Stewardship of the Leader: Modeling

Leading organizations is a great responsibility. The essence of leadership hearkens us back to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Jesus tells of a master who leaves three servants (stewards) in charge – the scripture says, “entrusting all of his property to them.” The significance of that one line cannot be understated. When the master entrusts all of his property to these stewards, they literally become the regents of all the master owns. They become significant leaders. We tend to forget that they have responsibility for everything.

Leaders must understand their level of responsibility within organizations. When we are called and set apart to lead, we are entrusted with shaping the culture of the organization – including tending lives of those we lead. This is no small task. Leaders must be willing to grow, learn, and model out of core values of faith and morality.

Let me focus on one aspect of leadership stewarding that is critical – modeling. Modeling is the most important shaping force of the leader. Leaders who don’t understand modeling and the power it has in shaping the culture of organizations do a disservice to those they lead. These leaders also violate the basic principles of biblical stewardship because they do not understand the great ‘talent’ they are called to invest.

I use the term modeling, but it has broad meaning. Edgar Shein in Organizational Culture and Leadership uses the term “primary embedding mechanisms” and he lists the following: what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control regularly; how leaders respond to critical incidents; how leaders allocate resources; how they teach and coach; how they allocate rewards and status; and how they recruit, promote, and excommunicate. I see all of these mechanism connected. Effective leadership must understand the shaping forces and how important they are. The leader models through these mechanisms and communicates significant information that defines who the organization is and how it goes about its work.

All leaders model all the time. They must be aware of this and they must be conscious of the messages they send. Leaders must also be adept enough to recognize the defensive routines at work in their organization. All organizations (congregations are organizations) have defensive routines. Defensive routines are behaviors and attitudes that inhibit learning and growth. Defensive routines may be violations of formal policies, but usually they are more subtle. Defensive routines are subtly found rooted in any mismatch between what the leader proclaims is important and how the leader actually engages in action (espoused value vs. theory in use, Shein). This type of disconnected modeling actually works against the formation of the very culture the leader is attempting to craft. When the leader’s actions of promotion, rewards, coaching, and excommunication don’t line up with what they have told us are core values, increased stress is introduced in the organization as people try to make sense of the mixed messages. Learning is stifled and natural defensive postures appear.

What is required to confront defensive routines? Two things must occur for the leader.

First, the leader must be push to become more self-aware in understanding why they do what they do. They must understand it, but understanding it alone is not enough. The leader must also be able to articulate their understanding. Without the communication component, they once again fail to model learning and positive change in the culture. The articulation of self-awareness and growth is modeling. Think for a moment how powerful it is when a leader fails, reflects on the failure to understand their role in it, and then has the ability to articulate their learning to their team. There is a sense of confidence that the leader has the capacity to learn and grow and they model this for their team.

Second, the leader must allow his/her managerial team to give feedback regarding their modeling. We are unable to see our modeling objectively. Without a willingness to hear from those who help guide the organization, the leader may not realize the mixed messages that are sent. By allowing the managerial team to assist with the leader’s self-discovery, the leader not only learns, but the leader once again models organizational learning.

If they leader is not willing to hear critique because of embarrassment or threat, then once again there is a mismatch in modeling. These issues and events become ‘undiscussable’. As the level of undiscussable items grows, the inconsistent messages grow. The managerial team is not allowed to discuss freely this disconnect with the leader. The organizational culture begins to reflect this distortion of mixed messages. Ineffective decisions of mismatch become covered up and obfuscated as the leader and managerial team attempt to make sense of the mixed messages to others in the organization. The rest of the managerial team begins to model like the leader, teaching the values yet acting differently. As this process grows and reinforces itself, cover-ups begin to be covered-up even though one of the core values may be openness. Next, the undiscussable previous actions now cannot be discussed. Chris Argyris calls this the “undiscussability of the undiscussable.” The managerial team begins to collude to keep the mixed messages covered-up. The managerial team now expects others to distort and manipulate as well. A new sub-culture is born.

Finally, the leader who sincerely believes he/she is utilizing their gift of stewardship for the good of the organization will find a deep and disturbing set of defensive routines in place that promote ineffectiveness, rather than effectiveness. Dysfunctional managerial teams are created. The leader becomes frustrated with outcomes without realizing why the outcomes are there. The leader fails to see and accept that the organization is learning to function in the same way as the leader and managerial team. The leader is subconsciously reinforcing the defensive routines through rewarding/promoting a managerial team that respect the “undiscussability of the undiscussable”. All the while, the leader doesn’t see he/she is rewarding such behavior. If we return to the parable in Matthew 25, we find now a leader who truly believes he/she is investing their five talents for the master’s return, while in reality they have buried the true talent and are doing the work of the Kingdom with monopoly money – nothing of value, nothing that lasts.

How does all this change? Unfortunately, it is difficult to change. Since defensive actions are so highly skilled, they are executed without hesitation and they are automatic. The defensive routines are enacted without any reflection. Chris Argyris states that at our core, our defensive actions come from our early life and are ingrained in us. It is how the leader learned to deal with embarrassment or threat. When the leader uses these defensive routines, they model this behavior in the organizations they lead. The organizational culture then begins to follow the model of the leader and adopt these defensive routines. Then, once the leader sees the ineffectiveness of the organization, the blame goes to the organization itself as the leader assails all the organization’s defensive routines. It becomes, as Argyris concludes, a “circular, self-reinforcing process, from the individual to the larger unit and back to the individual.”

The only remedy I can point to is the importance of “ruthlessly, compassionate truth-tellers”. If the leader has the capability for self-reflection and learning (or even if they do not), the repeated lifting up and naming of the defensive routines can be helpful in changing the culture. Think of how Jesus consistently shed light on the inconsistencies of his day. The difficulty is in the character of the leader who may decide it is too difficult to listen to how their modeling contributes to the problems they are attempting to overcome. If the leader can trust the managerial team to assist them, change can occur. This also requires self-awareness and maturity of the managerial team, which is another issue altogether.

So let us pray for all our leaders. Let us pray that they may be self-aware. Let us pray that they would receive feedback from us all and listen carefully. Let us pray for their spirituality. Let us pray for their talents – that what they invest in the Kingdom may be valuable and eternal.

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