penguins debate leadership

Q: How many leaders does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: One. But, the lightbulb really has to want to be changed.

In normal times, leaders of congregations and non-profit organizations spend their time balancing the budget, putting out petty conflicts, and checking to make sure things go as planned at the last committee meeting. Those who are gifted and visionary leaders also worry about how hard it is to make change happen.

Groups of people adapt to change according to a bell curve researched by Everett Rodgers in the 1960s. There is in every gathering of people, certain early adopters who love change. There is an equal number of people at the back end of the bus, who hate change and will resist even the most reasonable proposals (the Laggards). 

The progress of a group towards needed change is determined by the buy-in of the front third of the bell curve (the Early Majority).

 These people are influenced by one or two long-term group members, whom everyone respects. The most influential people in your organization may not hold a leadership position, but overtime, the group has learned to trust them.

When trauma strikes an organization, unanticipated change happens. Good leaders managed the chaos and system-wide anxiety. They recognize the stages of grief and intentionally lead the group through the five steps of a healthy transition. As a leader, you stay one step ahead of the group, seeking to mine the transition for opportunities to bring about needed change.


1) Everyone is anxious. People may act out of character. You may find some of your early adopters behaving like laggards. People you lost during a previous change may return and those you thought were loyalists disappear. Initially, most people will become more risk-adverse.

2) The herd begins to look for a scapegoat. Some in leadership may even blame themselves for failing to predict the traumatic event. Dwelling on what went wrong will delay the implementation of the Five Steps (5 Step Overview). Don’t beat people up by reminding them of past failures. Instead, mine history for similar times when a trauma or challenge was successfully overcome.

3) Help people to grieve. Accept loss as natural. Forgive failure.

4) Resist quick fixes and the urge to find a short-cut out of transition. Like Moses, you will need to ignore those who ask, “Are we there yet?” Having a patient demeanor goes a long way towards developing trust in healthy group processes.

Your Organization is a System

Every congregation or nonprofit develops organically. It grows like the proverbial mustard tree it starts with just few families meeting together for a simple time of worship or to perform some act of community service. In time, it becomes a complex system with many moving parts, dozens of programs, and a building or two. A nonprofit may begin with a few individuals meeting in a coffee house to discuss a perceived need. In time they develop a board, gain a charter, hire their first director, then add paid staff. But, without volunteers, nothing gets done. We may have an organizational chart for our employees and committee leaders. We seldom stop to consider the intricate way the volunteers and the families in the pew relate to each other. Transition is often a very grass roots affair.

Instead of seeing your church or group as a rigid pyramid, imagine a baby’s crib mobile. The parts are interconnected. A wind comes by and all of them move, but often in opposite directions. Healthy transitions realign the entire system. Conflict or trauma may cause you to lose one piece (say the green turkey leaves). You may not find another piece just like the one you lost. The other components will need to adjust to bring the system back into balance. In time, everyone forgets how it used to be. Why did we have a green turkey to begin with? This puts the organization on the road towards rethinking its mission statement and imagining a new, post traumatic future.

The leader’s job is to:

1) Lower anxiety while these changes are being made.

2) Be alert that you and others will be tempted to “over-function” in order to compensate for the missing piece. This sabotages the work of transitional leadership. The system needs to be rebalanced so it functions with no one person filling too many positions.

3) Prevent burnout. It is okay to miss deadlines during a transition. Anxious people are easily tired.  The post-traumatic world doesn’t reward them like the old reality did. In the promised land ahead, different talents and resources are needed and each volunteer must find satisfaction in doing what matters for the future.

It's not our job to change the people we lead

First do no harm. To do more good than harm during a transition, leaders need to remain physically healthy, mentally sane, and emotionally self-differentiated (see Murray Bowen… ). This means being able to separate our gut feelings from the rational thinking we need to for this particular situation. Ask how anyone how they feel during a trauma and they will say, “awful.” Ask the exceptionally good crisis leader and she will still say “awful,” but she will act out of a separate mindset. Good transitional leaders look for tools that they can use to put how they feel in a different compartment from how they think and act during difficult times. Yes, we all need to be in touch with our feelings. But, we still expect leaders to think and act reasonably.

Self-differentiation also means the ability of a leader to separate what they personally desire from what is best for the group. A self-differentiated leader realizes that they may be leaving this position after the transition. The future that the group needs to head toward may be very different than the future the leader would choose for themselves. Further, the group may hold values, theology,  or a moral philosophy than differs from ours. We may not have noticed this before.

It’s not our job to change them. They don’t need us to join them, either. Remain self-differentiated and help them get to where they need to go.

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Become a Non-Anxious Presence

Why do people go to therapists? Obviously, for help with their personal problems. But the therapist isn’t expect to solve their problems. Instead, their job is to listen without anxiety or entering into the midst of the situation. They offer perspective by not being caught up in the drama of their client’s lives. When we are anxious we want someone who will see what we see, and yet not be afraid or lose touch with reason. This non-anxious presence gives us a touchstone, so we can make more appropriate decisions. They help us realize when our minds are talking crazy and when we are taking reasonable precautions. They help us distance ourselves from those who a unhealthy for our sanity.

Once you have experienced that in your own life, you begin to see what others need when they are anxious. Anxiety differs from fear. Where fear is specific and often tangible, anxiety floats in the air. People feel anxious and don’t know why. One of the things therapists do is help nail down our anxieties and label our feelings. What we name, we begin to understand. Knowledge empowers us.

The next step is to realize that in times of transition, organizations need a non-anxious presence. If you as a leader can’t step into that role, you need to seek for someone who can. That term, “non-anxious presence” comes from a conflict resolution specialist named Edward Friedman. Rabbi Friedman worked with families and troubled individuals. In time he realized that churches and synagogues and other social organizations had the same system dynamics and could be helped with the same therapeutic tools.

Finding the Right Exit

The Card Tool for discovering your personal mission in life (see Card Tool) was first presented in Reality Check 101 as a tool for congregations to discern their unique calling from God. Every organizations going through transition has to rediscover the reason for their existence. What is it that this congregation or nonprofit is uniquely equipped to do? Are you still doing something that your community needs done?

In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the small-town banker played by Jimmy Stewart faces similar questions. You can begin your discernment of a new mission statement by asking:

“If this church or organization never existed, how would the lives of those in our community be effected?”

Unless you have somehow made life better for those outside your group, then your current mission statement isn’t working

Another way to discern a new path to vitality is to imagine a roundabout (traffic rotary) with four exits. During transition you are going around and around. Getting off of the circle will take emphasizing one exit more than the others.

Your choices are:

Exit 1) Chapel Lane – This is one where you focus on an existing physical asset. If you are a museum or historical church, you may want to double down on how helping people to understand the past is your mission. This exit is also the one for groups who need to disband and will focus on dispersing their assets as a fit legacy to their life as an organization.

Exit 2) Tomorrow Land Pike – This is where you focus on reaching the next generation and providing education or spirituality for those under thirty-five.

Exit 3) Lovely Heart Highway – This is the “do all the good that you can,” exit. The focus is upon meeting the needs of a particular group of disadvantaged people.

Exit 4) Best Road – This is an emphasis on quality. Whatever your group does well, commit all of your resources towards being the best providers of that particular service in the region.

The four exits above line up with the four suits of cards used in the Card Tool. The rule for both exercises is the same:

Always play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wish you had.

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