Leadership or Incumbency?

      The news account was straightforward enough: "The Fathers of Holy Joy announced yesterday that their chapter had elected Father Henry Thornton as provincial. The new leader had been the director of formation for the mid-Atlantic province of the congregation. . . ."


      What’s wrong with this picture? Certainly nothing about the Fathers of Holy Joy. They are known for their commitment to a charism that is sorely needed and deeply appreciated by those they serve in the contemporary church. And nobody could quibble with the choice of good Father Henry --- a man of solid virtue and vision, with a good record of administrative achievement, and jolly to the core.

      Nor should we be distracted by the fact that the Fathers of Holy Joy are a body of male clerics who are tooting their own horn and claiming valuable space in the local diocesan newspaper. The account could just as easily have been about the choice of Sister Eileen Thornton as provincial superior of the Sisters of Holy Joy. What’s wrong with the article is not a male thing, much less a clerical thing.

      In the culture of the Holy Joy group, the chapter body rather than the membership selects the provincial --- but surely there can be nothing wrong with that. Some religious communities do indeed elect by universal suffrage: one member, one vote. In other groups, the chapter proposes a terna of nominees, and the supreme moderator selects from among them; in still others, there is direct appointment of the provincial, with no voting at all. These are matters of the heritage and culture of the particular community; each system has its strengths and drawbacks. Each method is recognized as valid for that group (and, if the truth be known, the track record for each, as measured by the numbers of stars or clinkers actually selected, varies little). As that wise man Mahatma Gandhi cautioned years ago, structure by itself produces neither character nor quality.

      Finally, the problem with the report about Father Thornton has no intrinsic connection to religious life — or even to the church, for that matter. Father Thornton became provincial; the story might just as well have been about his brother Tom Thornton, a layman, being named chief executive officer of the Acme Wire Corporation.

      No, the bug in the (holy) oil is something much less obtrusive: the use of the word leader. Father Thornton’s election did indeed make him provincial. But did it make him the province’s leader? In a word, no.


      The wording in the newspaper article is quite common in such accounts. In fact, it is so widely accepted that we easily miss the point that such usage masks a serious confusion. The article declares that with his election, Father Thornton is the leader of the

province --- whereas experience tells us that he might become their leader, provided that some other things happen. This disconnect can lead us to put the issue in the form of a paradoxical question: When is a "leader" not a leader?

      The clue to resolution of the paradox is that a single word is often used to point to two quite different realities. The first reality is that someone, whether by election or by appointment, has become provincial (or chief executive officer, or director, or headmaster, or whatever). The person has assumed a position or taken office. To begin to clean up the confusion, we will remove the word leader from this reality and refer to the individual as the incumbent.

      The first thing to note about incumbency is that it admits of no gradation or change; you either do have the position or hold the office, or you don't. And once you do, you do until you don't; you're in until you're out.

      Incumbency is a static concept. The underlying image, remember, is actually that of someone lying prone. As an incumbent, you hold an office or a position. That delightfully crusty character Richard Cardinal Cushing captured the notion perfectly. At age 75 he had turned in his resignation, as required by church law, and was awaiting the appointment of a successor. Someone told him that Father So-and-So had his eye on the seat, whereupon Gushing growled, "He may have his eye on it, but I've got me ass on it."

      The second reality is leadership, and that is quite another matter. Leadership, by contrast to incumbency, is essentially dynamic. You are a leader only when there is leading going on, when others are following. That's why it is possible to say that Father Thornton is the provincial and to say simultaneously that he might become the leader. He is the incumbent, but whether he becomes the leader depends on others' acceptance of his leadership. This difference is the reality behind the political pundits' assessments of our president's current political reality: Mr. Clinton might salvage his position as president, but whether he can still lead depends on who will listen to him. His position may or may not be in jeopardy, but even if it is not, his potential to lead may be damaged, if not reduced to nil.

      So incumbency, the holding of an office or position, is inert --- a given. It is a reality that prevails regardless of any actions taken either by the incumbent or by those affected by the office or position. The presence or absence of leadership, on the other hand, depends on actions taken by both the leader and those who are, for the moment, following.

      Now that we have pulled apart the link that is frequently assumed between incumbency and leadership, it is not hard to discover that four distinct possible permutations have surfaced. There can be incumbents who are not leaders; incumbents who are also leaders; leaders who are not incumbents but rather ordinary members; and members who neither are incumbents nor exert any leadership or active influence on the life of the group. With these possibilities outlined, let us explore the dynamic reality we call leadership. Our primary concern will be leadership as it relates to office holders; the same principles apply, however, to ordinary members as potential leaders within the group.


      If leadership is dynamic, it is also essentially relational. You can't lead if you are all alone. Some incumbents never seem to learn this elemental fact. They stand in splendid isolation, proclaiming their leadership by issuing lofty manifestos, while their members are off on another planet --- performing quite well, thank you.

      Which raises the next question: if the leader (or leadership body, taken as a unit) is one partner to the relationship, who is the other? From the way some incumbents carry out their office, it is clear that in their eyes, the other party is all the members of the group, one by one. They see themselves as being responsible to care for the individual members of the community as individuals, prescinding from their relationship to the community as a whole. That is indeed one possible focus of attention for an office holder, and its exercise calls for many wonderful human gifts: sensitivity, caring, empathy, and supportive confrontation, to name but a few.

      But there is another reality that somebody in the gathered body --- if not the incumbent, then someone else --- must attend to: the development and health of the group as such. That is a reality of a different order, concerned with things like corporate identity, vision, mission, strategy, policy, and structuring. Such things are not attended to when the office holder’s energies are employed in dealing with individuals in isolation. To put the matter baldly: It is possible to have a 100-person collective in which each individual, as a result of care on the part of incumbents, is reasonably content, while the enterprise as a whole is treading water on its way to the falls.

      Once again, it won't do to have the same word designating these two realities. They are two different uses of human energies, and to avoid confusion we need separate terms for each.

      At Management Design Institute, where I have hung my hat for a long time, we have always taught that the term that describes attention to the group as a whole rather than to the separate individuals within it is leadership. So what term shall we use for the attention an incumbent gives to the individual members, if that is not to be called leadership?

      At some risk, I would propose that we call that kind of engagement simply ministry. In its behavioral manifestation it is the same thing, after all, that any ordinary member might show to another individual member: listening, affirming, supporting, reflecting back, alleviating pain, celebrating growth, challenging to authenticity.

      I once knew a man who was a superb minister in his role as pastor of a parish: caring for all the wounded in the community, sensitive and empathetic. He never missed visiting a parishioner in the hospital or someone grieving a loss, and he was able to join in people’s joys and celebrations just as well. When he became a bishop and had the responsibility for a diocese, he wanted to continue in that same fashion, the only difference being that now he had thousands more to attend to --- individual by individual. It took some time for his staff to bring home to him that he had to let others do the one-on-one stuff and focus his energies on the fabric of the local church as a whole.


      The usage I am proposing might help us unravel another semantic tangle that has become prevalent in the post-conciliar years. It surfaces in the expression "ministry of leadership."

      When we remind ourselves that this terminology was unheard of until after Vatican II, the sentiments that gave rise to the expression become clear enough. They were quite laudable. We wanted to move away from previous models of (non-leading) office-holding that were often simply autocratic and oppressive. We needed language that would put a human, Christlike face on things like offices and the authority that comes with them. What could have been a better union than the marriage of that most Christian term for service, ministry, with that expression of optimistic American can-do-ism, leadership? The effort was praiseworthy --- but it is not so clear that it has served us very well.

      The first difficulty with the expression "ministry of leadership" is that, because of its positive affective resonances, it is easily equated with an attitude on the part of the incumbent. Much of the literature on leadership as service focuses on the set of qualities the office holder needs to exemplify --- including modesty, gentleness, empathy for those hurting, willingness to be vulnerable, and ability to admit mistakes. The accent on the personal qualities of the incumbent and of the persons he or she serves can be so strong that things like organizational attention and ability to care for the whole are overlooked. The point was made to me by a layman who had spent many years as an accomplished professional in the field of management. In his retirement years he volunteered his services in diocesan projects. He remarked to me, with a bit of sadness, "Since I started working with church people, I’ve begun to observe something that disturbs me. They don't seem to be able to make the tough decisions, do they?" Leading involves more than warm attitudes; it requires analysis and the taking of stands that carry the risk of alienating those one is called to lead.

      Much of today's religious writing could give one the impression that calculating consequences is a bad thing. Listen carefully and you may hear a disgruntled member say something like, "Well, the council just looked at the benefits and risks and took the easy course; there was no attention to the gospel." Such critics gloss over the fact that the grumbler was doing his own calculating but just happened to weight the benefits and risks differently than those bearing the responsibility for the decisions. As with other matters, here too we pick and choose our image of Jesus, and among all the possible choices, the uncalculating Good Shepherd who leaves the rest of the sheep to go after the stray dominates the stage. The "other" Jesus --- the one who asks "What king, if he were going out to fight a battle, would not first sit down and see if he has the forces?" --- is lost among the stage-hands and extras. And the Jesus who (after clearly calculating the consequences) scared the wits out of his followers by going into the sacred precincts of the temple and tossing the furniture around doesn't even get a casting call.

      Another potential risk lies in the expression "servant leadership." What that really means, in action, depends on one’s deeper image of servanthood. For any Christian, servant and service are seductively lovely words, easy to use and therefore dangerous. We may think that if we say them, we must already understand what they entail.

      The way some people use the word servant, it describes a one-way street: the servant is always giving. That, of course, makes the other person always a recipient. Such servants may give the receivers faces and thus personalize or even romanticize them, but it’s still clear who is the giver and who isn't. It's the way benevolent but misguided people often treat the poor, thus inflicting on them once again the deepest pain of their poverty: the sense that they have nothing to give. It's a subtle form of colonialism, really. Unfortunately, it is not all that difficult to transform "servant leadership" into an ideology of "service," and religious leaders who glibly invoke the mantra that they have come only to serve may actually be disempowering their members, who may themselves be only too willing to be accomplices in the process. Despite the rhetoric, moralizing is neither servanthood nor leadership.

      All in all, then, it would appear better to keep the language of ministry and service at arm's length while we first focus on the systemic aspect of leadership. When that framework is clearly in place, we can paint in the personal qualities and skills it takes to lead a body of free persons --- agents, not recipients.


      Leadership, the act of leading, is dynamic. It occurs in the doing, not in the talking about it. It is also relational: other people are integral to its exercise. Finally, it is systemic: the relationship of the leader is to the entire organism or enterprise, not to the individual persons directly. And incumbency doesn't guarantee its presence; in fact, some of the members of the group may be leading it without even holding office. So where does leadership come from? How is it conceived and birthed?

      The ability to lead a body of people, because it is essentially relational, involves mutual cooperation in its genesis. From the side of the one becoming a leader (whether an incumbent or not), it has to be earned through actions that foster in the body the capacity to trust the leader. From the side of the group, it is conferred on the leader by the membership as an expression of the trust that has been generated in the body through those same actions. This analysis might seem to stumble in the case of elected incumbents. By the very fact that they are not appointed but elected, hasn't the body of electors already expressed its trust and thereby conferred leadership upon the chosen incumbent?

      Would that it were so. The reality, however, is that many groups propose and then elect people to office who they know will not lead them but will rather exercise the office in such a way that the members can continue to tread water, perhaps with a new set of water wings to lessen the strain of the treading. In fact, it can happen that the group will elect someone and simultaneously ensure that he or she can't lead --- whether that is done by also electing a council that will stymie any leadership initiative or by finding ways of resisting actively every time the incumbent tries to exercise the mandate that appeared to come with the election. This may all happen at the preconscious level of the group psyche, but it happens. Passive aggression is not unique to individuals; whole systems practice it.

      The fact that the power to lead must be freely conferred but also depends on a continuing, dynamic relationship means that it can wane or even be lost as a result of subsequent choices by the leader. Gaining or maintaining leadership is a function of trust, the growth of which depends on performance demonstrating that its conferral was warranted. Unfortunately, the offer of trust, and therefore leadership, is often squandered by subsequent actions that contradict the nature of the relationship the members thought they enjoyed. I heard recently about a newly appointed bishop who has a body of supporters ready to let him lead. They want to confer leadership on him. Unfortunately, some of his earliest actions were so self-centered that a key staff member has remarked, "He just continues to lose all his leadership credits with his priests."

      It would take us far beyond the scope of this article to lay out all the steps and stages by which a body of people gradually chooses to give someone the power to lead, but even here it is possible to name the bedrock on which the leadership relationship is based. Members will trust, and therefore confer leadership upon, persons in their midst (incumbents or not) who demonstrate that they respect and will foster the unique identity and spirit, the gifts and purposes, of that particular body of people.

      In the case of the Fathers of Holy Joy, that is not a question of some generic religious life. That is a useless, perhaps toxic abstraction. Annie Dillard makes the sage comment, "I have never seen a tree that wasn't this particular tree"; the same holds true for instances of religious life. We're talking incarnation here. For the Fathers of Holy Joy, that involves elbows and bunions, empty nets and staggering catches, spiny villains, incorrigible characters, and frightfully holy nonentities. The Fathers of Holy Joy --- for all their warts and failings, conflicting desires and incompatible expectations of leaders, passive aggression and active shallowness --- are an irreducibly unique creation of God's grace. Good Father Henry had better believe that and remove his sandals before assuming office. With bare feet and some organizational smarts, he just might make it. They could entrust to him the incomparable gift of letting him lead them. And that's true for his brother Tom at Acme Wire, too.


Father George B. Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does organizational consulting with Management Design Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. His e-mail address is gbwilson@choice.net.