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Two misleading mental models on leadership

Also possibly deceptive, mistaken, and untrue.

There are a number of mental models about leadership that undercut some priests and bishops. Here are two.

  1. They will do more if I do less
  2. It’s possible to have a human system without a hierarchy

Mental models are images we carry around in our head that help us make sense of our experience. They are a representation for us of that reality. They simplify reality. Our understanding of ourselves, others, the work we do, and what information is important largely depends on how we have conceptualized our experience. We have created a kind of subconscious hypothesis about how things work. Mental models are necessarily based on incomplete information coming from the limitations of our experience. It’s selective perception.

All priests and bishops have mental models about leadership as it relates to their role in the parish or diocesan system. Some are useful and others lead to confusion and poor leadership.[i]



They will do more if I do less

This is the idea that “followers” will take more responsibility and participate more if I, the formal leader, do less. It’s rarely true and when it is what happens it usually comes with a lot of resentment. People wonder why they are paying that salary.


The goal is: strong rectors, strong laity; strong bishops, strong dioceses. It’s both/and not either/or.

Strong leaders do not ensure strength among followers and others involved in parish and diocesan affairs. But neither will weak or withdrawn leadership. It is however, certain that without strong leaders we rarely see strong parish or diocesan systems.

“He must increase, but I must decrease”[ii] is the biblical proof texting to justify our lack of self-confidence or maybe in some cases our laziness.

The need in your parish is for strong priestly leadership and strong lay leadership. The need in the diocese is for strong Episcopal leadership and for other strong centers of influence and power.

In fact the actual empowerment of people requires strong leadership at the top. It doesn't happen by magic it happens through the development of people and in the institution of structures and processes that encourage shared leadership and participation.

A caution about creating a façade result—rectors or bishops may step back in the hope that they will see more responsibility and participation from others and they will usually see something along the lines they desired. When looked at carefully what is often happening is that some laypeople in a parish, or certain clergy or laity in the diocese have stepped into the void and are now exercise their influence at the cost of everyone else. The more assertive claim the leadership. And once that has happened it is more difficult for positional leaders to reassert themselves in the service of the whole.

The rector of a parish and any associated clergy need to provide the focus in the work of shaping a healthy parish culture. That doesn’t rise up spontaneously from below. The rector and any assisting priests need to accept responsibility by nurturing a core of people living an apostolic form of faith and practice, fostering a corresponding climate, and on a regular basis explaining the purpose of the parish church and describing the healthy dynamics of such a parish. 

Whether we are the priest in a parish, or the bishop in a diocese, our job largely consists of leadership development and the formation of people in the Christian life.


We often hear about the need for resilient leadership. That includes an emotional resilience that allows us to quickly recover from set-backs and to adapt to the immediate situation.[iii] This has to do with accepting things as they are; working with the hand you are dealt. And then coping, improvising, and maneuvering toward the objective

It also involves developing a broader range of leadership styles and skills. Parish priests and bishops are much the same as leaders in other institutions. We have favorite leadership styles and we stay with what’s easy for us.

Our leadership needs to be looked at in relationship to serving the parish or diocese not just about what is comfortable or easy for us. The task is to provide the kind of leadership needed at a particular moment, for particular people, so that over time we advance the health and faithfulness of the parish or diocese.

We are all capable of expanding the range of our leadership behavior. In 1973 Bob Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt wrote about leadership styles in the Harvard Business Review.[iv] They suggested that we think about there being a range of leadership styles going from “Joins” to “Tells.”

Here’s a PDF on their model

Knowledge and skills; Structures and processes
Shifting to a more productive mental model about leadership is helped as we develop skills and knowledge related to the new model. So, if you are a leader with strong skills at joining and enabling the group you may need to learn skills and tools for the other end of the spectrum. That might include making clear statements when you are going to make the final decision (anyplace on the spectrum between “Tells” and “Consults”) and providing a process in which people can connect with that. For example: “Tells” might lend itself to a quick action planning process. “Tests” might make use of a process in which a group identifies what it likes, what concerns it has and what it wishes, in relation to the proposed decision. Based on that information the leader might find a need to make some revisions.


                                 Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.”  


It’s possible to have a human system without a hierarchy

Here’s the 101 reality—there is always a hierarchy. It may be about being in a designated role or position but it may also be about who is the most intelligent, or the most competent in the area, or the most assertive or aggressive, or who’s the most engaging and extraverted, who has the greatest physical strength, or who’s the most charismatic. There are times when any of these forms of hierarchy might be appropriate.

Not all the decisions of any community can be made in group meetings. There isn’t the time for that. My own preference is to acknowledge the reality and have hierarchy that is accountable and visible. It is a waste of our time to think about there not being a hierarchy. The real issue is whether it is relatively transparent and responsible to some authority beyond itself. 

The Trinity – a synthesis of hierarchy and equality

The transformation of hierarchical structures is about life in God, in the Holy Trinity. Our parishes and dioceses have the potential for more mutuality and communion than we express.

The development of a practicing synthesis of hierarchy and equality is a work calling upon all the virtues of Christian life and character. Shaping parishes and dioceses that exhibit that life is a collaboration of positional leaders and all others in the system. Rectors and bishops need to be willing to implement structures and processes that affirm our differences of personality (extraverted – introverted for example) and provide ways for people to participate in a common life. Others need to be willing to develop a greater Christian proficiency and capacity for shared leadership.

There are some that create idealist visions of communities that are totally egalitarian. This is an avoidance of the hard work needed to envision and live a synthesis of hierarchy and equality. It is easier to claim that hierarchical systems are intrinsically unredeemable than to imagine and shape their transformation.

Knowledge and skills; Structures and processes

What I’ve noticed is that some of the clergy most instant in their fantasy about being non-hierarchical display a shocking degree of autocratic behavior usually expressed in intellectual overbearingness.  They also frequently show no interest in doing anything real about establishing a flatter organizational life. My hunch is that these behaviors are less about the person’s arrogance and more about their lack of knowledge and skill. They just don’t know how to go about it. 

I don’t believe most of these priests (and bishops) took their ordination vows with figures crossed. It’s just that seminaries are not able to produce someone after three years who can lead a parish church.[v] It falls to dioceses to provide the needed intern/residency process.

As illustration I’ll offer two ideas about living the synthesis. 

First, priests can stop avoiding the issues of authority and the symbolic nature of the role. Don’t tell people what to call you. Don’t say what you’d prefer. Offer the usual options out of our tradition and let them decide—Mother, Father, Mr., Ms. Mrs., Miss, first name.[vi]

Second, use your authority to facilitate and protect processes allowing participation that is both an increase in amount and in usefulness. For example use the “Around the circle” process--participants speak in turn around the circle. The comment is to be brief and on one point. The method helps equalize the voices in the room so the more hesitant are heard along with the more assertive. It can be especially useful when dealing with controversial issues.[vii]

someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go 


Changing the mental model

 Lt. Joseph Owen, USMC, was part of the breakout of the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. In speaking of his experience he said,

When we weren’t breaking through the crusted snow we were slip-sliding along ice trails, and it was windier up there than it was down on the road. Always, it seemed the next hill was higher and steeper than the one we were on. Whenever we got pinned down by enemy fire I had to give myself the same sermon: “You are a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. You are expected to provide leadership under fire. You have no choice in the matter.” Then I would crane myself up off the ground and stumble ahead in the snow.[viii]

You need a sermon to give yourself; a more constructive and authentic message in your head

Here are two:

 Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility. -Peter F. Drucker

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. —Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s about enduring and persisting in the face of our own fears, hesitations, and frustration. It’s about coping with our limitations and failures.

I don’t think I’ve ever had the kind of complete internal sermon that Lt. Owen had. But as I look back I think these were the pieces of the subconscious sermon in my head. A sermon I’d hear when it seemed most needed. 

I am a priest of the Episcopal Church. I am to provide leadership in good times and bad times, when it’s easy and when it’s hard. I am to lead in the face of resistance or passivity as well as when there is cooperation and collaboration. I need to manage my own resentment and fear in doing that. I need to ground myself in Eucharist, Office, and reflection. The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern of priestly leadership—that the diversity of gifts may be brought into harmony to the glory of God and in fulfillment of the mission; that there is a living  synthesis of equality and hierarchy, transcendence and immanence, knowledge and love; and that I am “To be with God, with the people on your heart.” [ix] 



On the Feast of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, 2013

A List of All Postings

[i] We can expand our mental models by: 1) increased awareness of the existing models and the assumptions that support them; 2) using other models of leadership that will better serve us and the parish or diocese; and 3) attention to the way in which we learn from our experience. The way of learning involved is a shift from what has been called “single-loop learning” to “double-loop learning.” That’s a shift from a static view of things to one that takes into account the actual dynamics, the related results and changes, and explicit mental models in the form of theories or frameworks.

[ii] John 3:30

[iii] See posting on Instinctual Leadership

[iv] Bob Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt "How to Choose a Leadership Pattern."  Harvard Business Review article, May – June 1973

[v] I don’t want to give the impression that I think seminaries are doing nearly what is possible. They are not. But that’s partly about the natural self-protectiveness of institutions and partly about the fact that they don’t see what they could do. Nor do they have the competence within themselves to do it if they did see. Michelle Heyne, Melissa Skelton, Scott Benhase, or even Bob Gallagher (me) could provide a way forward so that by the time a student finished three years they could pass GOEs and be more self aware, better able to manage their feelings and behavior, lead a small group with a task to accomplish, live a productive and resilient spiritual discipline, understand how to gracefully live under authority, be able to provide basic spiritual guidance, and so on. Deans, give one of us a call!

[vi] “A small but symbolically important action related to leadership is about titles for clergy. Clergy that are new to a parish have all heard the question, “what shall we call you?” It’s usually a person’s desire to be courteous to the priest by learning about her or his preferences. Occasionally, the person is coming with the question with a right answer in mind and prepared to make a judgment about the priest. It’s a mistake for the priest to answer the question with his or her own preference. Worse yet would be to make a joke out if it, turn it into an opportunity to slam the preferences of other clergy, or make it into a grammar lesson.
We need to leave people with the freedom to work this out for themselves. They need to be able to call their priest Father or Mother at times and Sarah or Paul at other times. They need to be able to move into a healthy dependency when that is necessary for spiritual growth and into peer and friendly relationship when that is called for. So, when the question is asked I’d suggest that clergy respond along these lines. “There are several ways that people approach this. You can use the traditional titles of Father or Mother if that appeals to you some or all the time. You can also use my first name. Do what seems right to you at the time.” This isn’t about our preferences as individual priests; it’s about the mystery of how Christ uses us in the process of sanctification.
We are a Holy People and we are just people, Mark is just Mark and he is Father Smith. There is a process of growth in which people come to see themselves, their parish and their priest in this paradoxical way, as human and as symbol. It’s one of the ways in which an apostolic culture develops in the parish.” p 150 - 151 Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008.

[vii] For other processes see “In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish through Spiritual Practice” especially pages 91 - 106 and “Fill All Things” pages 107 - 121

[viii] Page 400, “Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950” by Martin Russ, Penguin Books, 1999. Later in the book Russ provides another example of leadership. One of the tasks of Marine non-coms and lower level officers is to see to the well-being of the Marines they lead. One part of that has to do with making sure that the Marines take care of their feet. Captain Robert Barrow said, “ ‘We found out later that those two days and two nights were the coldest of the entire campaign. I learned that only leadership will save you in such conditions. It’s easy to say that a man should change his socks; but getting him to do so when the temperature is twenty-five below is another matter. Bootlaces ice over, and it’s a struggle just to get the boot off your foot. Most of the time you had to take off your gloves to do it. I found it was necessary to stay with the individual until he actually took off his boots and changed his socks and put his boots back on. Then I’d get him to walk about to restore circulation.’ Barrow devoted himself to this task through-out the night but could not prevent the eventual loss of sixty-seven of his men to frostbite, seven of whom became amputees in the end.” p. 410

[ix] Michael Ramsey