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Leading Without Agendas

Healthy Leaders

Leading Without Agendas

L. Roger OwensL. Roger Owens

Some years ago, when a church I was serving was hiring, a friend of mine applied for the job.

I knew I could work with her. I knew she would be fantastic. I knew I had to get her hired.

During the search, if church members had peeked in my office, they might have seen me pacing back and forth. They might have supposed I was practicing walking meditation. But my breathing was too shallow, my steps too quick and my expression too serious for that.

No, I was scheming about how to convince a skeptical search committee to go along with my plan.

I was an anxious leader, and not just because my autonomic nervous system is dialed a little above normal. I thought it was my job to make everything turn out “right” ‒ and “right” usually meant the way I wanted things.

In this case, I did get my way. We hired my friend, and she was fantastic.

But I wonder what was lost by my failure to lead transparently. I had spoken to the church leaders about “discerning God’s will together,” but they might well have recognized it as a smoke screen for my own agenda. Did my credibility suffer as a result? I’ll never know.

I now have a few more years of leadership experience. I’ve observed other leaders and immersed myself in the history of Christian spirituality. All of this has convinced me that the job of spiritual leaders ‒ in congregations, but in other faith-based organizations as well ‒ is to create the space for communities to discern and respond to the leadership of God’s Spirit. And that discernment can’t happen when leaders are pushing their own agendas.

Christian spirituality has another name for agendas: attachments. Mystics across the ages ‒ from the desert monastics to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to more recent figures like Thomas Kelly and Thomas Merton ‒ agree: attachments blind us to the movement of God.

What we need, they teach us, is detachment, or what Ignatius of Loyola called “indifference.” It’s an inner freedom that’s not beholden to an outcome ‒ like whom to hire in a job search ‒ before a process of discernment takes place.

Congregations and organizations need this kind of freedom, and so do their leaders if there’s to be any hope of dancing to the choreography of the Spirit.

There’s no recipe for becoming free from these attachment agendas; only God can free us completely. But there are steps we can take to become more aware of the agendas that drive us. When we recognize them, we weaken their control.

First, notice. We can pay attention to our thoughts, feelings and actions. Ask: Do I obsess about an issue? Do I come to a meeting anxious that my desired outcome won’t be approved? Do I avoid certain people, communicating only with folks who agree with me? When we notice these kinds of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it’s a sign an agenda might be at play.

Next, probe. After beginning to suspect the machinations of an agenda, we can do what Ronald Heifetz suggests: get to the balcony. Hit the pause button and find some space to gain perspective on what’s going on. Talk it through with a trusted friend or mentor. Hash it out in a journal. Ask: Why am I feeling and acting this way? What am I afraid of?

Finally, name. When we begin to see what the agenda is, we can make it concrete by naming it. Write it down, tell a friend, or, if we are courageous, tell the group or committee we are working with: “I realize I’ve been anxious because I’m afraid that ______ (my friend won’t get hired, a new ministry will be voted down, etc.). I really want to lead us in a way that opens us to God and doesn’t force my own will.”

If pressing our agendas damages credibility, how much more would this kind of honesty build trust and cooperation, paving the way for others to name the agendas controlling them?

I recently chaired another search committee. Again, a friend of mine applied, and he would have been excellent. After the first review of applications, I was dismayed to find that he wasn’t in any other committee member’s top five. I began to panic.

Then I took my own advice. I noticed what was going on and didn’t need to probe long to see what the agenda was: I was afraid things wouldn’t turn out the way I wanted.

I took a deep breath and said to myself: “It’s not my job to make this turn out right” ‒ that is, to get my way. I said this like a mantra all the way into work the morning of a key meeting.

In the meeting, I honestly spoke my opinion as I led the committee in what I believe was an open, discerning conversation.

By the end, we’d listed many names on the chalkboard, scribbled strengths and weaknesses, enjoyed a sense of trust and collegiality, and unanimously agreed on what the next steps should be. My friend made it to the next round (though we didn’t hire him in the end).

Who would have thought the mystics knew so much about leadership?

This was first published in Faith & Leadership.