No leaders, please. We're sensitive Seattleites

We gain value from pluralism. But how do we also move forward, behind leaders playing their proper roles? The alternative is the kids' soccer phenomenon of bunch-ball.
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We gain value from pluralism. But how do we also move forward, behind leaders playing their proper roles? The alternative is the kids' soccer phenomenon of bunch-ball.

"It's amazing how a very small, vocal minority can take control of the process." The rueful speaker was Richard Nordstrom (not a member of the Nordstrom stores family). Nordstrom serves as president of the Belltown Community Council. He describes his work as "herding cats."

It is the leader's lament, perhaps particularly in process-heavy, nice-to-a-fault (at least on the surface) Seattle.

In too many organizations, religious congregations and civic groups, one unhappy person or small group manages to hold the entire organization hostage. How does this happen? What are the costs when it does happen? What'ꀙs to be done?

John Gardner, onetime secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and founder of Common Cause, made the observation that, "The war of the parts against the whole is the central problem of pluralism." Over the last half century, ours has become a much more self-consciously pluralistic society, one in which people tend to identify with one part or segment rather than the whole.

People understand and identify themselves along lines of generation or occupation, politics or a particular life experience, race or gender, ethnicity or religion, neighborhood or any number of other particular characteristics that distinguish them from others and in the whole. A capacity to identify with a larger whole or community is often very limited. "Thus," observes Gardner, "our capacity to frustrate one another through noncooperation has increased dramatically. The part can hold the whole system up for ransom."

We really are enriched by the diversity. But diversity that is not held in healthy tension with unity becomes destructive not only to the common good but to the parts themselves. People devolve into thinking of themselves (seemingly no matter how well off or relatively secure) as aggrieved. Of course this is not entirely new. Mark Twain remarked, "There isn't a parallel of latitude but thinks it would have been the equator if it had its rights."

Another part of this story of dysfunction is the way aggrieved people and groups wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood. This arouses a compassionate response. Sometimes people are victims and compassion is the right response; but not always. Sometimes it'ꀙs a pseudo-compassion, which masks a lack of courage. Courage says, forthrightly, "I'm sorry; you don't get to be the equator today."

A friend observes, "In the name of compassion to one, we are often cruel or unkind to many." When groups and their leaders turn themselves inside out to placate one particular person or faction, we end up, often unwittingly, being cruel to many. Meeting after meeting is held to hear the concerns of the unhappy person or small group. Vast amounts of time and energy are expended. Other work and decisions are put off. So focused do we become on 'ꀜthe very small, vocal minority,'ꀝ that we are blind to consequences to the whole. Among those are that some of the best, most capable, and most mature people leave. They simply have better ways to spend their time. Meanwhile, pressing issues go unaddressed.

Another consequence of compassion misplaced or run amok is that those in leadership positions are often frustrated to the point of resignation (literal or figurative). A group that will do most anything to keep the squeaky wheel oiled is a group that has made the squeaky wheel its de-facto leader. Realizing that this is the case, actual or authorized leaders will often say, 'ꀜThanks, but no thanks.'ꀝ Hence, a society that prizes the part at the expense of the whole, and privileges those who 'ꀜhave an issue,'ꀝ is toxic for leaders.

Soon you have, as we do today, a leadership crisis.

What'ꀙs to be done? There are no easy answers, but in my own work as a leader, as a coach to those in leadership positions and consultant to organizations, there are several strategies I employ.

I encourage organizations to exercise good governance and avoid bunch-ball. Bunch-ball (think of 6-year-olds playing soccer, all running to the ball, which goes nowhere) is the idea that everyone gets to be in on every decision. Not really. Better, on the soccer field and in life, to play your position. Whatever the organization, there are ways we have agreed to govern ourselves, bodies that have been elected or authorized to make decisions, and different positions we each play. Play by those rules. If necessary, change them; but be very reluctant to ignore them in the name of such trump cards as 'ꀜconsensus,'ꀝ 'ꀜcompassion,'ꀝ or 'ꀜcommunity.'ꀝ

I also encourage organizations to put their mission ("purpose" or "vision" are other words for it) ahead of any one person or part of the whole. In other words, 'ꀜWhat is our common purpose or mission and how can we make progress on that?'ꀝ are the questions that groups, institutions and congregations need to keep front and center. Sometimes I say to religious congregations, 'ꀜYour mission (purpose) is more important than any one person or family. You may need to let people go in order to stay focused on and faithful to your core mission or purpose.'ꀝ

Third, I suggest that we value leadership and do a better job of supporting those we have called or elected to the tasks of leadership. We are very mindful today, as we should be, of the high cost of leaders who abuse power and betray trust. Because this awareness is acute, all leaders are under constant, heavy scrutiny. We are seldom equally aware of the high cost of the absence of effective leadership or the cost of undermining capable leaders. This, too, is very costly.

To be sure, listen to the small, vocal minority, but don'ꀙt let them be in charge. It'ꀙs not good for the larger group and not even good for the noisy individual or faction.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.