Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What does "leadership" mean to you?

I sometimes joke that God called me to be a pastor to a group that can’t make its peace with pastoral ministry, to be an Old Testament scholarJay in conversation among a people that is ambivalent about the Bible, and to be a leader within a group that really doesn’t want to be led. One has to be willing to “swim upstream” to find joy in those types of calling. Still, I’ve gladly said “yes” to each of these opportunities and relish the challenges they bring.
The latter call, that of leadership, is very much on my mind these days. From personal, institutional, and communal perspectives, it begs for attention. While it is true that leadership can be a troubling concept for Friends, I have come to believe that we should move beyond our old hesitations. We would benefit from fussing less about the things that can go wrong, instead investing time reflecting upon the topic and developing an understanding of leadership that can function well in our context.
At its most basic level, I have come to hold that leadership is stepping forward in answer to the leading of the Spirit, offering the gifts and skillsESR student speaking at Common Meal with which one has been equipped.  For that to be a legitimate understanding of leadership, it must grow out of one’s ongoing dialogue with God. This means leadership is very much integrated with one’s spirituality, even though most theories of leadership leave no room for spirituality. It also means many of us, perhaps all of us, have moments of moving into and out of leadership roles when, for some duration of time, we have the right offerings to meet the needs of the moment.  From this perspective, leading is a form of faithfulness shared by virtually everyone.
Having said this, I would distance myself from the position of “everyone is a leader” which at some point devolves to mean, “no one is a leader.” I am willing to say that while all people have opportunities to lead, and all leadership is valuable, not all leadership is equal and some is more permanent than others. That statement may not gain wide acceptance among Friends. However, I believe that spiritual equality before God does not translate into positional equality within an organization or topical equality on every subject to be discussed or decided. There are topics I know little or nothing about, and even if a Quaker context means I can contribute to the discussion, and even though it is possible God may speak through me, I do not enter some discussions expecting to carry any weight.
Leadership as a response to call differs from leadership as raw talent in at least two crucial ways: first, its authority is rooted in God’s calling andESR student speaking at Common Meal equipping, not in charisma or skill; and second, it asks early and often, “for what purpose am I leading?” This question helps the leader to remember that the purpose for leading has God’s call and the community’s well being in mind. It is less about imposing one’s own vision on the group or satisfying ego, and more a matter of helping the group discern and respond to its own call as defined by its mission. With that said, leadership is offered in the hope that it contributes to God’s work, as well as to the life and health of the group receiving the leadership.
Leadership almost always presents an opportunity to influence the group that receives it. I could have easily said “an opportunity to serve the group.” There is a service capacity to good leadership, but I am careful about the use of “servant” with regard to leadership among Friends. Friends employ the term often, usually without having ever read Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership. I believe Friends in general have not yet matured enough in our thinking about leadership to use the term “servant” without qualification.
I am aware that the idea of one person influencing another makes some Friends uneasy, but the idea that all influence is bad or that we can live aCarrie Newcomer at ESR life not influenced by others is indefensible. At the core are worries about power and authority that seem to be embedded in Quaker DNA. If Friends are to make progress thinking about how leadership can flourish among us, we are going to have to speak the truth to ourselves about terms like those. It is not that Friends do not have authorities and powers among us. Rather, our tendency is to camouflage them, or perhaps simply fail to recognize them because they we are so immersed in our own assumptions.
I know that I am going to be influenced by others, and many times will even be unaware of those influences. Given that, I’d prefer to be influenced by those who lead with clear objectives and right motives.
6Jay Marshall is Dean of Earlham School of Religion and a native of North Carolina. Before beginning his service at ESR, he was a pastor in Western Yearly Meeting.


  1. "At the core are worries about power and authority that seem to be embedded in Quaker DNA."

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. However, I don't think our problem with power and authority is inherent in Quaker theology, I think social class learnings are getting conflated with Quaker theology.

    In our society, middle and owning class people are taught specifically to challenge authority, to distrust the powerful, mostly so that the people in that class can nudge their way into leadership, into positions of power. In sociologist Annette Lareau's book "Unequal Childhoods," this way of rearing children lays bear the clear differences between middle/owning classes and working class and poor people. The latter have a tendency to teach their children to respect authority, to follow those who lead.

    Mind you, there isn't someone deciding these things and implementing them--these ways are a response to our society, they are a matter of survival for poor and working class people.

    Friends are predominantly middle and upper middle class. There isn't any undoing of that right now, but if we could become more conscious of what we've been taught about authority because of our class upbringing, we might begin to understand some of our reluctance to let others lead us and power.

  2. One of the bloggers I read, sorry not to have a precise citation, has sort of a different analysis about class issues and leadership. She says that in some cases, working class people are easier about accepting leadership based on recognition of competence in a specific area than are owning class people. In this writer's eyes, working class people feel less need to feel in charge and are more comfortable shifting in and out of roles as different situations demand it.

    For me one of the paradoxes of leadership among Friends is the discipline of seasoning one's leading, one's guidance as to leadership with one's community, Friends who in some cases may begin with no basis in either information or experience for evaluating the content, the need to sit with a sense of movements of spirit.

  3. Could you please comment on these verses and how you leadership completes this thought of Christ.

    Mat 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. :9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
    11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. :12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

  4. Here's a thoughtful article about leadership and authority from the Alban Institute --

  5. Rant Woman: you do a nice job of paraphrasing me! What you say doesn't conflict with my comment, I don't think.

    Here are the places I've talked about leadership/following in my blog:

    Friends could be helped by understanding the differences between our social class learnings and actual Quakerism.

  6. I've just started a discussion on leadership in the BYM forum.

    I agree with Jeananne on the issues of social class and leadership, but also want to add with my experiences of leadership in my professional field.

    To be a successful leader, you have to a) take risks and b) be prepared to have difficult conversations.

    It is hard to describe a) and b) separately, but it amounts to sometimes doing the "unpopular" or going against the "norm". This is our tradition, as quakers, but people get stuck on the idea that somehow conflict in groups is against the peace testimony.

    IMHO, not addressing conflict runs against both Peace and Truth.

    But these lessons of leadership are the work of 12 years for I am not saying they are easy.