Work too important to delegate — the leader as culture manager

Work too important to delegate — the leader as culture manager May 18, 2016

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Managing the culture of an institution is a leader’s work, says a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He offers three suggestions to cultivate a healthy culture. This post is reprinted from Faith and Leadership.

I was sitting in the most beautiful office I’d seen on the seminary’s campus. It was the last I would visit during my two-day interview for a teaching position.

As we sipped freshly brewed coffee, the president posed the only question in the entire process that surprised me. He wanted to know whether I would fit the culture of the place.

“Here,” he said, “we shoot for no secrets, no surprises, no subversion and lots of support.”

He taught preaching; of course he had to alliterate. “Are you willing to live that?”

The content of the question didn’t surprise me; by then I was familiar with the specifics of the culture he was describing.

What surprised me was that the president of the institution would even have this conversation with a potential hire. Wasn’t this a manager’s job, not a leader’s?

As a pastor hoping to teach leadership, I’d thought a lot about what a leader’s role is. Several years earlier, I’d been influenced by John Kotter’s classic article “What Leaders Really Do.”

The main point? Leaders and managers do different things. Leaders watch the future; managers attend to the day-to-day.

My wife and I had practiced Kotter’s theory in the church we co-pastored. By virtue of our particular gifts — and my particular allergy to administration, spreadsheets and numbers — my wife, Ginger, became the manager-in-chief. She supervised the staff, met with administrative committees and managed the budget.

I was the leader, and I tried my best to do what Kotter advocated: cast a vision, communicate the vision and inspire people to act on the vision.

Yet here I was on a job interview having coffee in the office of someone I hoped would become my leader, and it seemed to me he was dabbling in the work of management, messing around in the business of the day-to-day.

I now realize I was wrong. He was not at that moment managing the day-to-day — administering a budget or performing a staff review. Other people had those jobs. He was managing the culture.

I have come to appreciate that there is one management task the best leaders won’t ignore: shaping the culture an institution seeks to embody.

This is something my co-pastor wife had tried to teach me once.

In order to have healthy conflict and function effectively as a team, our staff had decided to adopt a staff covenant, which I’ve written about before.

Ginger led our staff meetings. At the beginning of each meeting, we reviewed a portion of the covenant, seeking to hold ourselves accountable. One day I got impatient with the conversation and said something circumspect and subtle like, “Can’t we get on with things?”

After the meeting, Ginger pulled me aside (our covenant said we should have these conversations one-on-one) before I could scurry back to the “real work” of leadership. “You might consider yourself the leader,” she said, “but managing the culture isn’t just my job. You’ve got to do it, too.”

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when the seminary president tried to do what I had failed to do in that meeting — take a leadership role in upholding the culture.

As an academic (I got the job), I don’t lead an institution anymore, but I work in one every day. I watch leaders, and I read about them. And I’ve come to believe that there are three things leaders can do to help manage a culture.

First, leaders can create the space for a community to articulate the culture it strives for, how it wants to be and work together. Peter Block calls this work “leadership as convening,” and it’s an undervalued leadership opportunity. Leaders can summon people, creating the space to make progress on defining the institution’s culture.

Second, leaders can hold people accountable to that culture, and allow themselves to be held accountable. My wife held me accountable, and at the next staff meeting, I was obliged to tell them — I hope I did — about our conversation, apologizing for not taking seriously the work of our covenant.

Third, leaders can point out when the values and practices of a culture are being embodied well. Even if leadership scholar Barbara Kellerman is right that leadership is facing a crisis, people do still listen to their leaders, read what they write and take cues from them. Leaders are in the best position to reinforce a culture by highlighting when it’s lived well.

There is work that leaders shouldn’t do. When leaders get mired in management, attention to the future gets sidelined. But managing the culture is not the work of department chairs, division heads, supervisors and human resource specialists. It’s the leader’s work, work too important to delegate.

L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Owens and his wife, Ginger Thomas, previously served as co-pastors at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. He received his Ph.D. in theology from Duke University where he was awarded a Lilly Fellowship for the Formation of a Learned Clergy. Before that he completed his M.Div. at Duke Divinity School.

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