A new kind of leadership now required


RITE AND REASON:A leadership of service should replace the system of top-down control in institutions, writes HARRY BOHAN

ONE OF the most critical tasks facing us as a society in the 21st century must surely be the redefinition of leadership – at all levels and in all spheres of life. The 20th century was very much the era of the institution. Our lives were shaped by institutions – whether financial (banks), spiritual (church), corporate (big business) or political (parties).

Problems arose when those institutions that were central to our lives became ends in themselves and lost the notion of service upon which they had been founded. Trust has been broken in many instances and broken trust is not easily mended. Many institutions will have to return to first principles and ask themselves some basic questions. What are banks for? What is the church for? Is politics about parties or people? How can business and community connect?

It is evident that to overcome the understandable cynicism, frustration and anger that broken trust and poor leadership have generated, a new kind of leadership is called for – a leadership of service. Ministers, whether they be of church or state, would do well to remember that to minister is to serve.

In the old order, leadership was a top-down, command and control model. Managers, be they religious or secular, did the thinking and told us what had to be done.

When the bishop or business leader spoke, those in the pews and on the factory floor generally acquiesced. Doing what was expected and loyalty to the system were prized values in such organisations.

An education system which promoted conformity, even uniformity, helped entrench those organisations. This model eventually produced an unhealthy environment which in turn led to unhealthy behaviour.

Let’s take a few examples. Banks became strong because they control the money of ordinary people, but these same banks are far removed from the concept of the ‘‘people’s bank’’, which is about reinvesting money close to where it is deposited.

In recent years, the discretion of the local bank manager has been lost. Local leadership and staff became cogs in a bureaucratic machine whose only motive was profit. The word greed is associated with the banking crisis. Certainly the top-down model of leadership has contributed enormously to this crisis.

We are also paying a price for top-down, command and control leadership in the church. The evidence of the child abuse scandals exposes the church as a classic example of an organisational culture with a rigid top-down hierarchical leadership structure, where self-protection is entrenched, where the primary value is loyalty to the institution, and where those who challenge the prevailing culture of secrecy and cover-up, those who asked questions are marginalised and silenced.

What is shocking in the recent Fás revelations about spending at leadership level is the utter disconnect between top and bottom. The remoteness of the extravagant spending at leadership and senior management level from the reality of the people who participate in Fás training and community employment programmes, many of them in disadvantaged communities, is an example of this.

These three examples highlight a culture of disconnect between top and bottom, a culture which sees the protection of the institution as the primary value, a culture which silences dissent, criticism or indeed innovation and change. Top-down command and control models of leadership are held in place by a culture of dependency, somewhat akin to a parent-child relationship.

A dependency culture promotes a sense of deference to authority. It highlights the status difference between superior and subordinate. It promotes an internal authority model where subordinates disempower themselves and fear to take initiatives to make decisions. Nor are they encouraged to do so.

Such leadership tends to suppress creativity and block initiative. People learn to look to the top for leadership while suppressing their own spontaneity in generating ideas and solutions and no longer question decisions using their own value system and ethical principles.

Of course, people also colluded with the dependency system. Active participation and involvement requires responsibility. Going along with the prevailing culture exonerates people from taking responsibility. Some 50 years ago in his encyclical Populorum Progressio Pope Paul VI spoke of the fundamental human right of everyone to participate in the decisions which affect their lives.

What a difference it would make if we could adopt this as a guiding principle. It would help us shape models of leadership where working in partnership and building structures that encourage people to think for themselves were the norm.

It would encourage the generation of solutions from the bottom up and unleash people’s potential and energy.

Clearly, we require a radical change of thinking about leadership. Albert Einstein said that “no problem can be solved from the same level of thinking that created it.”

For over 12 years now, Céifin, the Centre for Values-led Change, has been posing questions to analyse and understand the extraordinary changes that have overtaken Irish society in the 21st century. The 12th Céifin conference, entitled ‘‘Who is in Charge?’’ takes place in Ennis on November 3rd and 4th.

It will address pivotal questions about leadership in a renewed Ireland. It will interrogate the kind of leadership which has brought us to where we are so that we can learn from it and move towards a different future. What model of leadership will help us rebuild trust and accountability? What vision will re-establish community and ensure participation in a new Ireland?

Leadership is one of the key issues of our time.

Fr Harry Bohan is founder of the Céifin Centre at Ennis and parish priest at Sixmilebridge in Co Clare. Further details of the Céifin conference at www.ceifin.com