Tell me: what does strong leadership look like?

I was floored (or is it flawed?) when the conversation turned to “strong leadership”. I was asked, “What does strong leadership look like to you?” Well, I know that strong leadership doesn’t look like Boris or Donald, and that leadership can be shared, and that leaders should be as strong as they can be in the circumstances.

So I blathered – without realising that this really was a question to which Jesus is the answer.

What does strong leadership look like?

    It looks like Jesus on a cross (is that cross a leadership vote?)
    It looks like Jesus unafraid of nature’s forces
    It looks like Jesus turning his back on the religious and political capital
    It looks like love for the most demonised, ostracised and marginalised
    It looks like Jesus bent refreshing the feet of weary travellers
    It looks like a touch, and feels like a breath
    It looks like a gathering treasuring wisdom
    It looks playfully relaxed with time to rest and pray
    It looks like it can endure tyranny as long as tyranny lasts
    It looks like it’s been to hell and back
    It looks out for the broken
    It looks broken
    It is scarred

What does strong leadership look like to you?

The place of maps

I have just been reading The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill. It gets its controversial title from a historic document from the 18th century which is kept at the National Archives at Kew. It is a ledger of over 3,000 names of enslaved African, the “Black Loyalists” who escaped to Britain’s lines in the American Revolution. It was the first time in history that thousands of black people were formally recorded by a historical body, in this case, the British Navy.

The book describes the journeys of Aminata Diallo who was grabbed from her village in west Africa in 1750 by slave traders. She was just 11 when she had to walk “three moons”, shackled in irons in a coffle from her village of Bayo to the ship which would take her into slavery in the American colonies.

She makes the most of her very limited opportunities. She learns to read and write (in secret), and she longs to return to her homeland. Occasionally she is able to look at maps of Africa, but there were no places marked on them except for a few ports. Inland was shown with drawings of elephants – as if that was all there was.

I wonder if that is where we are sometimes. We can map thresholds and the ports. We can say so and so lives there. We can recognise faces but sometimes can’t get past face value. It is only when we care to listen, to let people speak, to allow them to show us around their lives that we begin to build up a better map of where they have come from, and where they might be journeying to. (The more diverse the maps, the better – geographical, historical, political, psychological dimensions all add to our understanding.) Then we begin to understand the hinterland. Then we can better understand each other.

This is what Aminata writes at the end of her story:

I would like to draw a map of the places where I have lived. I would put Bayo on the map, and trace in red my long path to the sea. Blue lines would show the ocean voyages. Cartouches would decorate the margins. There would be no elephants or want of towns, but rather paintings of guineas made from gold mines of Africa, a woman balancing fruit on her head, another with blue pouches for medicine, a child reading, and the green hills of Sierra Leone, land of my arrivals and embarkations.

PS. When I say that Lawrence Hill is a “Canadian author” I am guilty oversimplifying the map of his life – drawing elephants, if you like. He was born in Newmarket, Ontario – the son of a black father and a white mother who moved to Ontario from Washington DC. These are details to add to the map of Lawrence Hill’s life. Reading another of his books, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada might add psychological and sociological dimensions to that map. I’d like to find out by reading more.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).

Some power lines as powerful as can be

electrical-power-lines (1)

Sometimes what comes out in conversation takes our breath away doesn’t it? Conversations are wonderful ways of learning and realising stuff deep within our experience.

At a recent workshop on power leaders in ministry were sharing empowering stories and exploring ways of empowering others. What emerged was a radical question, very simply expressed: don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?

There is, of course:

  1. a huge “as long as”,
  2. and a qualification who the “we” is who so want us all to be powerful as can be
  3. as well as a health warning.

The health warning is that power can be so dangerous and all of our perceptions of power are coloured by our experiences and the extent to which we have been overpowered or empowered.

The “we”, of course, is not everyone. There are those who want to protect their “superpower” status and they depend on belittling and demeaning behaviours to manipulate dependence and fear in others. They have a vested interest – and they often are vested, dressed up in uniform – in a status quo in which they are favoured. To be part of the band of “we” we need to ask the question about how we can be disarming – to unilaterally disarm as an initial step to deescalate unhealthy power dynamics.

The “as long as” of the question “don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?” is as long as it is the right sort of power. We know what the wrong sort of power looks and feels like. It either makes us feel big (aka arrogant) or small – either way it is dehumanising. Our workshop conversation had begun with a consideration of a typology of power developed by French and Raven back in 1959. They identified five (later expanded to six) bases of power. Those bases are of two sorts. The first sort is the power that is handed on with authority, hierarchically and is based on position. The second sort is the power that is given by “followers”. Followers turn to people who they believe are competent (“experts”) and to people they like or respect (“referent”). Those we turn to may have positional power, or they may not.

Power

What we wish for when we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be is:

  1. for them to be freed from oppressive power, and
  2. for us to help one another into habits (not vests!) and disciplines in which virtues grow to the extent that we inspire confidence in one another

This is a tall order. We are all broken power brokers and we all come to the conversation with temptations to, such as, protect our position, make ourselves look big/clever, win. We can only help one another. This is a community endeavour in which we can help one another uncover our abuses of power and re-member those excluded by our executive powers.

NB Spoken by a white middle class university educated priest with well reinforced positional power but convinced that the communities I care for should be as powerful as they can be and eternally grateful for those communities which have been empowering and made this life worth more that it otherwise would have been.