Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Contemporary Challenges of Leadership: Complex Systems

Over the past month, The United Methodist Church has been focused on episcopal elections in the United States, Europe, and the Philippines. United Methodists have faithfully prayed and strategically maneuvered to elect bishops that they hope will lead them into a bright new future for the denomination.

To be sure, episcopal leadership does matter, and new bishops will indeed make a difference for events in the denomination over the next several years.

Yet it is important not to underestimate the challenges that bishops face in exerting effective leadership. These challenges originate not from any shortcomings in bishops individually or collectively but rather from the nature of The United Methodist Church as a complex system and the limits of leadership as a strategy for addressing wicked problems that beset such complex systems.

I will examine these challenges in this and two following articles. In this article, I will describe the nature of The United Methodist Church as a complex system. In the next article, I will explain why leadership is an attractive but usually unsuccessful solution to complex problems. In a third article, I will suggest that communication and collaboration is usually a more effective solution than one focused exclusively on leadership and a strategy that can lead to more effective leadership.

Complex systems
There are many ways to define complex systems, which are an area of research in several academic fields, but one commonly agreed-upon feature is “nonlinearity”: complex systems are not characterized by simple cause-and-effect relationships.

Instead, chaotic, surprising, or unintended consequences are a frequent feature, and effects are usually the result of multiple causes, which in even slightly different combinations may produce wildly different effects. Sometimes, such surprising results occur because seemingly distant (physically or otherwise) components are connected, so action in one place produces effects in another place far removed, thus obscuring lines of cause and effect.

Complex systems are also defined by their “complexity,” that is, they involve many different components interacting with each other in multiple different ways. Cities are a common example of complex systems, so for example, a city’s manufacturing industry and its government may interact on issues of taxation, regulation, business incentives, employment, campaigning, and more. All of these are different matters or issues around which the two sets of actors can interact.

System complexity is also a consequence of different actors within the system having different (and sometimes competing) interests. Thus, the various actors in the system don’t all pull in the same direction but instead sometimes work collaboratively and sometimes work at cross purposes with one another. Moreover, collaboration or antagonism may be determined by the matter or issue at hand.

Finally, different actors within the system all have limited influence over it. Usually, this is because decision-making is widely distributed, so all actors have agency to pursue their own interests, which as noted, will diverge from others at points. Especially in the era of modernity, many processes of life are automated or rule-bound, so individual actors have limited influence over those processes, thus further reducing their influence over complex systems as a whole.

In complex systems, problems are often wicked problems; that is, they are difficult to define and difficult solve, with no single, clear solution. Because of the diversity of interests, there are different ways to frame or understand a problem, even if there is common agreement that something in the system is not right. Because of unclear cause-and-effect relationships and unintended consequences, it is very difficult to intervene in complex systems to effectively address problems, even if a common definition of a problem exists. Wicked problems can often only be mitigated rather than solved.

The UMC as a complex system
The United Methodist Church has become an increasingly complex system over the past 50+ years for several reasons.

There are approximately the same number of actors within the system as when it was created (~12 million members in 1968; ~12.5 million members now). However, their distribution and the ways they interact have changed.

In 1968, the overwhelming majority of members were in the United States. Now, only half are in the United States, a quarter are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and another quarter are in a myriad of other countries. This increases not only cultural and linguistic diversity but also the chances that one component within the system will act without knowledge of another component, multiplying the possibilities for unintended consequences.

Moreover, the ways in which those members interact have changed. There are more ways for actors to relate to one another – not only through official church conferencing, but also through caucuses, coalitions, independent events and networking, church-to-church (or church-to-conference) partnerships, etc. Most of these new forms of interaction are outside of the official structures of the denomination (and therefore not controlled by them).

The number and intensity of divergent interests within the system has increased. Certainly, the increased geographic and cultural diversity just noted has resulted in more divergent interests. But such heightened divergence is evident within the United States as well. When the UMC was launched in 1968, the Traditionalist movement had just begun to form two years earlier. Now, Traditionalist, Progressive, and Centrist are well-established and often antagonistic competing interests in the denomination.

The limits on individual actors have also increased over the course of the denomination’s lifetime. Even with some unfilled US episcopal areas, the number of current active bishops (59) is nearly 50% more than when the denomination was formed in 1968 (41 bishops), one indication of widely distributed decision making. The Book of Discipline has increased by 50% as well, an indication of the increasingly rule-bound nature of many processes in the denomination.

Given the increasing complexity of the United Methodist system, it is perhaps no surprise then that the UMC has a wicked problem. Bob Phillips has written about the UMC and its wicked problem in Methodist Review. One need not accept his Traditionalist solution of denominational division to learn from his application of this term to the UMC. While different groups within the church would frame the problem within the UMC very differently, almost everyone would agree that there is some sort of problem besetting the denomination.

And if there is a problem, then there is a need for a solution. The next post in this series will look at why leadership is an attractive but usually flawed solution to the wicked problems of a complex system.

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