I never expected to be writing a post in Informal Coalitions based on the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But yesterday morning I caught a snippet from Justin Welby’s first Easter sermon, as this was being reported upon during an early-morning radio programme.
It was the following extract that particularly caught my attention:
"I wonder how many people here think that the future will be better than the past, and all problems can be solved if we put our minds to it. There is a general sense that if that is not the case then it ought to be, and someone must be doing something to stop it. Illusion is replaced by disappointment, both wrong.
The hero leader culture has the same faults. A political party gets a new leader and three months later there is comment about disappointment. An economy suffers the worst blow in generations with a debt crisis and economic downturn, and the fact that not everything is perfect within five years is seen as total failure. Complexity and humanity are ignored and we end up unreasonably disappointed with every institution, group and policy, from politicians to NHS, education to environment [my emphasis]."
It struck me that these words of the new head of the Anglican Church provide a much needed ‘reality check’ on the widely held assumptions about how things happen in organizations and wider society. Assumptions, for example, that there is a ‘right answer’ to all of the problems that we face; that ‘doing things better and getting them right’ is all that’s needed to realize the desired future; and, most pervasive, that our fate hinges on the actions of a few ‘special’ individuals.
"… pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve."
"Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty."
As Archbishop of Canterbury, of course, his response to these challenges is couched in the language and creed of Christianity - highlighting the centrality of his belief in God as man’s salvation. Irrespective of one’s spiritual or religious beliefs, though, his observations about the complex social reality of everyday human interaction seriously question the dominant view on the dynamics of organizations and the capacity of those who are cast in the mantle of leaders.
Towards the end of his sermon, he quotes a section from a poem by the Welsh poet and preacher Ronald Stuart Thomas which includes the lines:
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
The Archbishop translates the hoped-for "reciprocating touch" as being provided by the omnipresence of God. Whatever our faith might be, though, it seems to me that our godliness and/or humanity can only be realized (or not) through the ways in which we interact with other human beings as we seek to go on together - for better or for worse - in the course of our day-to-day living. As such, I see this "reciprocating touch" as being provided through the everyday conversations and interactions that we each seek out and happen upon with other people. It is through these reciprocal exchanges that 'the world' – ours and everybody else’s – is brought into being and sustained or changed.
It’s because we each participate in this process with our 'own' (socially constructed) beliefs and intentions in mind, and within diverse patterns of responding that have become habitual over time, that the potential exists for both ordinary and extraordinary outcomes to arise. No individual is in control of what emerges. Nor, most definitely, is the imaginary "system" to which we all too readily defer. Instead, it is though our ongoing interactions that we both enable and constrain each other - "severally and corporately" in the words of my old school prayer. And it is through this mutual enabling and constraining that the presumed 'success' or 'failure' of those deemed to be in control is also made manifest.
Unfortunately, the currently dominant view of organizational dynamics remains firmly rooted in assumptions of rationality, predictability and control. More often than not, this leads to unwarranted praise and undeserved vilification - often in equal measure - for those who find themselves in high profile leadership positions. Justin Welby's words lay bare the fallacy of these unrealistic expectations. And they highlight the need for a radical shift in perspective to one which more faithfully reflects the reality of human life - in all of its complexity and humanity.