The Paradox of Changing Cultures

April 16, 2008 — Leave a comment

In the previous two posts I presented a dichotomy between leadership styles, attempting to recognize both the good and bad in each form of leadership. There are certainly times when a top-down, authoritarian approach is justified, especially with simple decisions that seem to be paralyzing the organization. There are times with a “ground-up” approach is too unwieldy, and times when it’s absolutely necessary as a means of anticipating conflict.

However, the paradox of leadership (what those in the Emergent conversation might call an aspect of “orthoparadoxy”) is that both styles of leadership are required to bring about change in a culture. While a person might lean toward one or the other, the fact is that good leaders are able to to both in their work of building teams seeking change in the organization.

I recently had the chance to listen to Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on Word to Word. Nye is best known for his book “Soft Power,” which suggests that workers in the information economy will no longer tolerate authoritarian and hierarchical leadership. The particular speech he was giving was in anticipation of his new book, The Powers To Lead. What Nye recognizes in this book is the paradox of needing both hard (authoritarian) and soft (communal) power in order to be successful in bringing about change. Nye identifies three soft power skills and two hard power skills that leaders need today (you will have to read the book to discover what they are because I can’t remember right now). However the most important thing that Nye offers is a final skill that is in my opinion absolutely crucial in helping leaders to lead change in an existing organization.

This skill Nye calls “contextual intelligence,” and it may be the thing that is most often overlooked in talk about church leadership. Contextual Intelligence (CI) recognizes that the approach that one brings to the table in offering leadership is dependent on the context in which you are offering leadership. Simply put, management and leadership is not a “one size fits all” group of skills. Good leadership skills must be accompanied by the ability to recognize how those skills must be applied so as to speak appropriately within a specific context.

This is one problem with looking toward successful church planters as the models upon which to base congregational change. Yes, these persons have brought new ideas to the table and can inform our ministries (in fact, they should inform our ministries). However, one has to recognize that bringing forth cultural change in an existing organization is significantly different than creating a new culture from the ground up. When one’s setting has 120 years of baggage (as many of ours do) nothing happens too quickly . . . nor should it. One has to earn respect, develop lines of communication, and learn about the fears and challenges of this place. If it has experienced a lot of wounding along the way, the leader probably needs to be even more careful as the scars of those past hurts bubble to the surface. Part of the primary task of any leader is to read the context in which they are working and adapt their leadership skills to that context.

The power of context cannot be denied. Nye noted that Winston Churchhill was originally seen as a fat blowhard by the British people . . . until Germany attacked France and began to challenge Great Britain. Then all of the sudden he was a great leader. In his case, it wasn’t his leadership style that changed, rather it was the context around him which changed.

This of course brings up the possibility that change agents should hold their guns and expect those that they lead to come around to their way of thinking (changing the context to meet the leader). However, while that may be true in life and death crisis moments, it is the rare person who has that luxury. For the vast majority of us, understanding the context in which we serve (using our contextual intelligence) is a necessity to bringing about change.

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