The Ridley Lecture

By January 29, 2015Theology

As well as Chairing Faith in Business here at Ridley, I teach leadership at Ashridge Business School. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve been lucky enough to help quite a wide range of leaders work out how to get better at what they do. I’ve taught the Head of Clouds at the Met Office, the Head of Killing at Bernard Matthews, and the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha. From Ambassadors to supermarket barons, I’ve seen some pretty tricky jobs. But I have to tell you that the one you are here training for is probably the hardest. So I’m not going to waste your time by dishing up some generic MBA-style lessons learned, I’m going to cut to the chase. I’ll start by telling you all how scarily powerful you are. Next I will give you a spotter’s guide to your future parish. Then I will explain what I mean by ‘Leadersmithing.’ Finally I will warn you about the dangers of professional kenosis.

First, a bit of theory about your natural magnetism. In 2003, a bloke called Art Kleiner wrote a book called Who Really Matters. He drew on the observation that a leader in a group seems to function like the magnet underneath a paper scattered with iron filings, and that this leadership activity does not always correspond with a person’s formal role. He calls this ‘Core Group Theory’ and it explains why organisations – and congregations – often seem to act ‘illogically.’ It also reminds leaders of the need to be careful of the power their role may give them. In a clergy context, your leadership role is a particularly complex one, because it involves organisational, liturgical, spiritual and pastoral responsibilities – to name just a few – all of which are liable to attract distorting behaviour from your followers, both within the congregation and more widely within the parish.

In general, Kleiner argues that members of the core group will be subject to a variety of dynamics, three of which can prove particularly distorting if the leader remains unaware of them. First, Amplification. Cues from the leader can be distorted, so a bad mood brought on by a bad night’s sleep can be interpreted by followers as displeasure or dreadful news, or a flip comment can be misinterpreted, amplified and telegraphed through the parish. Oooooh the vicar doesn’t like that new shop much, maybe we shouldn’t go there. Second, Facsimile. Because they don’t always have ready access to the original, followers develop their own version of their leader, like an angel on their shoulder, to act as the yardstick in decision-making: what would the vicar want us to do? If the person has an inexact knowledge of your mind, perhaps because of time pressure, distance, or fear, this can lead to incorrect decisions being made in your name. Sound familiar? But, vicar, we thought you’d want to host this visitor/talk to the WI/take part in the sack race… Third, Priorities. If the leader pays attention to one particular metric or behaviour, the organisation morphs into position behind it. A priest who pays attention to the wrong things can inadvertently shift the church’s energy in the wrong direction. This is a particular challenge bearing in mind the typical PCC agenda, and the temptation to spend large proportions of parish notices to pleas for volunteers for the flowers rota.

So the questions you’ll need to keep asking yourself are: how clear am I about what I mean? How clear are those who act in my name about my actual views, priorities and thought-processes, and to what degree do I keep them regularly updated? What do I pay attention to? How do I spend my time, and is this attention commensurate with my actual priorities?

Do be careful out there – you are ridiculously more powerful than you will ever feel. And the problem about being a priest in holy orders is that you will attract to you a whole range of extraordinary theologies, spiritualities, philosophies and psychologies. I don’t think there is time at Ridley to give you a crash course in the entirety of these disciplines, so I thought I’d bring you a cheat sheet. Have you heard of a remarkable piece of work carried out by Paul Jones on Seminarians in the States?

In 1989, Jones identified five ‘theological worlds’ within Christianity. He started off researching the ‘theologizing process’ of several theologians, then spent five years experimenting with his model with over 200 Protestant seminary students and about 100 pastors. His findings were further tested in one-to-one sessions with non-clergy professionals, then retested on further students and pastors and converted into an Inventory to help people to identify the world to which they belonged. Believing that ‘the aesthetic enterprise distils metaphors that promise a World’, he triangulated his typology with sets of paintings, music, literature, mythology and images to reach a deeper illustration of each type. Jones’ typology essentially answers the question about why people believe, and in doing so suggests what they believe too. As you would expect, he concludes that the ‘natives’ in each world will find dialogue with ‘foreigners’ frustrating, which leads to conflict of both a secular and theological kind. Now of course you could write several essays on the theological rights and wrongs of each world. But for the present, let’s just notice them, because of the insight they can give to the people in your charge.

Each of Jones’ ‘worlds’ is a style of meaning-making about human existence, wagered on God, which acts as an orientation for life. In each case they are characterised by a differing obsessio (dilemma) attuned to a contrasting epiphania (resolution). His first world is called Separation and Reunion, in which authenticity is questing in the face of an overwhelming cosmos cloaked in mystery. Characterised by Romeo and Juliet as its tragic form on the one hand and Odysseus as its comedic form on the other, its worldview is about alienation and longing. Its spirituality is about contemplation, and its theology is about coming home. Christ is therefore a Revealer or Evoker, a guide to take the Alien to the place of reunion and to reveal the truth. Jones’ representative modern theology to illustrate this rather Gnostic world is Neo-liberalism, as exemplified for him by Tillich and Dostoevsky.

In the second world, of Conflict and Vindication, the central dilemma concerns history as chaos, characterised in tragedy by Beowulf and in comedy by Don Quixote. This worldview is outraged by Fate, and feelings of oppression drive rebellion and conflict to deny it dominion. The Warrior therefore seeks a Christ who will be the Liberator or Messiah, and who will ‘change the truth’ by triumphing over death. Spirituality is therefore about intercession, and theology is preoccupied with a thirst for justice, making God take sides to guarantee a victory. Liberation Theology would be Jones’ representative theology for this world.

Jones’ third world is occupied by the Outcast. It is a world of Emptiness and Fulfilment, where the believer struggles with the possibilities for the unfulfilled self. Characterised by Hamlet or Parsifal, this world needs Christ to be a role model, and theology is about belonging. Being a more passive form of world two, in this world the outcast feels the ache of impotence and worthlessness, and has only their own lack of perceived significance to blame – they are invisible, somehow empty and not there. The task of theology is therefore to provide the tools for the Outcast to ‘become’, often involving a journey of self-discovery through meditation and suffering towards wholeness. Jones selects Process Theology to illustrate this world.

The fourth world is characterised by Condemnation and Forgiveness, whose path passes through ‘the valley of the shadow of guilt’ and is characterised by Faustus or King Lear. Born into indebtedness and marred by Original Sin, the Fugitive is damned by his conscience to be more than his animal nature, and is seeking expiation. While the world conspires against integrity, there is a restlessness for morality within it. The diseased soul needs the threat of hell to avoid giving in to its Freudian nature, but there is no hope without a confession of the need for atonement, and epiphany comes through brokenness. Christ is the Redeemer who will reprieve the Fugitive through adoption. Theology is centred on the Cross, and is likely to be rich with themes of human waywardness, demonic forces and the divine gift of grace. Barth is also used by Jones to illustrate the theology of this world, which he terms Neo-orthodoxy.

The final world, Suffering and Endurance, wrestles with an awareness that living means persisting on the edge of absurdity. Its tragic form is characterised by Oedipus, with its comedy being the endurance of Sisyphus. The Victim, or Refugee, feels overwhelmed by an incomprehensible world, where death is the only certainty. Being a more passive form of world four, suffering is central to this world, and is morally indiscriminate. However, through suffering, dying becomes less alien and threatening, and suffering is the refiner’s fire that makes the victim stronger. In this world the dignity of enduring is paramount and the wisdom it brings is its own reward. Silence is the best response to the inevitability of life, and some solace may come from those who suffer alongside, sitting it out, waiting and lasting. If there is a God in this world, Christ is the suffering servant and the companion, and theology is likely to centre round themes of survival and integrity. For Jones, Existentialism is the intellectual illustration of this world, as seen in the theology of Kierkegaard.

Have you recognised yourself in these worlds yet? Perhaps there are a couple of them that particularly ring true for you. When I first read about this, I was struck with its resonance with psychological typology, and particularly the work of William Schutz. In 1958, Schutz developed a psychometric instrument to help people to understand their interpersonal orientation towards others, originally in the context of the US submariner community. His instrument synthesised a number of psychological approaches to examine three ‘fundamental’ types of interpersonal behaviour and what drives them. He suggests that, interpersonally, we will normally express those behaviours which we would like to attract back from others, so that each behavioural type has an ‘expressed’ and ‘wanted’ face. His behaviours are Inclusion, Control and Affection, and they are driven by three matching preoccupations. Inclusion is driven by feelings related to significance, control by feelings of competence, and affection by feelings of loveability.

I then wondered whether we could apply Jones’ typology more widely, to help identify a fuller range of the likely patterns of belief both within the likes of the Ridley community and in a typical congregation. Of course, these are just models and cyphers, but perhaps these kinds of exercises help to promote a greater understanding of why your parishioners might get so confused, upset and angry if they feel you are ‘being’ the wrong theology for them.

Comparing Schutz with the typology of Jones, it seems that his first two worlds arise from a psychological preoccupation with competence. In the first world, the journey is towards enlightenment, such that the Alien finds the truth about the world, becoming ‘competent’ in it as a result. This suggests a leaning towards the kinds of structures of control that suggest competence, so Aliens may gravitate towards formal institutions that provide meaning or promise itineraries of discovery to accompany them on their quest, and to be seeking gurus, teachers or leaders who can help. This hypothesis would resonate with Jones’ analysis of Christ as the Revealer for this world. In the second world, the Warrior subdues the world around him, resonating with Schutz’s notion of expressed control, as a way of asserting the self over and against a recalcitrant world to feel competent (potent and victorious) over it. In the third world, the Outcast feels like they are melting away, which in Schutz’s terms refers to feelings of insignificance and of being overlooked by being denied inclusion by others. The Outcast longs for this inclusion, wanting it from others but feeling unable to offer it themselves, so is locked into a downward spiral by never feeling included enough to exhibit the kinds of including behaviours they want to attract back in return. The fourth world recalls Schutz’s notion of wanted affection, in that the Fugitive wants to be considered lovable in spite of the vicissitudes of their nature, as epitomised in this world’s yearning for divine grace and forgiveness. Schutz does not have a preoccupation that neatly maps to the final world, in which the Victim just soldiers on, except that a score of zero across all of Schutz’s categories might cohere with this passive profile.

However, this framework suggests that there are likely to be at least two missing worlds in Jones’ typology, which you might still expect to encounter in your parish. While Schutz examines the range of interpersonal preoccupations only, there remain two such expressions that are not yet covered in Jones’ worlds. These are the expression of inclusion and the expression of affection. Were there to be a world which was characterised by the expression of inclusion, the Mother might reach out to her fellow humans to nurture them, honouring their significance as part of creation. Theology in this mode would be about co-creation and the realisation of human potential within the divine order. Similarly, were there to be a world characterised by the expression of affection, the Lover might cherish her fellow humans, regardless of what they deserve, and theology would be about unconditional love and the inherent goodness of creation. While these additional worlds are something of a conceptual construct, they serve to highlight a bias towards passivity even in Jones’ more active worlds, and possibly towards a rather stereotypical masculinity, perhaps because of the natural bias in his sample.

Pastorally, what does this mean? It means that you are likely to have followers from each of these worlds, and that you are likely yourself to favour one of them already. Human nature being what it is, you can expect to be assailed by a quite extraordinary confusion of theological worldviews as you stagger up the aisle of a Sunday morning, all being projected on to you like a coat of many colours. Each person there will be listening to you and watching what you do, hoping to have their biases reinforced. Ditto when you are out and about, and when you sometimes feel that people are expecting things from you as the vicar that you really don’t recognise or particularly relish. Of course none of these worlds is entire or right, but they are all brave attempts to make meaning about a perplexing and ultimately unknowable God, so they need careful and respectful handling. When you get quite bizarre and disproportionate complaints about forgetting to visit someone, or not remembering a parishioner’s special event, or not standing up for someone who others think needs help, these are all theological cries hailing from a place of integrity in one of these worlds, because you are Christ’s vicar. Maybe when you are moved to exasperation in such moments, recalling Jones might help you to notice the cry for help implicit in their criticism. The patterns that emerge from seemingly tedious parish wranglings can then teach you a huge amount about the cure of souls in your parish, rather than just be energy-sapping.

This kind of day-to-day skilful reading of what your people really need from you – as well as the ability to discern whether or not to give it to them – is why I‘ve called this lecture Leadersmithing. Leadership sounds too static and certain to me, and after 10 years’ teaching the subject, I’ve decided the whole thing is way too cerebral to be truly useful. I’m not sure I really care about getting the definition of leadership right, or selecting the perfect model of it from the airport bookshelves, groaning under the weight of every Tom, Dick and Harry’s personal recipe. What I care about is what you are actually doing. Who is following you, and why? Do you know them? Do they know you? Where are you leading them to? Could you do it any better? So I prefer the idea of Leadersmithing, because for me leading is a craft, and it’s something that you have to keep working at, as a journeyman, for most of your life, until you finally achieve mastery.

Of course we don’t know what Jesus did for the 30 years about which the Bible is silent. Maybe he did go to Qumran. But maybe he served his apprenticeship with Joseph as a carpenter, and became a journeyman. And to make that transition from apprentice to journeyman, he would have had to demonstrate competence in the core disciplines of carpentry, and make apprentice pieces to show he was ready to work with expensive materials at scale. One of the leadership gurus at Ashridge recently went off to serve his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, in his mid-60s. He spent most of the first year just learning about tools and materials – how different woods behave, and how to use the tools to get the best out of them. And inevitably a lot of your training here at Ridley is about the nuts and bolts of being ordained, with your curacy designed as an apprenticeship to ease you into becoming a journeyman priest. So I would like to help you start thinking about your preparation in those terms. Formation for you necessarily has a spiritual dimension, but without going all Lord Green on you it is also worth thinking about which apprentice pieces you’ll need to display to prove to yourself and others that you are genuinely ready for the cure of souls that will be entrusted to you. Yes by all means figure out the whole ‘beach-ball, cricket ball’ thing, and how not to drown infants in fonts, but please also figure out how you will learn to run brilliant PPC meetings, and how to have really difficult conversations with people , and how to manage your time. Because when I meet clergy who are running on empty and about to give up, the liturgical stuff is the least of their worries. It is the endless stress of the pastoral that wears them down, and you need to start early to develop the disciplines you’ll need to manage this well.

One of my enthusiasms is the neurobiology of leadership. I used to run a simulation at Ashridge that was designed to give future leaders 20:20 foresight about the challenges they would face, and to give them the muscle-memory to triumph over them. I teamed up with a neurobiologist to understand how this was actually working, and the results of our study might be quite useful for you in your learning. For our research, we wired up a whole load of senior executives with heart monitors, and studied them working together in the simulation over a 2-day period. We had lots of psychometric and observational data on them, and they filled out lots of questionnaires for us, both during the event, immediately afterwards, and several months after. From this we got a very clear finding. There was a direct correlation between increased heart-rate and increased learning. When you think about this, perhaps it’s obvious. As a species we’re hard-wired to learn both faster and more deeply when we are under pressure, because our future survival might depend on it. So if you want to make the most out of your curacy in particular, don’t just volunteer for the easy stuff. Pick something that you know you’ll need to be brilliant at later, that at the moment you feel a bit sick about. The funeral of a child. Resolving the festering relationship between the organist and the NSM. Telling the Dowager Countess that you’re changing the format for harvest. And once you’ve identified the necessary safeguards to make it an experiment that won’t make you – and your training incumbent – panic, resolve to make it one of your apprentice pieces. Then even the things you are dreading become redeemed. And if you do this a lot, your brain gathers lots of templates for use, both in times of calm and when you are under pressure. This makes you more resourced to cope, and more able to exercise choice about how to behave, even in the most threatening situations. This is the muscle-memory that seasoned clergy have obtained the hard way. You can gather it far quicker by being rather brave and by playing neurobiological games.

But do take care of yourself too. There is a good reason many clergy don’t notice they are burning out until it’s too late. It’s called kenosis. If God self-emptied, shouldn’t we do likewise? But do you recall Oscar Wilde’s heart-rending fairytale, The Happy Prince? In it, a swallow befriends the statue of a town’s late prince. From his plinth, the Happy Prince sees his people suffering, and asks the swallow to help them, using the decoration from his statue. The ruby is taken from his sword hilt, the sapphires are plucked from his eyes, and the gold leaf covering his body is torn off by the swallow, to alleviate the plight of the poor. The Mayor walks by, and looks up. Seeing how ugly the statue has become, he orders it to be pulled down, and thrown away.

This story is a great parable for all those people who give of themselves too much. Particularly in a vocational role, it’s tempting to think that you’re virtuous if you work all the hours God sends. But what happens to the church if you simply use yourself up, and what kind of example are you setting? I’ve worked with some clergy who really do think that God wants them to use themselves up in service of others. But I think this is a confusion, and at its worst it has a lot more to do with ego than with selflessness. Yes, you are special and unique, but other people are also special and unique, and are also called to serve, whether in the religious life, through volunteering, or through working elsewhere. What more could you do, not only to set an example about work-life balance to those whom you lead, but also to develop the talent around you, and share responsibility around?

Over-working and stress also has a negative effect on your ability to sleep well. If you don’t get good quality sleep, your ability to form memories and make good decisions will diminish. Your executive functioning also diminishes with every effortful act you make during the day, so the typical leader shouldn’t be allowed to drive a fork-lift truck, let alone run an organisation. At Ashridge I talk a lot about ego depletion – will-power battery management – and this is a great way to decide what you can and can’t do. Let’s assume that the Harry Potter-style Dementors in your life won’t go away – roof repairs, diocesan memos, pointless meetings, etc etc etc. But you can top yourself up by taking control of your diary, particularly when some of these energy sappers are wholly predictable. Here is a generic list: rest, water, bananas, flattery, exercise, fresh air, laughter, music, beauty, altrusim, mates, cat videos (!). But what else gives you joy, peace and perspective? Diary them in. Make a list, and deploy your Julie Andrews’ Whiskers on Kittens whenever your mood sinks. You are far too special and precious to be thrown away, and you can be more useful in the longer term by being selfish enough in the short term to keep yourself healthy and well. And did you read the study by Douglas Turton and Leslie Francis about prayer? Praying clergy are healthier clergy. So one early warning sign for you is if you suddenly notice that your personal prayer life has dwindled. For God’s sake, make time for it. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many clergy don’t.

Because you know better than secular leaders that all leaders are also followers. In industry, they are following a vision of how things could be, and taking the organisation there. People follow them because they like where they are going. You’re also leading the organisation in your community, but you are also modelling discipleship: how to follow Christ well. So you can use this same thinking about apprentice pieces and formation to figure out how you can help those in your care develop good discipleship habits. And if you develop Jedi skills in managing your own energy, you will be strong enough to keep doing this work, day in, day out. And those with whom you come into contact will notice the light you radiate, and the love you evidence, and they will be drawn to follow the one you are following too.

As you know from my blog, I’m no introvert, and I’m not drawn to being a reflective learner by preference. But lots of my friends are still reading Quiet, and I know that lots of introverts hate the sort of learning that feels like making a fool of yourself in public, so I thought you’d be interested in this.

10 years ago now, Melissa Carr and I designed the fabulous Future Leaders Experience at Ashridge. Over the years we’ve done lots of research on how it works, most recently with the brilliant Prof Tricia Riddell from the University of Reading. You may have read the report or stories about it, but one detail may not have been obvious.
What we found when we measured heart-rate and learning was that the correlation between them held even when the participant had been watching a critical incident rather than participating in it directly. So while heart-rate tended to be higher for those in the hot seat each time – and therefore the degree of learning gleaned – as long as those watching felt involved enough for their own heart-rate to be affected, they learned too.

This is a really important finding. I think both extraverts and introverts collude on training programmes about regarding ‘reflective’ learning as time off. Organisations certainly do – looking out of the window is not generally considered to be ‘working’. And in order to eke out valuable training spend, many L&D departments reckon that the more contact time on courses, the better value for money. I don’t want to conflate the activities of reflection and observation, but I do want to make a point about people who prefer to learn at one remove. Too often reflectors are fobbed off with a brief walk or the opportunity to write some quiet notes and that’s that. They may even be forced into active learning exercises, on the grounds that it’s good for them to feel their learning edge. So our neuro-biology findings are actually a triumph for people who hate the limelight so much they will avoid learning opportunities that require it. Because this research shows you how you can opt in and opt out at the same time.
Here is an example. You and a colleague are both really struggling with someone in your team. You’ve had a lot of whinge sessions by the water-cooler and over the odd pint, and your colleague reckons it’s time you tackled the thing head on. You could just say ‘Good luck, mate, not my thing.’ Or you could agree that you will coach them through it, attend the meeting as moral support, and give them feedback afterwards about how you thought they did. Your heart would certainly be going like the clappers while you watched your colleague edge their way through. And if you ever did have to have a tricky conversation in your own right, you’d have gained the neurobiological muscle memory you need to feel resourced to do so.

Maybe this still sounds too scary. Instead you might simply focus on raising either your level of investment in a work situation, or the risk that you might be called upon to get involved. So you could help plan an event or write a speech, or offer to be a colleague’s emergency expert if they get stuck in a tricky Q&A. You could even agree to understudy for a colleague who is worried about taking something on in case the dates don’t ultimately work out. Anything, in fact, that makes you as an observer feel slightly on the edge of your seat. Because what our research showed was that if your heart-rate is raised, you’re learning.

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