My wife Lisa walked into the room the other day and saw that I was reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. She looked at me and said, “the titles of all your books are all stressing me out!”
This week’s reading fits in with many of the other books we have read because it is focused on the habits, patterns, and rhythms of life for leaders.
The book explains that “in our stereotypes, the thing leaders do is simple: they craft a vision, get others to follow them, make decisions purportedly at the drop of a hat. Our images of strong and successful leaders are filled with people synthesizing large and disparate pieces of information, making tough calls, getting others to band together and follow, and triumphing as they win out in the end. Stereotypical leaders have vision, charisma, and brilliant minds. They also tend to be male and oddly, tall.”
Reading that description, I’m kind of stressed out as well! And yet, from the ground level of leadership, the place where most of us actually live and seek to lead, things look different. That’s what this book is about. It acknowledges the increased complexity of the organizations and structures and teams that we interact with. The expectations can quickly outstrip the real results.
They write, “in times of consistency… you know what to look for, you ask questions that have proved helpful in the past… in a time of complexity and uncertainty, though, this pattern is unhelpful… your old patterns constrain you, and your old questions keep you in familiar territory.” The authors suggest that leaders are not always the “experts” or the ones who know the answers but are learners who ask genuine questions to find out more. Asking questions is one of the simple habits that is highlighted in this book.
In my experience, this kind of questioning by leaders is very un-nerving to people. It makes them uncomfortable! I was once meeting with the Worship and Music Committee of my church and I was asking them all kinds of questions about why we do things the way we do. It was meant to be a thought exercise, kind of an ad fontes moment. But they took it the opposite way.
They said, “hey, aren’t you the Pastor? Don’t you know the answer to these questions? You are supposed to be the one who helps us to learn.” One member of the group came to me privately afterward and asked in all seriousness whether I actually had learned anything in seminary because it seemed like I didn’t really know what I was doing.
As a new pastor, I called this my “double-naïveté”. The first naïveté is the not-knowing because I was new to the system, new to the church: I really didn’t know the answers. But the second naïveté is kind of purposefully not knowing—allowing space for questions or for discoveries. It was my attempt to empower my people to think for themselves. But as I look back at it now, almost 7 years later, I don’t think it worked.
My church certainly wants me to operate like a kind of Pastor-CEO. That’s the model that is familiar to them, that is what they know from the business world, and that is what seems to “work” here in this area.
In reflecting on this, as I read through the Simple Habits book, I notice a few things. First, when I started here at my church, I was not centered enough or self-aware enough to consistently pursue asking questions and empowering others in the way that I wish I was. In the ongoing journey of getting to know myself, I can see that my people-pleasing instinct makes me quickly turn back from situations where people are uncomfortable, or where there is dis-ease because of my approach.
In the chapter about communicating certainty amid uncertainty, the authors talk about setting the initial direction and boundaries, honing the language for communicating, experimenting to try things out, and listening for feedback.Looking back, these were some of the good practices that I tried along the way, but I also see how I have reached a kind of plateau as a leader. Being self-reflective these days, I wonder how much I am really doing these kinds of practices, and how much I am just going with the flow.
The three key habits that Berger and Johnston lift up are: asking different questions, seeking multiple perspectives, and seeing the system. The one of these that is hardest for me to get my head around is “seeing the system”. That probably has to do with the fact that I am now “part of the system”, that I am entrenched in the way that we do things and that I can either be an initiator of change, or an inhibitor to growth. Sometimes, I gravitate toward quick fixes or easy solutions, rather than stepping back to see the larger systemic issues at work.
I appreciate how the authors describe this “system” thinking in manageable ways. They write, “Here we offer three initial suggestions to weave work and development together in the most effortless ways: performance conversations I which everyone grows, action learning groups for the hardest challenges, and meetings in which new ideas happen.”
Each of these three ideas has to do with how our church system functions. Each of them could be neglected or skipped over, but it takes leadership (probably my leadership!) to actually get them moving. Feedback where everybody learns means that I need to be willing to learn and grow, and also that I need to be open to being surprised by how programs or projects have gone.
Action-learning groups are something that also takes a convening leader. This is the opportunity to invite the key people, the stakeholders, into the room to talk and work through complex issues. I usually wait until things get to a boiling point to do this, but this book reminds me to be more pro-active in setting these groups in motion.
And the third is about regularly holding meetings where “new ideas happen”. Fortunately for me, this is my favorite kind of meeting! The questions is, how to make this a habit or a regular practice, rather than simply waiting for new ideas to be brought forward. Part of the leadership that I want to bring to my church is setting the culture and context in which all of these good things that grow and flourish. This book was a good reminder to me about some of those simple habits that I need to build upon for the good of my congregation.