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December 21, 2012

Not One of Us

by Wes Balda

A church we know made an exciting and risky decision to bring in a dynamic, proven, enterprising and innovative leader, in a fairly counterintuitive move. He had a few quirks—in his case these went with the territory. These were not big quirks, just the small kind which always annoy a few people but are easily covered with a modest dose of grace.

The quirks came with his success—they helped make him what he is. The board apparently backed this venture, together with other, less formal leaders within the group. The remaining followers formed no initial or overt resisting constituencies, nor did they alternatively jump into the mix with energy, passion or excitement. Just the usual “wait and see” of busy people, probably preoccupied with their own issues.

Fermenting change had been bubbling below the surface of this organization for at least a decade, with shifting tides of discontent balanced by hopefulness at times. There appear to have been some longstanding, passive-aggressive tensions between various factions, though always moderated within a veneered culture of civility.

Like all of us, this leader came with his own personal history of successes and failures, acclaim and criticism. We all bring some, more or less, for better or worse. It’s called managing sin—our own and that of others. (Ch. 6 of Handbook for Battered Leaders) Bruised and bloody from some previous sojourns—he wouldn’t have bled if he hadn’t led—he and his family took courage, assumed the risk and showed up.

Fairly quickly, about half the group members departed, some in semi-organized factions with the usual attempts at self-vindication, others wandering off to try something different. (The latter types, when churches are involved, seem to do this as a life pattern. Ten years ago we lived in a small town with many ecclesiastical options where constant movement like this seem to occur as part of the local culture.) A church planter captured the concept in his first year taking over another congregation by claiming he “grew it to half its original size.”

Those followers who remained generally jumped in with commitment and energy, trying new things and demonstrating courage and resilience of their own. A few years passed and the leader’s performance delivered essentially what he had been hired to do, while keeping the organization solvent. Rumors of board discontent popped up once or twice, and one day the leader simply disappeared from sight. Months passed. No announcements were made and even the website remained unchanged. One source quietly mentioned a “leave of absence.”

At this writing, no communication has occurred regarding the leader’s whereabouts, the process, the plan, the evolving narrative or the future. We are left only with what could be a poster child for profound organizational dysfunction, perhaps a “community of systematic self-delusion,” as mentioned in Battered Leaders. Within this “cocooning” group a small culture of shared expectations, comfortable behaviors and tacit complacency had formed and reinforced itself. The outsider leader challenged the community culture and it didn’t work.

What about the deadly triangle that the largely hidden, uncommunicative and anonymous board created between leader, followers and themselves? Battered Leaders discusses triangulation—a near constant in dysfunctional organizations where leaders get battered—and the complexities that third parties contribute to an organization.

What are the tools that will help the rest of us address these situations? As leaders, are there subtle signs that define the risk threshold for taking on a leadership task that can stop us from repeating the pain this leader endured (and quite likely continues to endure)? How do we say no to the “widow[er] maker” jobs that Peter Drucker warned against?

wbaldaOP.jpgWesley D. Balda (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is president of The Simeon Institute, a nonprofit organization creating crisis management capacity in the U.S. and internationally since 1992, and has also led executive management and Ph.D. programs at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at December 21, 2012 8:23 AM Bookmark and Share

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