Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Persuasive versus Coercive Leadership

Last week, in church leadership class at the seminary, we talked about whether God was a more coercive or persuasive leader. Does God orchestrate everything that happens in the world or is his normal operating mode to try to persuade us to make the right choices?

Have you ever heard the saying, "Don't ask a question you don't want an answer to?" Occasionally there is a calculus you make in leadership whether to use your power to lead a group or organization in a certain direction or to go through the process of building buy-in and consensus to get the group to own the direction you want to go.

Ideally, having everyone on board with a certain trajectory is much to be preferred. But the danger is that, having sought the approval of the group, you don't get it. In that case, moving forward would require even more force than before. If you ask a group what they think of a certain direction, they may say no.

So sometimes leaders use their power to set a change in motion without really asking. Or, they may only give the organization partial information, getting just enough buy-in to keep moving without the group really knowing what its in for until it's too late. Or, they may move a train so far along that it would take more and more force of opposition to stop it by the time it is put in the hands of the group.

There are clearly risks on both sides. If a leader believes a certain decision is very important, yet that it will face significant opposition or resistance, he or she may use the authority of his or her position to move in that direction without seeking the buy-in of the group until the train has already left the station. There are dangers here. It can be the last card a leader plays, an act of self-sacrifice.

A leader who takes this sort of risk better hope that the decision works, because the group will be looking for an opportunity to eat him or her alive.  If the risky manipulation falls on its face, the leader will probably be gone very soon. In a context where the people can boot you, a leader usually cannot play this card too often. Of course some leaders are good at this sort of thing and create a climate of passivity among a group.

So it's much to be preferred to get the buy-in and collaboration of a group--or at least to make the group feel like it's getting a say.  Unless the leader is a genius and absolutely right on everything, it's likely that the group has genuine insight into the consequences of a decision. Yes, there will almost always be nay-sayers. But the nay-sayers are probably right on some things. You want some of them around to point out the down side... you just don't want a majority of them around.

There is sometimes a hubris to leadership. I know the right decision for us to make. I'm the leader. Sometimes that's true. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the time it's false!

We could multiply examples. There's the health care law.  There's leadership of the House. There are many a general church decision. Pastors often have new directions in which they want their churches to go. No doubt you can think of an example in your context.


Susan Moore said...

I am curious if there have been found to be gender differences in church leadership.
It seems there may be some major differences.

Martin LaBar said...

Perhaps there are gender differences.

Interesting, and concise, analysis.