Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The Contemporary Challenges of Leadership: Unrealistic Expectations

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In my last post, I argued that The United Methodist Church is a complex system (more so than when it was created) facing a wicked problem. I indicated that this fact has implications for the role of leadership in the UMC, in particular that of bishops. In this post, I will argue that the nature of complex systems make leadership an attractive but ultimately flawed solution to the wicked problems that beset complex systems.

Leadership as an Attractive Solution
By their very nature, complex systems are difficult to control (since inputs do not lead straightforwardly to outputs), and wicked problems are difficult to solve. Furthermore, since complex systems include many actors, most of them will have very little influence over the system as a whole, making it even more difficult for most people to get the results they want from the system. Therefore, many people feel powerless in the face of complex systems, for instance, the global economy, big businesses, or government bureaucracies.

In such a situation, selecting the right leader for the system becomes seen by many as an attractive solution to the problems plaguing the complex system.

Selecting the right leader seemingly simplifies the complex system and its complex problems, and this is its main attraction. We just need to find the right person, and they will solve the problems of the system, goes the thinking.

Rather than needing to understand the complex system itself (which is often beyond the ability of even experts, let alone regular individuals), it is only necessary to understand the (usually limited) choices for leadership candidates. Rather than needing to figure out how to exert influence on the system (which is difficult for well-organized coalitions, let alone individuals), it is only necessary to use one’s power to vote for a leader.

All the better, this line of reasoning often goes, if the leader selected is somewhat antithetical to the system, if they promise to “shake things up,” create “disruption,” or “smash things.” And in order to do that destructive work, the leader should be given as much power as possible. The system is obviously not producing what it should, so doesn’t it need to be shaken up by a strong leader?

This leadership-focused solution to systemic problems also fits with cultural emphases from various cultures, whether it is Americans’ cult of personality or Africans’ tradition of “big man” leadership. The notion of a leader as a hero or savior is deeply rooted within many cultural traditions.

The wave of rising authoritarianism that has swept the globe over the past decade is an expression of how leadership is an attractive solution to complex problems. In many different cultural and political settings, people have elected leaders who have billed themselves as strongmen (and the gendered term is intentional) capable of bending the system to give their voters what they want.

Whether or not United Methodists support such political authoritarian figures (and probably some but not most do), the temptation to look to leaders as rescuers from the morass of wicked problems that bogs down the complex system of The United Methodist Church is still there.

Leadership as a Flawed Solution
But while leadership may be an attractive solution to the wicked problems of complex systems, it is also a flawed solution. Of course, one could point to the moral, ethical, and democratic failings frequently exhibited by authoritarian leaders, but even setting those significant concerns aside, there are real reasons why leadership alone is not a good way to address the problems of complex solutions.

First, while participants in a complex system may be eager to shift responsibility for problem solving onto a leader because of their own limited knowledge of and influence over that system, they often significantly overestimate leaders’ knowledge of and influence over the system.

Complex systems are difficult for leaders to understand, too, even given their additional vantage over and information about the system. Indeed, it is hard for any one person to really have a feel for all parts of a system and how they interact. Leadership in a complex system requires knowledge of many disparate areas of policy and procedure. Moreover, leaders are subject to the same limitations of wisdom, knowledge, and judgment as anyone else. And when leaders are sometimes chosen because they are from outside the system or its current elite, this can limit their understanding of the system even further.

Moreover, because complex systems are characterized by nonlinear relationships and by many different actors with many different motivations, complex systems are difficult to control, even for leaders. There are many opportunities for unintended consequences or for people to resist and obstruct what a leader wants to accomplish. While it many be easy for leaders to exert control over central elements of a complex system, that does not mean that directives will flow completely and easily to all components of a system, especially those farther from the centers of power.

These observations are true of bishops in the UMC just as much as other leaders of complex systems. There are many different areas of responsibility for bishops, and it is difficult to be an expert in all of them. Bishops are often limited in their knowledge of what is happening outside of their episcopal area or jurisdiction. Their powers are geographically and constitutionally limited. District superintendents, pastors, congregations, and agencies all have independent decision-making authority. Bishops can influence, but they cannot completely dictate. Even in Africa where bishops are held in higher regard, they are not complete dictators, and things can and do happen outside bishops’ control.

There are also limitations in the relationship between leaders and followers. The many-faceted nature of issues in complex systems means that for any given leader and any given follower, there will almost always be points of disagreement between them. While in some instances, followers adjust their views to reflect those of their leaders, in other instances, followers are left to decide how to relate to leaders whose work they very much support in some instances and very much oppose in others.

Furthermore, conditions including polarization, distrust, and anger at institutions can make people even less willing to follow leaders. If some group of followers sees a leader as “not my leader,” then they will work to oppose or undermine the work of that leader, further limiting the leader’s power. Even if loyal followers expect leaders to quickly deliver results on all issues, leaders can quickly go from heroes to villains if they fail to perform to what may be unrealistically high standards.

A Methodist Example
To see the attraction and the failure of leadership as a solution to the problems of complex systems, look at The United Methodist Church’s experience with the Commission on a Way Forward. The commission was formed after General Conference delegates, unable to solve the wicked problem of The United Methodist Church themselves, took the unprecedented action of asking the bishops to step in and intervene.

However, the bishops’ ability to do so was quite limited. They were able to convene a group to make recommendations to General Conference, but the bishops themselves were neither able to propose solutions nor able to adopt solutions proposed by others. The size of the group was even limited by financial calculations by GCFA beyond the bishops’ control. Moreover, no bishop has a complete understanding of the entire United Methodist Church and could not know in advance how the work of the Commission on a Way Forward would be received or what unexpected reactions or counteractions it would provoke.

Then, once the commission was formed, it became the target of criticism over a host of issues ranging from its composition to how its work was conducted. Such criticism reflected some genuine concerns, but it also reflected the polarization and lack of trust in the denomination. The commission produced a recommendation, which the bishops then revised, and then the recommendations from the commission and the bishops were rejected by General Conference in a decision that exacerbated rather than solved the wicked problem of the denomination.

In the case of the Commission on a Way Forward, appealing to leadership patently failed as a means to address the wicked problem of the complex system of The United Methodist Church. But I don’t think that was because the bishops made mistakes along the way. They may have made mistakes and thereby worsened the chances of the commission succeeding, but the basic problem was with the nature of the system and the limitations of a leadership-focused solution to its problems.

Fortunately, there are other potential solutions to the problems that beset complex systems. In my next post, I will look at communication and collaboration as potential solutions, ones that can improve the quality of leadership in addition to addressing problems.

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