Friday, January 16, 2009

The Psychology of Leadership: Character and Not Simply Skills

Over the next few months I have several presentations scheduled; all are variations of the theme of parish leadership.

As part of my preparations for the talks, I've been researching some of the current the psychological research on leadership. Reading through the various studies and theories of leadership has been very helpful for my own thinking on leadership. More importantly, I think the empirical findings of the different studies will be of great help to those with whom I will be speaking.

What I find most helpful in the scientific literature is its potential to ground conversations about the parish life in the everyday world. The tradition of the Orthodox Church is incredibly rich. Unfortunately in many parishes, if we talk about leadership at all, the conversation often turns into a parody of a graduate seminar in patristic theology or church history. As I have said in other posts, our relationship to the tradition takes on an unhealthy aspect when we use its richness as an excuse to avoid the hard, and often painful, work of critical self-examination. While there are any number of reasons to reject the so-called "hermeneutic of suspicion," it has the undisputable value for members the Christian community of reminding us of the unpleasant truth of our own sinfulness and ability to pervert the Gospel to a message of something more to our liking.

One of the articles I just finished is by Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser ("What We Know about Leadership." Review of General Psychology 2005, Vol 9 (2): 169-180). Hogan and Kaiser offer a number of helpful insights about leadership from the perspective of personality theory. One of the points that caught my attention was their observations about the use of "competency models" to explain leadership and to prepare people for a leadership role.

A competency model approach to leadership theory is "designed to identify competencies that [are] specific to a particular job in a particular organization, with no intention of generalizing." (p., 172, emphasis added) A number of things about this struck me as significant.

First, this skills based approach to leadership is the one often used by seminaries—including Orthodox seminaries in the United States. While there is nothing wrong, and indeed there is quite a bit right, with identifying the necessary skills for leadership in general and priestly ministry in particular, it is not without its own glaring weaknesses. Specifically, because this approach tends to focus on the skills necessary for a specific job, it leaves unexamined addressed what I would call a more foundational approach to human formation. As a result of emphasizing the specific over the more general these methods "spread rapidly [but also] quickly became chaotic and idiosyncratic." (p. 172) In the case of seminary education what this means is that no matter how much care is given to identifying the necessary skills for future priests, the specific skills that we focus on becomes more and more ends in themselves. Not only that. Unless balanced by a more foundational approach, the acquisition of specific skills becomes the engine that drives both seminary education and parish ministry. Or, as Mark Twain had it, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Again, what is needed is a more foundational approach to leadership and the formation of both clergy and lay leaders. For Hogan and Kaiser, find this more foundational approach in personality theory. In their own personality theory has two major concerns: "(a) generalizations about human nature (what people are like way down deep) and (b) systematic accounts of individual differences (which differences are important and how they arise)." It is from this perspective that they critically re-appropriate a competency model of leadership with the context of a "domain model." In their own words (with my emphasis):

this model identifies four broad classes of managerial competencies: (a) intra-personal skills (regulating one's emotions and easily accommodating to authority), (b) inter-personal skills (building and maintaining relationships), (c) business skills (planning, budgeting, coordinating, and monitoring business activities), and (d) leadership skills (building and motivating a high-performance team).

They continue by highlighting "three points about this domain model" that they think make it a superior model for understanding leadership (again, with my emphasis):

First, it is developmental: Intrapersonal skills develop first, probably in the preteen years; interpersonal skills develop next, probably during the teenage years; business skills develop when a person enters the work-force; and leadership skills develop last. Second, the model is a hierarchy of increasing trainability, with intrapersonal skills being hard to train and leadership skills being the easiest to train. Third, the model is comprehensive; every existing competency model can be organized in terms of these four domains. (p. 172)

Thinking about parish leadership (and again, whether clergy or lay leaders), this model has is useful. While, for example, there is a great deal to be said for testing potential seminarians for specific psychopathological concerns (for example, schizophrenia) or screening them for issues around habitual unchaste behavior or substance abuse, these matters are (relatively) easy to identify.

The concerns that Hogan and Kaiser raise pertain less to psychopathology and more to those issues of personality or character that are likely undermine "the characteristics people [rightly] look for in their leaders." Based on research in positive psychology, they identify in "order of importance, the four themes" of an effective leader: "integrity, decisiveness, competence, and vision." (p. 173)

These qualities, or more accurately their relative presence or absence in the person, have a direct effect on how well (or poorly) a person in a position in authority is able to contribute to "the success of [an] organization." Success, in their view, is not strictly speaking a matter of financial success, but (and again, more foundationally) also "the well-being of employees or citizens" in the case of a business or country, or (which is more our interest here) parishioners in a parish or the members of a diocese. Whether we are taking a business or a country or a parish however, sound leadership is essential "for individual and group survival." (p. 170)

For Hogan and Kaiser, "leadership primarily concerns building and maintaining effective teams: persuading people to give up, for a while, their selfish pursuits and pursue a common goal." Their central point, however, "is that the personality of a leader affects the performance of a team: Who we are determines how we lead" (my emphasis).

Again it is important to emphasize that none of this is meant to deny the importance of specific skills for leaders; leaders must possess in sufficient measure and diversity the skills need to accomplish the tasks associated with the role in the organization or community. But any social group—secular or religious—is a complex, dynamic reality. A merely skills based approach to leadership is necessarily limited and (as Twain points out) necessarily limiting.

One final point, in approaching leadership from the point of view of personality, Hogan and Kaiser shift the conversation for seminary education and parish leadership away from a concern with overt psychopathology and moral failing and to an approach that sensitizes us to the role that "dysfunctional interpersonal dispositions" (i.e., personality disorders) play in undermining the life of the community. (p. 176)

In my next post on leadership, I will address more fully the importance of focusing on personality rather than overt psychopathology or moral misconduct in discussing failed leadership.

As always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]