Dancing As Fast As I Can

2858268738_e327520356_oToo many congregational leaders are working too hard.  Congregations grow anxious as their available resources tighten.  One predictable response is working harder, longer and faster. Clergy leaders report working seven day work weeks during the program year, with only one or two days off each month.  Is this state of overwork relieving the anxiety in your congregation, or fueling it?

We are leading in an era of institutional decline.  Few congregations are growing, most are stagnant, or in decline.  We are uncomfortable that this is happening on our watch. Determined to prove our worth and value, we work ever harder. If working harder doesn’t reverse the decline, at least people will see that we are not standing idly by.

So many voices are lecturing clergy leaders on the importance of self-care. I won’t jump on that bandwagon. Self-care is important. We all know it, but knowing it hasn’t made any noticeable difference in the cycle of overwork. We also know that overwork leads to less overall effectiveness.  Research proves it, but again, knowing doesn’t seem to impact practice.

Rather than advocating for less work, let’s make a case for shifting the center and energy of our work. Increasing two soulful leadership orientations, “Unknowing” and “Attending”, can decrease our work compulsion and increase our creative capacity. Leaders who adopt these stances see a noticeable shift in how others respond, and they discover deeper wellsprings of creativity and renewal.

Unknowing: Soulful leadership requires letting go of expertise and stepping into not knowing.  This is a frightening shift for the staff or board leader who has been chosen for leadership because of expertise. To admit that you don’t know the best path forward may open you to suspicion, or create doubt about your leadership capabilities, especially in an organization that is anxious about decline. What kind of leader says, “I don’t know” in response to an organizational problem? What kind of leader chooses to call it a day and go home, before a situation is fully rectified or a problem fully solved? A soulful leader does.

Richard Rohr talks about unknowing as an alternative consciousness, a letting go of your mind’s need to solve problems, to fix people, to fix yourself. Letting go of the need to rearrange the moment because it is not to your, or somebody else’s liking.  Unknowing requires personal spiritual centeredness and confidence that there is a larger knowing that is not dependent upon you. It requires the capacity to challenge long established assumptions. It requires the ability to recognize your own blind spots and biases.

So long as you actively cling to your own mastery of information and knowledge, you also cling to the false self, the ego self that is invested in mastering things and looking good, the self that needs to “come out okay” on a particular problem or issue. Honoring the false self leads to the compulsion of overwork.

You can cultivate an unknowing orientation through soulful practices of prayer, confession, and solitude. As you rest in your own unknowing, your sense of wonder will reawaken. You will notice a world beyond your developed pattern of experience. When you embrace wonder you will experience the people you work with, and the challenges that you face, from deeper levels of spiritual perception. Refreshment and creativity will emerge. The compulsion to over-work will naturally fall away.

Attending: Attending is a capacity for deeper seeing and listening.  It is being fully present with others and with problems, beyond merely hearing, analyzing, and remembering what is said.

In the busyness of daily institutional life, most of us see ourselves as the defining center of experience.  Our role, our assumptions, our problems become the definitive perspective that we project onto the larger organization. This makes us indispensable in our minds eye, and feeds the compulsion for overwork.

Soulful leadership requires shifting the collective field of our seeing, moving ourselves into observer mode, rather than central acting mode. Soulful leaders develop a capacity for seeing self as an observer, separate from the observed. They find a perspective of the whole that is not limited by personal experience and assumptions. When this shift in awareness occurs, the boundary between observer and observed collapses. Releasing ourselves from the center of the organization frees us to problem solve more creatively, to draw on resources we didn’t realize were at our disposal.

Ronald Heifetz, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, describes this shift in attention as “moving between the balcony and the dance floor”.  If you stay moving on the dance floor, all you see will be the people dancing with you and around you.  Swept up in the music, it may look like a great party! But when you get on the balcony, you may see things differently.  You may notice that the dancers are out of sync with the music, and that someone is dangerously close to falling down a stairwell on the edge of the dancefloor. You may also notice disengaged partygoers who have something valuable to contribute to the dance.

Moving between the dance floor and the balcony is a helpful metaphor for inviting the attending stance.  It is an iterative activity, an ongoing engagement between you, the people you lead and the institution. It helps you to move from the outside-in (a full-system perspective), and the inside-out (a personal perspective), simultaneously.

To begin, you must make a practice of noticing your own knowing.  This requires stillness.  Stay diagnostic, even as you take action, Develop more than one interpretation of events. Watch for patterns emerging. Reality test your interpretations, particularly when it may be self-serving, debrief with others as you asses information generated by your actions. And then, watch the compulsion to work harder and faster simply fall away.

We don’t have to be held hostage by the anxiety in our congregations. We don’t have to keep working harder, faster and longer to prove our worth as leaders. A more soulful response, cultivating the practices of unknowing and attending, will transform us and the organizations we lead.