NOTE:  At the start of the year, we published a list of nine “core principles” around the notion of Leading Like Jesus. The article got a lot of reader feedback – all positive – so we decided to probe deeper by focusing on each principle individually in subsequent issues of The Catholic Leader. In this issue we focus on Core Principle 8. 

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Jesus compared his relationship to himself and his followers as one of a vine and its branches (John 15:5). St. Paul described the Christian community as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12).

Notice that in both cases Jesus and Paul were talking about groups of people as a living thing. That may not seem important, but in fact it is essential for leaders to appreciate what they are dealing with when they are dealing with organizations.

And by “organizations” I mean any relationship of people -- from as small as two people all the way up to international conglomerates involving tens of thousands of people.

In every case we are talking about an open, living system. We are talking about an organism, not a mechanism.

It matters

Why is that important? It comes down to a key assumption we unconsciously make when we think of an organization – a relationship or a complex interdependent series of relationships – as a mechanism.

Mechanisms generally operate according to one-way flow of information (although newer, more complex machines do adjust to feedback, and that makes them more valuable than their older cousins).

For example, from a mechanistic viewpoint, teaching is pretty much a matter of having a knower transmit information to a learner. It’s roughly equivalent to opening up someone’s head and pouring knowledge into it.

When we think about it that way, we know it doesn’t really work. And when we seriously study teaching and learning – especially adult learning – we come to realize that there are many other, better ways to share and spread knowledge. As a rule, they involve interactive and interdependent experiences.

Key differences

Realizing that points us to two major distinctions in organisms:

  • They need diversity to live; and
  • They need feedback to sustain life.

If I were to ask you which is more important, your heart, your brain or your lungs, you might look at me like a blooming idiot. Yes, you’re right – it’s a dumb question.

All three are important – indeed, absolutely essential – for you to live. To paraphrase St. Paul, if all the parts of your body were hearts, where would your body be? In a grave, no doubt.

Yes, all three of those parts of your body – as well as several other parts – are essential for life. But more than that, none of those parts are any good without the others. By itself, each part is nothing but dead tissue.

Thinking about the necessity of diversity – of dealing with a variety of essential sources – can be difficult for people who are locked into an either/or paradigm of life. We’re all taught very young in life to distinguish between good and bad. But life is not simply a matter of polarities.

We have to recognize the importance of diversity in an organization just as we recognize it in an organism. And more than recognize it, we have to actually seek it out, nurture it and affirm it.

Yes, every social system needs boundaries. Indeed, in times of crisis every good organization has to be able to behave as an autocracy. But the notion that there is only one right way to behave, to accomplish things or to interact with one another is not the way to develop vigorous, highly adaptive and fruitful organizations.

Feedback essential

When EMTs are called to assist a person in distress, the first thing they do is get feedback. If the person can speak, they ask what the problem is – where it hurts, how bad it hurts, what caused or is causing the hurt.

They are not assuming the patient is a medical expert. But nonetheless, the patient has a unique and valuable perspective on the situation.

Whether or not the person can speak, the EMTs go after some more objective feedback: they check the patient’s vital signs to help them better understand the nature and extent of the problem.

None of this feedback dictates exactly what is wrong with the patient, much less how to cure it. But it all helps. The patient’s testimony, appearance and vital signs, in company with the EMTs’ education and experience (earlier feedback) helps guide treatment.

When I visit my doctor, he always begins our appointment by asking, “How are you?” Sometimes I’m tempted to reply, “You’re the doctor, you tell me.”

But, of course, even with all his expertise the doctor can’t know how I’m doing until he knows a lot more about me. It helps to start by asking me for a self-assessment. And it helps even more to refer to the results of some other tests, whether they come from the lab or his own personal examination.

As a highly-educated professional he still needs a whole lot of feedback to assess my condition, diagnose any problems, and then treat them effectively.

So too do leaders need to encourage, obtain and consider a host of feedback from a variety of sources in order to lead effectively.

Remembering that organizations are organisms, not mechanisms, will help you foster both the diversity and feedback needed  to assure  that the affairs of the world – large and small -- go well.


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