Harvest the Power!

“Life is one big road with lots of signs,
So when you riding through the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind:
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy!
Don’t bury your thoughts; put your vision to reality, yeah!”

— Bob Marley

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more apt word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, sharing power with rather than holding power over other people, and companioning them in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer in response was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, and I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership styles are suitable in UU congregations.  For one thing, by tradition and by character we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a UU who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

From the historical Unitarian emphasis on freedom, reason and tolerance to today’s Unitarian Universalist principles of “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”, it’s hard to imagine any UU congregation thriving under leadership — ministerial, staff or lay — that is overly directive, much less authoritarian or dictatorial!  Indeed, a leadership style that is consultative and cooperative is very much desired, found in someone who, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Now it’s a rare person who can, in today’s world, dance with those challenges and burdens without some sort of training in, as it were, balance and posture.  Even in 1936, a report of the Commission of Appraisal to the American Unitarian Association lamented the AUA’s condition at that time as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius.  Leadership doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.  It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”  To this end, we now recognize the importance of leadership development, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

Beginning last year, one of the goals of my congregation’s Policy Board has been to “begin a process for leadership development and succession” and, in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, we offered the UUA’s adult program, “Harvest the Power: Developing Lay Leadership”.  Whether you’re new to Unitarian Universalism or are an old hand, whether you’ve served as a lay leader or a committee chair or are just curious about what’s involved, everyone is invited to join this dance of growth, leadership and vision.  As one of our hymns in Singing the Living Tradition reminds us, “Learn to follow, learn to lead, feel the rhythm, fill the need to reap the harvest, plant the seed.  Let it be a dance.”


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