Those who have been reading my recent articles on change know that I recently read Fr. James Mallon’s new book, Divine Renovation Beyond the Parish (Frederick, MD: The Word Among Us Press. 2020). Today, I would like to use some thoughts from his book to reflect on leadership.
Being a good leader is not always easy but it is important. I believe God has placed people with the necessary gifts in every parish for parishes to fulfill what God asks of them. Fr. James Mallon writes, “Leadership is the gift and discipline that, if done well, unleashes all other gifts” (140). We need good leaders to draw out the gifts already present within our parishes.
Fr. Mallon speaks both of leaders who are “bottle-neckers” and “bottle openers.” Bottle-neckers are those who “work from a command-and-control model” (141). They “centralize everything around themselves, micromanage others, and control information flow and decision-making” (141). I hope I am not a bottle-necker but sometimes I wonder how I come across. I do not want to centralize everything around me. I don’t want the attention. I want God to be at the center. I do not want to micromanage. However, I do like to know what is going on and I worry about that leading to the perception that I micromanage. I want to know what it going on so that I can do everything I can to help. I value communicate, not to control, but to help each other. What is needed is balance.
I would like to be a bottle-opener. Fr. James Mallon’s writes, “Bottle-opening leaders, in contrast, raise up other leaders, affirm their gifts, and invest in others by giving of their time, experience, and support. The goal is that others might bear even more fruit” (141). I definitely try to invest in others as I try to help others do their jobs well. I hope that the way in which I do this doesn’t seem like I am trying to control everything. As Fr. James Mallon writes, “While there is certainly a time for leaders to step in and correct the decisions of team members, leaders who empower others recognize that simply because somebody approaches a problem or strategic goal differently than you, it does not mean their approach is wrong” (158). There are ways certain things must be done. For example, in our Catholic Church, we have prescribed rituals for the way we celebrate Sacraments. It is not for us to reinvent the Sacraments but perhaps there are ways to help people better understand and appreciate what we do.
Fr. Mallon presents two types of leadership (143). The first is positional (meaning authority that comes with an assigned position). The priest in charge of a parish has this type of leadership. There are times when a leader must make decisions using their positional leadership. However, we should seek to lead in a way that builds trust. Here, Fr. Mallon speaks of “character leadership”. “Authentic leadership forges relationship, fosters loyal, and inspires people to action” (143). “Character leadership is trust based rather than fear based” (145).
The scribes in Jesus’ days on earth had positional authority. However, Mark 1:22 would suggest they did not demonstrate character leadership. Jesus has positional leadership as the Son of God. Yet the people saw something more in him, “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).
Leaders need to be leading us towards something. It is not enough to have an agenda for today if there is no vision for tomorrow (Fr. Mallon, 150, cf. my article “Hopes and Dreams”). Are we not more willing to follow a leader when we have some idea where they are going?
Management alone focuses on maintaining what we have now. “Authentic leadership mobilizes people” (Fr. Mallon, 171) for mission (cf. my article “Maintenance & Mission”). In developing a mission for the future, I believe leaders need to consult the people who know the parish. A good leader seeks input from those who work for them (see Fr. Mallon, 152).
Good leadership requires listening. How else can one have the necessary input? Here Fr. Mallon writes, “Patrick Lencioni talks about a “good” meeting consisting of one-third advocacy and two-thirds inquiry. Advocacy is about advancing your ideas and arguing for them in discussion with other team members” (181, italics my emphasis) while “Inquiry, on the other hand, is about shutting up and listening…Using inquiry, we ask questions of the person, to clarify her position, rather than attack her argument” (182). Honestly, the specific one-third advocacy/two-thirds inquiry is new to me so I have to think about the ratio some. What I do know is that when I come out of a meeting and feel like I have done all the talking, I wonder if I have accomplished anything. Was I just dictating what I wanted or was I genuinely seeking input?
Did I even give people a chance to offer their perspective? It’s not just one meeting I am concerned with. Perhaps there are some meetings where the leader needs to focus on making something clear. On the other hand, if people do not try to offer their perspective, the problem may not be in that one particular meeting. Perhaps the leader has built an environment where people do not feel their perspective is not welcome so they don’t even try. I hope I don’t do that (see Fr. Mallon, 232).
Am I the perfect leader? I could only wish. I pray that I am the leader that God wants me to be. Ultimately, it is God’s Will that I seek. Sometimes, God will tell us what his will is through others. We need to listen.
Please pray that I become a good leader. Pray for all who lead to follow the Father’s Will.