Real leaders don't need a flow chart

  • October 2, 2007
{mosimage}The best leaders in today's organizations, whether in business, charity, or religion, are not the aggressive, take-charge dynamos who run over their opponents with fierce determination. Instead, they need to be people who take time to reflect and nurture others.

So says Dr. Margaret Wheatley, an American management consultant, author and co-founder of the Berkana Institute, which promotes a vision of leadership that is at direct odds with that fostered by the modern corporate culture.

Wheatley was in Toronto Sept. 26-28 to lead a reflection on this subject with more than 300 people attending the annual Catholic Health Association of Ontario convention. While hosted by the CHAO, the conference also joined other Catholic organizations — Catholic Charities of the archdiocese of Toronto, the Catholic Principals' Council of Ontario, the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers' Association and the University of St. Michael's College — to bring together leaders from across the Catholic spectrum of education, health and social agencies.

Wheatley addressed the theme of the conference, “Leadership for an Uncertain Time,” by exploring the many ways modern society works against effective leadership. Among those challenges:

“We have forgotten the power of community. We are living in a culture that has gone crazy about the individual.”

People look on each other not as individual persons, but as stereotypes, defined by the things they buy, wear and pay attention to.

Most of today's executives still think in strictly hierarchical structures that fail to recognize that most organizations run on a wide array of relationships that cross institutional boundaries.

Speed has become the single most important measure of effectiveness. “We expect ourselves to go as fast as machines,” she said. “In the United States this year, 40 per cent of Americans did not take a vacation. Of those who did, 35 per cent took their computers with them.”

We use fear to motivate workers and aggression to solve conflicts.

“We have a continuing assumption that human beings are untrustworthy.”

Such attitudes foster high levels of stress in the workplace and at home, leading to family problems and a disengagement from work. “We show up but we don't offer anything,” she said.

Wheatley pushed her listeners to become leaders who recognize that real life doesn't operate as described in corporate flow charts. She urged them to insist on taking time to reflect and treat people humanely.

Wheatley also said leadership is not always defined by work titles or specialized degrees. “A leader is anyone willing to help,” she said.

She outlined three principles to govern the workplace, in no order of priority: take care of yourself; take care of each other; take care of this place.

On Sept. 28, the group heard from Fr. Ron Mercier, a Jesuit moral theologian and professor at Regis College in Toronto. Mercier outlined societal changes that have led to a modern sense of confusion and alienation from society.

He pointed out how the abandonment of traditional religions has left people missing an overall understanding of how the world works and why they exist in it. Neither do they have an ability to see beyond the immediate to a greater future. And an increasing emphasis on individual autonomy has left people without a sense of commitment and belonging to a community.

While the impact of these shifts is not completely negative, it has created serious challenges for leaders trying to maintain traditional Christian ways of carrying out their own roles and that of their organizations.

Mercier reminded his listeners that Pope John Paul II talked about Christians being “shepherds of culture,” and he argued that “leadership has to be distinctly personal” and focus on mentoring and creating a culture that features “patterns of caring” instead of simply methods of care.

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