A Window on the Corporate Soul of a Community

(From CMSM Forum, Winter, 1994, 1-9)

Ask people for their spontaneous associations for the word elections and it is a sure bet that you will hear words like voting or majority or ballots or tellers or, perhaps, words like politics or manipulation or blocs. All of these expressions can apply, of course. The first set touches on the mechanics or procedures used in the discovery process, while the second reminds us of some of the negative political possibilities which can come into play even in religious bodies whose rhetoric suggests that they are about community and justice and truth.

Neither the level of procedures nor the dynamics of possible manipulation of elections will be our focus in these reflections. The first is too superficial, while the second focuses too much on the shadow side of an exercise which, although it is inevitably political in nature, may be the occasion for the healing of a broken community. I want to focus, rather, on the purposes of the electoral process itself, as viewed from the perspective of a healthy, self-renewing organization. Just what are elections all about?

An Organizational Framework

In order to situate elections within the life of a healthy organization, we have to begin at a more foundational level. We need first to spend at least some time reflecting on the nature of corporate human enterprises. Then we can explore the nature of leadership in such entities. Only at this point will we be in a position to ask some good questions about the nature and purposes of elections themselves.

The Corporate Body

When people gather in human groups over a period of time, they create --- in some ways quite intentionally and in other ways unconsciously --- a collective identity. In religious circles within the Catholic Church, the word employed to refer to this reality is usually the charism of the body. In other settings it may be called culture or ethos. The Romans used an evocative expression: They referred to the genius of the body or place.

All these expressions attempt feebly to capture the reality that, like the humans who make them up, collective bodies gradually begin to take on a certain unique identity (another inadequate attempt, but not a bad one). We say of some people that it is "second nature" for them to act in the way they do; it is as if membership lived out over time becomes a new nature over the members' individual being. This mysterious but real phenomenon arises out of millions of tiny pieces of human experience, absorbed both individually and collectively. It is shaped by figures of almost superhuman proportions, such as founders or foundresses, heroes or heroines of the group; but it is also polished by countless interchanges among ordinary members, the little people who never make it into congregational histories. Sometimes it is dramatically refocused by events and forces beyond the anticipation, much less the control, of the group. A fire or earthquake reduces the community to concentrate all of its forces on its own survival; an attack by villains or powers hostile to the group or its purposes results in the mobilization of the group's energies in ways it might never have chosen if left to itself; the support of friendly admirers and donors leads the community to institutional complacency and torpor.

This identity or genius may be reflected in the conscious rhetoric of the body, in things like constitutions and mission statements and goal formulations and plans of greater or lesser scope. On the other hand, the actual identity of the group may be at variance or even directly contradictory to its proclaimed self. Sacrament is always susceptible to transformation into counter-symbol.

But whether the body is largely faithful to its self-proclaimed identity or deluded about the subject, we can be sure that the full richness of the group's identity will never be circumscribed by its documentation about itself. Someone has described the effort of a group to define itself as equivalent to trying to pin oneself to a wrestling mat. Identity is a reality which, like Everest, is there. We may try to define it but ultimately we can only experience it or perhaps point to it.

Identity and Mission

Ideally, the identity of a group will at least include its mission, even if it is not co-terminus with it. People join together to achieve something, even if that something is their own collective survival. It has been maintained by some that the survival of the group itself is always an aim, conscious or not, in all of the group's efforts. Be that as it may, in ordinary usage, we generally view the mission of a group as a particular focus of energy within its identity: The group is one thing, but it is aiming at something else beyond itself. (This might be the appropriate place to note that "having a mission statement is not the same thing as "being in mission"; unfortunately, there are organizations with mission statements which give no evidence of having a mission.)

And Then There Is Leadership

The next feature of common enterprises is that of leadership. Whether its mission is real and clearly grasped by the group or not, every group will have leaders; there is no such thing as a leaderless group. (Incidentally, Jesus was alluding to that organizational truth when he noted that when a householder is troubled with one demon and tries to drive it out, it is replaced by seven demons. Try to do away with formal leadership and you will discover that you have more pretenders to leadership than you realized you had.)

There will be leaders. The question is: Will the processes by which leadership emerges in the body be constructive and conducive to the effective pursuit of the group's mission, or will they take the form of internecine power struggles, a kind of "king-(or queen)-of-the-mountain-for-a-day?" Unfortunately, the latter unpleasant scenario is as possible in a religious group as in any other.

Issues of Personal and Corporate Spirituality

The possibilities mentioned in the previous paragraph bring us to serious issues indeed. They bring up questions of the human spirit, and, therefore, of spirituality. They make us think of things like ambition, venality, disordered self-interest, and dishonesty on the one side; and selflessness, detachment, integrity, honor, and truth, on the other. They remind us of Gandhi's astute observation that no organizational system can create character or substitute for its absence. That treasure, like valued ore, was generated long before procedures such as voting; or if it wasn't, no amount of tinkering with structures will bring it about.

Additionally, the same considerations force us to reflect oi the dark side of each organization's charism as well as the failures of its individual members. Besides having their own unique strengths, organizations, even religious ones, have their shadow' ingrained patterns of disorder which color and distort their best efforts. Groups focused consciously on virtues like mercy or charity or truth can just as unconsciously be guilty of behavior directly antithetical to their publicly professed charism. Each religious body, like the Church in which each are nurtured, is semper reformanda.

It is not my intent to explore all the spirituality issues that might go into the creation of a scenario in which, for example, an election in one community is a rich experience of communal growth and renewal of solidarity, while in another down the street it is a travesty or even a tragedy. Suffice it to say that the level of spiritual growth in the group --- its seriousness, or lack of it, about God and its mission --- will be evidenced by the way the corporate body conducts itself during this significant event in its life. An election is not just an exercise in checker pushing --- or, if that's all it is, the members are only displaying their lack of self hood and spiritual authenticity.

The Function of Election

We have looked briefly at two of our three foci of interest: the collective enterprise and the reality of leadership. We are now in a position to return to the third focus and ask the question placed earlier: What are elections all about?

The first thing to note is that, whatever else they are about, elections are always acts of differentiation: Through the electoral process, some member or members of the corporate body are given a distinct role in the drama of the community, a role that is not asked of others. The very fact of being elected has consequences in the arena of responsibilities, expectations, and accountabilities --- even if neither the electors nor the electee can name, with any degree of clarity, just what those shifts are. Once elected, the person selected will inevitably be related to in a different manner from "just any ole" other member. Members may not know it; they may even consciously declare that "we are just the same to each other as before"; but all sorts of unexamined (and perhaps unexaminable?) bundles of expectations, hopes, anxieties, and fears will be all but grafted onto the person of the one called to a different role in the group.

In an election, then, one or more members of the corporate body are set apart by the others. Which leads directly to the question: set apart for what? And that brings us back to a theme we visited earlier but left incomplete: leadership.

Leadership or Administration?

Recall that we said that every organization will have leaders. The catch in that statement is that those who are elected may not be the ones empowered by the body to lead. To understand this last statement, we need to explore two different distinctions. One is the distinction between leaders and administrators; the other is the distinction between formal and informal power.

First, leadership and administration. Administration is focused on the orderly governance of the organization that has existed up to the present moment. It consists in respecting the policies, norms, and disciplines which the group has developed over the years to protect itself from chaos and disorder. It is a maintaining task, designed to enable the community to go about its traditional business. It is necessary for the continuance of any collective enterprise, and it should not be denigrated. But it is not the same as leadership. Leadership, by contrast, involves the generating of the group's future. And that future will inevitably make it a different entity than it is today, if only because its surrounding environment will be different and therefore its relationship to that environment will be, willy-nilly, different. Leadership is the capacity in a community to take proactive steps to confront that changing environment and make it work for the group's chosen mission, as opposed to submitting passively to being changed by the environment and the agendas of others. The presence of leadership in a community is evidenced by unforced choices --- which are always risks --- to attempt new approaches in order to draw the full potential out of emerging situations. By contrast, leadership is absent if those who are in positions of authority find themselves constantly taking actions "we were forced to take because there was no other choice left."

The distinction between leadership and administration puts a sharp point on the statement made earlier about those being elected not necessarily being the ones empowered to lead. To put it bluntly: When a community selects a new superior (or council), is it --- consciously or unconsciously --- setting these individuals apart in order to lead the corporate body, or simply to maintain it in its present state? In any given concrete case, the answer could be either one or the other, or perhaps some fuzzy mixture of the two. But the parties involved had best have some degree of clarity about the kinds of expectations they are creating, or else both parties may have a rude awakening. The individuals selected may try to lead, only to meet dogged resistance and thus discover that the group was looking only for maintenance; or those selected may focus their energies on administering effectively, and discover that the body is quite dissatisfied with even excellent performance in that role. We need to remember that the word 'role' comes from drama and for an effective drama there needs to be, if not a script, at least an agreement as to the story to be enacted and the parts different people are to play in it.

The point is, of course, that groups do have an expected story and outcome --- and in many cases it is an unacknowledged script, with more precise lines than one which might be written in a job description. There are things an elected official had better not try.... That is part of the tacit side of the group's corporate identity. It can be like those electric fences used to keep a pet in the yard: The persons chosen frequently only discover that invisible constraint when they brush up against it and get an unexpected shock.

The sad reality is that in some religious communities it is clear from their stories that by some unconscious process the membership selects persons for office precisely because they are not competent to lead. The members do not want to confront a changing future so they make sure that officeholders will not attempt it. In some groups this is accomplished by selecting as superior an individual with one set of ideas or vision, and then selecting for that person's council a collection of people who will ensure that the superior is immobilized in any effort to lead. The body gets exactly what it wants, which is inertia and drift: the illusion that they can keep the world as it is.

Formal and Informal Power

But if what we said earlier is true, namely that every group will generate leaders in any case, how is it then possible for a community to select people for office and then make sure that they don't lead? In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to turn to the second distinction we mentioned above. That is the distinction between formal and informal power.

Formal power is exercised when persons in a group act in accordance with norms or

standards legitimated by the body, whether in constitutions, directives, or published policies. For example, the treasurer calls for budgets to be in on time, and everyone in the group knows that his action is appropriate, even though they may grumble at the style with which he communicates his message.

Informal power, on the other hand, takes the form of action by individuals or groups without any formal legitimation. It can be constructive, as when an individual sees a need and just jumps in and addresses it, for example, by inviting some members to come together and brainstorm better approaches to the care of senior members. Or it can be destructive, as when a rump group, without first voicing its difficulty directly with a person in office, simply goes around spreading negative comments and stirring up hostility toward the person.

The key factor in informal power is not that it is either good or bad, but rather that in either case there is no formal accountability attached to it. It may be helping the community or it may be destroying it, but in any case the community as such can neither celebrate the good nor take steps to minimize the destructiveness.

With this distinction in place, we can see what will happen if a community selects individuals for office and then will not let them lead. The body will still have leaders. But by electing in this manner, what the community is really doing is giving scope to the informal leaders in the group to exercise their influence --- for good or ill. Without any formal charge to officeholders to lead, all sorts of pretenders will be at work determining the future direction of the group (or the lack of direction) without leaving fingerprints.

The Real Issue in Elections

From all these reflections we are now in a position to name the ultimate issues in any election. They are not located in such things as the decision to have straw ballots or not to have them; or to hold public forums where nominees can explain their vision, or not to have them. These are decisions at the level of procedure. Such decisions may either help or hinder a good electoral process; they will not of themselves create one. We at Management Design Institute have helped many religious communities with their elections during the past twenty-four years, and we have seen effective procedures as well as utterly inane ones; but we have never been seduced into thinking that procedures were the heart of the matter.

No, the real issue is the mutual clarity achieved between the community and those it proposes to set apart for office concerning what they will mutually commit to: the performance they will expect of one another. And that depends on the deepest question of all: What does the community really desire? What does it want and how much are its members willing to pay for it? It is really all about this particular community's pearl of great price. How to name it and how to mine it.

Participatory Planning

The moment of election, of choice of new persons to guide the community, is therefore a moment of great opportunity. If it is approached with the seriousness which it deserves, it can be a powerful stimulus for the community to take collective stock of itself, its mission, and the ways it is carrying out that mission. It can lead the members to take a long look at some questions which might be disturbing, but which have the potential to stir up powerful energies: What are we all about? What might our lived experience tell us if we could succeed in taking off the blinders of denial and let it speak to us? Are we really about what our charism calls us to be about? Since our last election, what has changed in this world where the Lord wants us to discover His leadings? What are the signs telling us of the world which is coming, the world we need to be preparing to meet? What are the opportunities which are uniquely being offered to us by the interplay of that surrounding environment, our unique charism, and the talents and interest of our members? What from our present way of doing things are we ready and willing to challenge in order to be more faithful servants of the riches which have been entrusted to us by so many great forebears?

In short, a coming election is a moment of grace, one more opportunity to try to bring together the three foci around which our reflections have circled: the corporate identity and sense of mission of the group, the ways it will choose to confront its world and risk actions to shape its future, and the negotiating of a covenant between the membership and those it is entrusting with the guidance of the leadership function for the coming period.

Leadership and Visionaries

At this point in our reflections, an important qualification is perhaps in order. Someone might read what has been said as a plea for communities to elect visionaries as superiors. That is not what I am saying, but the possibility of misunderstanding can help us to explicate another distinction.

Throughout these ruminations, I have been talking of "leaders" or "the leadership function." That should not be confused with being visionary or charismatic or highly intuitive. It is possible for a person to be an excellent leader without himself or herself being visionary. Leadership need not imply having a clear content vision oneself. It can call for a different gift or set of skills: the ability to call forth the vision which is latent in the membership and facilitate the events and processes by which the collective body takes ownership of the call it is experiencing and makes a clear choice for a different future. In other words, leadership involves, in the first instance, an ability to design and manage processes by which corporate commitment can be articulated, focused, and ratified.

The origin of words can frequently give us insight into important dimensions of their meaning. Take, for instance, the word "government" which is at least one traditional expression for what we expect of people in office. The word has its beginnings in the Greek image of the helmsman on the sailing ships which were so crucial to Greek commerce. He was the "kybernetes," the steerer of the vessel. Notice: The helmsman does not supply the energy that moves the ship. That comes from the wind or perhaps the rowers. The helmsman's task is to adjust the rudder for the best utilization of the energy supply in pursuit of the goal of the ship's voyage. The wind may be strong, or perhaps even violent. The helmsman has to move the rudder so as to use what he can of that energy without trying to capture it all and thereby risk capsizing the boat. At other times there are only the barest of breezes and it takes delicate sensitivity to transform this weak energy into movement. The helmsman (heirnswoman) does not create the power; he or she manages it to the best advantage.

Sometimes a visionary or charismatic person is the least suited to the leadership needs of the moment. Precisely because they have a clear vision of what needs to be done, charismatic people frequently lack that delicate sensitivity to the movements of the spirit within the group which might incline them to temper their zeal. To change the image from the helmsman to a more contemporary image from cybernetics (which also comes from "kybernetes"): When one's own inner voice is clear and loud it is not easy to stay tuned to the potential meaning in soft sounds coming from one's less focused brethren. The risk with the highly focused leader is that every other voice is treated as so much static. God, we have been told, is not only in the thunder.

Are Procedures Irrelevant, Then?

Are we saying, then, that a group should not review its procedures for selecting its leadership, that one way of proceeding is as good as another? No, there are good procedures and poor ones. I hope, rather, that by reflecting on the deeper issue of the potential significance of an election for the life of a religious community I have implicitly developed the criteria for deciding which procedures to use. It is pretty simple, really: How can we organize the selection process from beginning to end so that it has the potential to achieve three highly desirable outcomes:

A renewed clarity of focus in the mission of the community and deepened commitment to it;

The discovery of those with the greatest potential to guide the processes whereby the leadership potential within the group is continually nurtured and supported; and

the mutual delineation of expectations between leadership and membership in the execution of that mission.

Whatever contributes to those outcomes should be considered; any procedural step which either does not contribute to their achievement or, worse, which positively binders it, should be challenged. The goal of corporate renewal and conversion should govern the choice of methods. And that can include challenging the statutes or the constitutions of the community. Even though legally normative steps are of long standing and have been ratified by Church authority, they are human in origin, conditioned by the social realities of their time of composition, and within the power of the community to change when changed conditions demonstrate that they are no longer effective.

It is our experience that when a religious community seriously reflects on its lived experience of elections and discovers that some element in its legislation is impeding the kind of electoral method which might be deeply reconciling for the life of the community, there are always creative ways of adjusting the previously traditional procedures, whether that be through the introduction of steps which are pre-legal in nature and leave the legally mandated steps intact or, if those steps themselves need to be changed, by seeking redress by way of rescript or exemption. Church authorities may be appropriately wary of drastic changes, but they are aware that there have been advances in methods of collegial governance in the past twenty-five years, and they will usually permit well-presented revisions. When a group protests that they would like to change the method of election but "they wouldn't allow it," it is usually a sign that the community itself is not committed enough to the goal to undertake the work of engaging in constructive dialogue with Church authority.

If the electoral process as a whole offers a glimpse into the soul of the community, the procedures employed at different steps along the way are the body. Some communities will conduct participatory processes for surfacing expectations of those to be selected. In some instances, those will be extremely formalized and have quantitative measures attached to them; in others, the approach will involve no paper but extensive listening in face-to-face settings; in still others, there will be regularized methods of discernment with formal periods of prayer and efforts at purifying disordered affections. Some communities will have nominee presentation forums and position papers. Some will invite a newly elected superior to propose the name of the person to be his vicar or perhaps even other members of the council; in other communities such steps would be unthinkable.

The variations at these levels are many indeed. And, through a body such as CMSM or LCWR, it would not be difficult for a particular community to learn what others have tried and how it has worked out. What should be clear from all we have reflected upon is that whether the electoral process is effective or not depends, not on any automatic rightness of any particular method, but rather on its "fit" with that intangible reality we named at the outset, the unique character of this particular body of religious and its openness to conversion.