Leaders Have to Manage Disequilibrium in the 'Sweet Spot'

September 06, 2012

By Vicki Brown*

Leaders must manage disequilibrium in the "sweet spot," the executive director for Leadership Development at the United Methodist Foundation of Western North Carolina said last week, to the 64 new district superintendents and four new directors of connectional ministries who attended orientation training at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
"When distress is too low, people are not motivated to make changes," said the Rev. Janice Virtue. "If stress gets too high, people leave."
Virtue, an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church who served 10 years as associate dean for continuing education at Duke University, said that church leaders tend to try to squelch conflict, manage it, or hide it.
"When we do that, we lose the opportunity for real change to happen," Virtue said.
The orientation training for new DSes and DCMs is sponsored each year by the Council of Bishops, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the General Board of Discipleship. Dave Samelson (at left), DS for the Great Northern District in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, was one of those in attendance.
Virtue told the group that it is a new day in the UMC; the old is passing away – but no one is quite sure what the new looks like.
Leaders set direction, get alignment of resources with vision, manage lasting and useful change, and clarify and communicate their deepest values, Virtue said.
"We like to get a new vision and then align our resources the same old way," she explained. "You have to put your money, your people, and your talent where your mouth is." And she noted that it is hard to align resources with vision if the vision changes every six months.
"The secret is, there is not one way to do it," Virtue (at right, below) said. In traditional or technical leadership, she noted, the leader casts a vision, sets strategy, implements, and measures success. "Leadership is enacted by a person or small group and trickles down."
However, emerging or adaptive leaders clarify and identify purpose, diagnose new realities, ask questions, tell stories, and encourage experiments. "Collaboration and mutual learning is a central activity, and leadership is broadly shared," Virtue said.
Both kinds of leadership are needed.
Technical leadership works best with known challenges and known solutions, while adaptive leadership works best with challenges that are unclear and have no known solutions.
In such cases, Virtue observed, leaders call forth the resourcefulness of all the people around them.
Attendees named declining membership and living in a post-Christian society as adaptive challenges facing the Church today.
"One answer might be to create a culture of generosity. We've been blessed, and we can't wait to see what God's going to do with that," Virtue suggested.
About 90 percent of challenges are technical and 10 percent adaptive, Virtue said. When faced with an adaptive challenge, a leader must "help people sift through the past and mobilize them for experiments that are slightly different." She said doing anything too radical would cause the leader will lose people.
She noted that many church leaders have been rewarded for being really good at following the rules and doing really well at the job they are expected to carry out. "When you follow the rules and do it really well, people call you a leader – and when you don't, we call the DS," she said.
She urged the group to risk telling people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. "That myth of doing really, really well only works in systems of authority and known challenges. And just doing really well in this adaptive world will just get you burned out," she added. Instead, church leaders must be willing to reward experimentation. If it fails, tell the pastor, "Thank God you tried that," she said.
"Plenty of people will be looking to you to give the answers. As soon as you do that, at some point you end up faking it, and they'll try to squash you like a bug," Virtue said.
Instead, she urged them to take a balcony view and tell the story of what they see.
"Share the stories of what God is doing in the land. Be a partner to your pastors; separate yourself from your role. You are not just your job; you are a disciple of Jesus."
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM).
Editor's Note: Also read Brown's story DSes, DCMs Consider Legislation Passed at GC2012, on the GBHEM website, www.gbhem.org.