What’s the big publication? What’s the big (re)structure?

Perhaps what’s needed is precisely the opposite! We should be asking instead: “what are the small things we can do to help each other experience ourselves as community?”

We went round the table, asking each other this question; and, the suggestions started rolling in. I could not contain my excitement!

I was so enthused; I rushed up to my PC to write this blog. My excitement wasn’t so much for the idea of going small – but for the really interesting suggestions. I would like to capture these. So, please put your ideas as replies to this blog and let’s see how we can act on them together.

In relation to becoming a Mission Community… what are the small things we can do that can potentially have a big impact?

So far, we’ve got:

“Have meals together. Don’t label it as community, just eat together.”

“Have coasters or beer mats made up, with a simple message.”

“Give out community badges or fridge magnets.”

“Visit each other.”

“Set up a Facebook page to pray for each other”.

Join “We are saying yes” http://www.wearesayingyes.org/

Gender equality: Moving beyond legislation and political correctness

This morning at our usual staff gathering, the person leading our time of reflection celebrated the significant achievements of the early “Heroines of Christian mission”. It was remarkable to reflect how much these great women of God accomplished  in spite of the inequalities that existed; and continue to exist today.

This session sparked a lively discussion on how we should continue to work towards gender equality today. This is my reflection on the conversation.

History has shown that if we simply replace women with men – say in leadership roles – without tackling that society’s underlying assumptions about gender, change will, at best, be superficial. We can all think of examples of women leaders who resorted to ‘masculine/alpha male’ forms of leadership in order to be “successful” in a man’s world. While legislative approaches to diversity has been useful in advancing the cause of women, I’m dubious about whether a regulatory approach will ever lead to a paradigm shift.  At best, criminalising behaviour can lead to compliance or political correctness, but it also does drives discriminatory practice and attitudes underground.

What’s needed are ways of creating transformative change. This got me thinking about how everyone can play a part in making real change happen. Something that we can all do is to ask questions – questions that generate something new. They have the potential to co-create new realities.

Successful organisations are characterised by positive partnerships across gender relationships in which both men and women contribute from their strengths, and are recognised and feel valued for their contributions.

Generative questions have the potential to socially construct such positive relationships. If you are interested in trying this approach, here are some examples of questions that can be used, say at a team building meeting or something similar. Ask people to answer the following questions in pairs:

1. Think of a time when you felt a genuine appreciation and valuing of diversity, particularly in terms of gender. What made this possible? What stood out as significant and meaningful? How was mutual respect and trust gained?

2. What would you like to see more of, in order to support or improve across-gender working relationships?

3. As you look to the future, what would you like our team/organisation to look like with respect to gender relationships? How should this be manifested in terms of leadership action and how can we ALL bring this about?

4. Having had this conversation what are you personally compelled to make happen? Who will you discuss this with? At the end of the session ask each pair to feedback the key points from their discussion to the whole group.

Remember, the success of this activity rests on people being ‘given permission’ to act on ideas that come up. So, at the end of the meeting you might want to ask for feedback to the whole group; and for ideas and actions to be written up on a flip chart.

The essence of community… We think together, therefore we are.

In his famous book the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) Paulo Freire wrote:

“Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in an ivory tower isolation, but only in communication”.

The phrase “in communication”, could be substituted with the words “in relationship”.

What do we think? ☺

Physician, heal thyself…

I like to think of myself as a relational leader. Needless-today, this is easier said than done!

The walk of shame!

A number of years ago, there was a spate of computer thefts where I worked. I came back from lunch one afternoon to find my laptop missing. My Secretary, who was visibly agitated, announced that someone from the IT Department, noticed that my laptop wasn’t secured to my desk and had decided to “confiscated” it.

I telephoned the IT Manager to ask for an explanation. He said he had decided to “make an example” of a Director so that others would comply with security protocols regarding IT equipment.

I told him that the point was well taken, and asked for the return of the laptop. “That’s fine”, he said, “but you have to come up and get it so that we can tell you what you have done wrong”.

The thought of having my wrist slapped in front of the whole IT team did not appeal. I sat motionless for a full 15 minutes wondering how to respond to, what seemed to me an over-the-top and authoritarian action!

I have to admit, my first instinct to pull rank.

My second thought was to appeal to a higher authority – my boss!. “Well, that’s outrageous”, he said. “You should give him what for”. “However”, he said, “you are always going on about relational leadership”. “How would you manage this situation in a relational way?”

It seemed that my credibility as a ‘relational practitioner’ was at stake!

I realised that I could either adopt a linear or reflexive approach.

In linear thinking, the questions I would ask myself were: “How can I defeat the IT Manager? How much will it cost me to defeat him? What resources do I have available to me? Is it in my best interest to risk these resources in order to beat him?”

In a reflexive mode, the kinds of questions I could ask would be: “What kind of person will I become if I win this fight with the IT Manager? Regardless of who wins, what kind of community are we creating by “fighting”? What will it cost me if I defeat him? What will I miss most when the fight is over? What kind of organisational culture would I create by pulling rank?”

I telephoned the IT Manager and asked him to return my laptop. He told me that for this to happen, I would have to come to his office to get it. We compromised with him meeting me in my office, but without the laptop.

When he came, I started the conversation by saying that I appreciated his sense of duty and responsibility. “Most managers would just claim the lost on our insurance, whereas you have taken the loss of out computers personally”. “However, what did you hope to achieve by confiscating the laptop?”

“I wanted to show you and others that what you did was wrong, and others will learn from this”, he replied.

I explained that this action had the opposite effect on me, and that my instinct was to retaliate.

I said that, on reflection, I could understand his frustration, and offered the support of the ‘HR’ department to ensure that staff become more responsible for their IT equipment.

His reaction surprised me somewhat: “I am tired of the way some of your director colleagues insinuate that the IT department gets in the way of our mission with our demands. What we do is just as important!”

Have heard his concerns, which BTW went beyond just me not securing my laptop to my desk! We went on to have a positive conversation about how mutual accountability could be respectfully invoked in our organisation, and brainstormed a few things we could try.

After that conversation, the IT manager promptly returned my laptop, and even locked it for me.

The next day, I talked to my HR team about how we could support our IT colleagues in what they saw as a pressing organisational issue.

Two months after this episode, the IT Manager asked if I could help facilitate a conversation with other staff members that would enable him to write an IT strategy. He confided that he was sceptical about a previous “whole system enquiry event” I had organised, but was persuaded about its validity and (my motives for instigating such events), by the way I had behaved, conversed and acted over the laptop encounter!

Consequently, the IT Manager asked if I could help him organise a “whole systems inquiry” aimed at helping him to put together the organisation’s IT strategy.

As I turned out, we ran a successful event called “A life-giving IT strategy”. As a result of this day, both the IT department and all staff began to reframe the notion that knowledge management is NOT merely about technology, data storage and retrieval BUT more about how knowledge is shared and acted upon through relational activities.