Back from Harvard, no. 2

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One of the key teachings in the course (on the art and practice of leadership development) that I took at Harvard this past week was the importance of "owning your piece of the mess." That is to say, as we operate within organizations, we need to view the whole systemically and to see ourselves as part of that system. Inevitably, we bring attitudes and actions, frequently representing attempts at self-protection and self-promotion, that contribute to the "adaptive challenge" which the system faces. In order to exercise genuine leadership, we must recognize and acknowledge our own failures and resistance to "risk" and possibly to experience loss--the loss of our sense of competence, significance, and even security.

As the class members interacted with each other within the system of the classroom, it was striking to watch each person struggle with his or her inability to see how he or she contributed to the failure of the whole; to risk admitting a lack of competence to assist others in learning the leadership concepts presented in the class (this coming from those who do leadership training for a living) would have been akin to death. As a result, the class struggled forward to operate as an organization that sought to benefit the learning of every class member.

Watching this, it struck me that while the necessary personal work that lay behind this teaching point was very important, it was also very unlikely that any one would be able to risk his or her own loss of security and significance outside of a robustly Christian framework.

That is to say: if self-love is embedded in us by our Creator, and if that self-love finds no higher aspiration than self-protection and self-promotion, then it is not rational for someone to act against his or her own self-love to promote the ends of any group, unless it can be demonstrated that there is some reward or benefit at the end of it all. As most who work within the workplace can attest, there are very few people who are able to subordinate their own self-love to the organization's good (Jim Collins, in Good to Great, calls these Level 5 executives; he also notes how rare they are).

Within a Christian framework, such risk is possible because our self-love finds its highest satisfaction and fulfillment in delighting in God. As a result, it is possible to "count all things as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8) and "in humility [to] count others more significant than yourselves" (Phil 2:3). It is possible to live in "one accord" and with "one mind" (Phil 1:27; 2:1-2) within a community or organization and to risk our own security and significance in looking to the interests of others (Phil 2:4; 2:21). And even if we fail and suffer, it is possible to know joy and delight because our highest treasure is not our competence; rather, our highest treasure is being found in Christ with a righteousness not our own and a resurrection that will bring great glory (Phil 3:8-10).

Of course, the question that immediately comes is why Christian organizations (churches, schools, businesses) struggle with the same in-fighting, the same inability to risk themselves for the good of the whole, and the same unwillingness to own their own piece of the mess as "secular" organizations. Ultimately, I think it comes down to a failure to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27), in which we truly believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21). And that comes back to a matter of unbelief: we really don't believe that God's steadfast love really and truly is better than life and anything this life has to offer.

And such a recognition brings us to repentance and renewal and finally hope: because God delights in receiving us back to delight in himself and because such delight is the only hope that we will gain small foretastes of the final form of God's Kingdom here in the present age in our churches, workplaces, and families.

Posted May 26, 2008 @ 11:08 AM by Sean Lucas

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