Collective Genius

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Much conventional wisdom about leadership has assumed a sole visionary providing primary leadership for a group. The temptation, likewise, is to think that the answer for our congregation is a single innovative leader. The right pastoral leader is surely important, but we are long beyond the ability of any single individual to solve today’s challenges. One leader, even one with a compelling vision, is insufficient for spirit-led innovative leadership. The innovative leader must create a community of innovation by developing both an atmosphere and the people capable of functioning in a more complex and chaotic environment. The church has faced such times in its history but not in our lifetimes. No one person can lead this expedition into uncharted lands.A single leader still plays an important role in our congregations, but today it is not so much the more linear “casting a vision.” It now is a role of serving as a spiritual inquirer and discerner who elicits from a range of sources clues for God’s next faithful step. One person’s wisdom is not sufficient, but neither is the more political process of gathering up a group’s preferences and calling it a vision. A leader can create a context in which many ideas emerge, most not fully formed, and from which experiments and trials come. Some of these efforts will turn out to be well-intentioned failures, but, without judgment, another try emerges that may be so blessed by God’s spirit that everyone will know it has promise for the future.

One leader, even one with a compelling vision, is insufficient for spirit-led innovative leadership. The innovative leader must create a community of innovation by developing both an atmosphere and the people capable of functioning in a more complex and chaotic environment.

God, indeed, put all the separate parts into the body on purpose, but we can easily forget that truth. We spend inordinate time longing for the leader who will make things, if not right, at least better. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 12 of the inappropriateness of such thinking.

About a decade ago, Linda Hill and other researchers set out to study innovative organizations from a range of fields and nations. Their goal was to understand the role of the primary leader in creating innovative organizations. They discovered in each organization studied that their leaders had moved away from the more traditional roles of direction setting and undertaken the new role of creating a culture in which innovation thrives. They call this “collective genius.”

Traditional leadership seems to still work when the problems are clear cut and the solutions are, even if difficult, at least known. But these are not usual times for congregations and their leaders. The challenges are not always apparent, and few speak with assurance about solutions. They found that innovative leaders no longer could afford to surround themselves with “their” people who instinctively supported the leader’s ideas. Rather, these new leaders had to ensure that diverse people with a range of interests, personalities, and gifts were included. This is where pastoral leaders in particular become anxious. Differences and conflict are inevitable when you seek diversity in the makeup of those involved. But it is out of creative tension that innovation is born.

There must always be a bias for action, usually a great deal of trial and error. Helping everyone become comfortable with acting their way forward rather than planning their way forward is a new role for leaders. This involves a greater willingness to take risks than most churches now possess.

But there is one lesson Hill and her colleagues learned concerning where this new leader must continue the best of traditional leadership. While experiments and risks are required for innovation,all those involved must be clear that they are pursuing a common purpose and shared values. Unless leaders make sure that purpose and values stay true and at the forefront of everything, then the result will more likely be chaos than innovation.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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