Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Story of Fear and Failure

Written by: on November 21, 2014

I have a friend who, whenever we get together, almost always says, “Tell me a story, Julie Dodge. I need a story.” I love a good story. I think stories bring us together; they remind us of our common humanity. And interestingly enough, if we are paying attention, there is usually a good story to be told.

For example, I own a duplex, which makes me a landlord. My best friend lives upstairs with her wife. A week or two ago she came to me saying that her refrigerator was leaking water. She had wiped it up, and it had re-appeared the next day. Now, my friend Tina is not always known for her subtle detective skills. So I went to investigate, with perhaps a bit of financial fear in my heart. After all, the refrigerator is only a couple of years old and things are a little tight right now. But off I went with my trusty flashlight. I got on the floor, looked under the frig, checked the water heater (which is right next to it), pulled everything out. Nothing. Until I picked up the Swiffer mop, stored between the frig and the water heater. If you are familiar with the Swiffer, it’s a long handle with a flat, mop “head” to which you affix an absorbent pad that is a bit like a rectangular diaper for floors. Attached to the handle is a bottle of floor cleaner, which sprays ahead of the mop-pad-thing when you are cleaning. I realized that the Swiffer was surrounded by liquid, and upon closer examination discovered that somehow the floor cleaner bottle had gotten a small puncture which was slowly leaking. Crisis averted. And Tina made me promise not to tell anyone that she had called the landlord to fix the Swiffer. To which I simply could not agree (to the not telling part).

If you are paying attention, you can spot the humanity in so very many things. Tina was actually quite anxious for me, fearing that the refrigerator needed fixing. I was anxious about the very same thing. And then Tina was extremely embarrassed about having missed such a little thing and getting so stressed and for asking for help to address an issue that she could have easily resolved herself. I, however, thought it was hysterical that the “crisis” was a leaky cleaning bottle.

So what on earth does a story about a leaky Swiffer have to do with “Open Leadership”? [1] It’s about story and fear. One of the things that social service agencies notoriously struggle with is marketing. Far too often I have heard a non-profit leader talk about how they are the best kept secret in town. But I don’t think being a secret is a good thing. A restaurant would never want to be the best kept secret in town – they would go bankrupt. And people who are seeking social services get frustrated trying to find the secret access code that unveils the wealth of resources in our community. Far too many social service providers put their heads down and focus on providing good services while missing the point that telling our story increases visibility, increases funding opportunities, and increases client access. Under the false guise of being humble, they miss the mark.

Author Charlene Li addresses how in our current world, social media and technology are keys to the success of business. It can transform business. Social media is an affordable, personal, and effective way to tell our story. We can shape our story. We can engage with our customers. We can communicate helpful information that supports healing and health. Which leads me to the fear part of my story.

Social service agencies have also been notoriously slow to embrace technology. At my first job after grad school, I brought my own computer in to my office because the agency didn’t have one. I remember when we first started using email and how hard it was to get people to check their email, even once a week. There are always reasons why we resist technology. We need to maintain professional boundaries with our clients. We need to protect client confidentiality. It’s not personal. It’s, it’s, it’s… Today most non-profits have web sites, but they typically include information only and are not interactive. Most fear Twitter, texting, Facebook, and Flikr for various reasons, but often because they simply don’t think they can control it. I find it ironic. These agencies whose very missions are to build relationship to support healing and health and meet basic needs are missing the opportunity to build relationships with their customers. Perhaps this is because it is not in the format that the traditional providers view as genuine relationship. Genuine relationship is personal and face to face. But I would propose that we need to change our definition of relationship.

My favorite section in Li’s book was her discussion of failure. She embraces it and encourages it. It is inevitable (pp. 222-230). When I moved back to Oregon in the mid-nineties, I was hired by an agency that was small, but merged with another, larger organization. That organization grew and grew. I was afforded great opportunity, and together we grew a small program of ten staff members into a large service division of over 60 team members. I was allowed to experiment, to innovate, to fail, and to try again. I often reflect upon this period as one of the more meaningful times in my career. I had a strong attachment to my workplace, and I felt trusted. I extended that same trust to my team members, and we did some truly wonderful things. But as the organization grew, it moved from a collaborative leadership model, to more of a command and control model. The organization considered three models of organizational growth as part of its strategic planning: innovation, service, and efficiency. I had a bias toward innovation. My team had a bias toward excellence in service. And the organization adopted an efficiency model. By the time I left the agency, through the efficiency model it had developed a very stable financial base, but this also had led to increased command and control. The trust was gone and the openness had been managed.

Open leadership takes courage. It requires leaders to collaborate and not control; to trust and also build appropriate safeguards; to be authentic and transparent and realistic. If I were in charge of the world, I would hope to lead in such a way that embraces the technology of the times, and learn to use it to build relationship and communication with both customers and employees. I would want to use it to tell our stories in ways that increase access, increase relationship, and models integrity.

[1] Charlene Li, “Open Leadership: How Social Technology can Transform the Way You Lead”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

14 responses to “A Story of Fear and Failure”

  1. John Woodward says:

    Julie, thanks for another insightful post…and great stories. I now know much more about you (a landlord? Impressive!). Your experience and struggles with organizations embracing technology resonates with me big time. My story goes like this: When I joined our small mission organization about 7 years ago, the outline of a website was up, but it had no content. Our director, who had all the information for filling in the pages, didn’t really understand websites or consider them of value. So, he never provided material to make it functional. No matter how much we (myself and other staff) tried to coax him in that direction, he simply pooh-hooed this new way of communicating. What finally woke him up was a women in her late 70s. This woman, seeking information about our organization, asked our director if she could just go on our website and down loud material. The light went on! If an elderly lady is seeking information on websites, then maybe people actually do look on the web. But, I am sure we are more the norm, as so many organizations (especially non-profits) have to pull teeth to get any movement forward! Our next goal is getting our director on Facebook– pray for us!
    How have you been able to convince others in the organizations you have been involved with of the value of social media? Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      It’s funny, John. It seems that there is definitely a divide between older and younger generations – just as a starting point – which influences organizational openness. In part because those in official leadership tend to be older, while the younger folks tend to have more comfort with social media. I worked at an agency that HAD a social media staff member, but they restricted her greatly – in part because of the fear and control of the director. At Concordia our marketing team has got this down but our executive leadership – mostly older – don’t quite get it. Our sports teams get it. But the broader university lags. I think age is a factor. I also think that organizational culture and perhaps even lack of understanding of an open model might look like has an influence. It’s tough…

  2. Julie,

    Our agency, for the last 34 years has often been referred to as Jacksonville’s best kept secret for preparing and sending out missionaries. To solve this we have embarked on a PR campaign to let the community know that we are here. With videos, radio spots, blogs, tweeter feeds, FB posts, and local morning channel featuring our missionaries each week for 34 weeks straight, we are trying to break that “secret” wide open by telling our story and the stories of all our missionaries. Many of the videos we produced are on my face book page. We are hoping that there will be increases visibility, increases funding opportunities, and increases client accessibility through our campaign.

    You bring up a great point with social service agencies have a fear of trust. Great observation. How powerful it would be to have interaction with previous clients who found the services being offered a great blessing and a great help. Others would read and find that bridge stronger to cross over themselves and seek the help they need. I think you are on to something here Dr. Julie. Build it and tell your stories in ways that increase access, increase relationship, and models integrity. I love it!!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      I may not be the one to build it, my friend, but I can certainly equip and encourage my students to bring this passion and skill with them as they go out into to world. I love how you changed the best kept secret in Jacksonville!

  3. Julie,

    Nicely done! I especially like your focus on relationship as a primary focus. In reality, this has never changed; relationships have always been the primary mover in life. When we lose relationship, what remains? Without good stories, all we have is empty words — this is most powerfully seen in classrooms. Good teachers tell stories. Good teachers are about building healthy relationships with their students. Without that all we have is bodies and noise, full classrooms that are empty of anything valuable.

    I also like your focus on various kinds go organizations. It is sad when an organization starts off relational and ends up with a “command and control” structure. I have seen this happen all too often, particularly in churches. At that point, churches quit being living organisms and begin to become organizations. Programs become the focus; people are now only valued through a program lens. Leaders lose touch with what matters and the revolving door starts spinning feverishly. People flock in and others flock out. I do not think this is the kind of flock the Good Shepherd was talking about.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      You raise some good thoughts, Bill. As every organization matures, it naturally becomes more “institutional”. This is predictable in organizational development. It takes a leadership team with wisdom and insight to remain alert to the natural development of the organization while remaining sensitive to maintaining a fresh, relational organization. It’s not an easy task – to build a strong organizational structure that allows innovation, builds relationship, and maintains viability. Churches. Non-profits. Restaurants. For-profits. They all start out with a passion – but then they have to find their balance. I hope that in church and in other ministry we remain dependent on the Spirit to keep us sensitive, responsible, and motivated about what’s really important.

  4. Julie…
    You’re a great landlord. In fact your story, even though it does not involve social technologies, reveals the motivation for engagement in social technologies — the relationship. You are not just a landlord, you are a present and engaged landlord that has developed and maintains a relationship with her tenants (and you probably do not think of them as tenants either). Your relationship with them might be first identified as landlord-tenant, but it is not limited by that relationship role.

    Your story also provides a healthy illustration of failure and how both benefited from the investigation. 🙂

    But the conviction part for me comes in the awareness that we often do not want to embrace things we do not know or things we think are going to take time to develop or learn. Sometimes this leads us to resort to the quick fix of what others have done or think (as Li mentioned) that let’s just do this without intentionality or consideration of why — what is the relationship we want to have?

    As I read through our posts I am being reminded that understanding “place” and considering impact requires diligence, something you put in place several years ago when you replaced the frig in your rented duplex but also something you demonstrated in your response to them.

    Thanks Julie for wisdom and your story.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      What a thoughtful comment, Carol. Last week I taught about Stages of Change and Motivational Interviewing. These two processes often go hand in hand – they originated in addiction treatment, but are now commonly used in many arenas. The main ideas are that change is a process that is fairly predictable. Motivational Interviewing helps guide the participant through that process, seeking the personal motivator that will break through our natural resistance to change. The reality is, most of us DON’T change readily. Change is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, sometimes scary, and unless we find a meaningful motivator that is more powerful than our motivation not to change, it doesn’t happen. I could write a whole treatise on the process of change, but for now I would simply say that I understand why we don’t change. The challenge is finding the right motivation at the right levels to encourage change when it is appropriate.

  5. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Julie, I like you how synthesize your post with a practical example. You are a good storyteller! Thank you for reminding as to pay attention and open up to listen others stories.
    You are right, being a secret is not a good thing (especially if you live in a free country like USA), but our cultural context determines where and how much we can disclose our information to the public. I love that social media is a great tool to share one’s stores, but there are some countries in our world where people are not free to share. Thanks for your insight.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      You raise a good point about other places throughout the world where social media is not necessarily safe. I wonder how, from an organizational perspective (church, NGO’s) we can raise awareness of how to safely use social media for the right purposes. I think of the women’s movement in Liberia at the end of the civil war that focused on the one thing no one could disagree with – peace. Maybe that becomes the entry point to social media in less “free” places: identifying messages that CAN be heard and embraced.

  6. Richard Volzke says:

    Like others who have replied to your post, I too have a story about a church that struggled to get social and digital media up and running. Leadership in the church was always looking for ways to get the word out that they were there, but was inexperienced with social media. They had a website and social media accounts, but did not understand how the use them properly. For example, they listed ministries that were not active at the church. So, the problem was not that they weren’t getting the word out about the church; rather it was that they were over-inflating the church and its ministries by posting outdated and exaggerated stories and information about ministries. Then, people would visit or attend an event and find out that it was all a bunch of digital hype.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Having the right skills is an essential part of considering our use of social media. I think early on, the only real option WAS to have a web site, but they were technical and the average lay person didn’t have the right skills. Now with Twitter, Facebook, and other media there are options that take less skill (in fact – not a whole lot of skill at all) that can be useful for churches that don’t have high tech capacity. Now you just need to communicate more frequently to make sure that the right information is getting out at the right time. In fact – you raised some thoughts for me that I want to take back to my own church! Thanks Richard!

  7. Michael Badriaki says:

    Julie, you tell stories in such an engaging manner. I am glad that you shared Tina’ refrigerator story with us because it is funny but also a great way to show case openness.

    Like you, I was encouraged by Li’s approach to failure. There are so many voices that quick to promote the fear of failure and yet failures are common to the whole of humanity. How can we grow in our relationships if we do not learn to work through failure?
    I think that we should also try and do our best to be their for one another and seek to represent each other in ways that “… tell our stories in ways that increase access, increase relationship, and models integrity.” Well said!

    Thank you

  8. Clint Baldwin says:

    So good. Thank you.
    I consistently spout that organizations in the end are about ourselves (in the plural, ubiquitous — not singular — sense). That is, they are made for us, not we for them.
    If (sadly…sometimes, ‘when’) we miss this point, we really miss the “whole ball of wax.”
    All this to note that I agree; our stories AND telling our stories is vital. One can’t really do this well without relationality (sometimes we can’t even do it well with relationship 🙂 ). And once stories are known and able to be told well, it’s often also a reasonably good thing to seek to work smarter not harder when possible. There’s enough hard work to go around without unnecessarily adding to it. 🙂 So, if one can navigate social media to expand reach…bravo!
    Sometimes people need “permission” (someone saying “it’s okay”) to launch into these waters…sounds to me like you’d be a great consultant for this kind of work.

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