Roving Leadership

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 26 May 1996


A couple of weeks ago, in the Globe and Mail, business consultant Bob Evans asked, "Where have all the leaders gone?" Lifting up three recent Canadian events, the explosions at the Westray coal mine, the Somalian affair and the tainted blood scandal, he observed, "What we are finding is a truly chilling commonality among those being investigated -- an unwillingness or inability of leaders to accept responsibility for what happened." Evans continues:
What are we to conclude when miners who survived the Westray explosions are chided by big-city lawyers for not demanding improved safety conditions, while the people actually responsible for safety weasel and wiggle and pass the buck and, in some cases, avoid showing up to testify?

What are we to conclude when the beribboned senior officers in the military display selective amnesia, lose documents, declare ignorance of events that demonstrably took place under their noses and employ the worst of bureaucratic doublespeak? What are we to conclude when the secretary-general of the Canadian Red Cross cannot bring himself to apologize for the carnage his organization set loose among people dependent on blood transfusions? Worse, what are we to think when so many people and organizations ... serve legal notice that they will not be held accountable for the AIDS-virus infection of blood users?

Where have all the leaders gone? Evans refers to the actions of those who are most visibly invested by our society with the marks of leadership, and yet, paradoxically, it is my contention that the answer to that question lies not among the few who are responsible for millions of dollars of taxpayer money, for the reputation of Canada across this globe, for the safety of hundreds of thousands of lives. If we are to discover where all the leaders have gone, I believe we must look within. We must first acknowledge that the failure is not exclusively theirs; the more profound, the deeper failure is our own. For as a society, we choose many of our leaders. We hold them accountable or fail to hold them accountable for their actions, and we determine the climate in which they lead by our expectations and our own acts of leadership. Let us turn for a moment, away from the front page to everyday life. In a slim volume entitled The Art of Leadership, Max DePree tells the rather innocuous story of an Easter morning service in a large Christian church. As the organist finishes the prelude and the three ministers and three choirs wait to enter from the back, a man in the middle of the crowded sanctuary begins to sweat profusely, turns grey, rises partially out of his seat, stops breathing and falls over onto his daughter sitting beside him.

What happens next? One person with paramedic experience immediately comes over to loosen the man's collar and restore breathing. Another individual calls an ambulance. Six men lift and carry him out to the Narthex. Someone finds an oxygen bottle, two people calm the children's choirs still standing at the back beside the man now lying on the floor, a doctor in the congregation comes to help, the ambulance arrives, the service continues after a few minutes pause and by the end of the service someone has spoken with the hospital and an announcement is made that the man had suffered a severe allergic reaction and the situation is now under control.

DePree writes, "This church has a hierarchy of more than thirty appointed and elected professionals, committee members, board members, and others. [But] the hierarchy did not respond swiftly or decisively." DePree calls the people who did respond "roving leaders." "Roving leaders are those indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them." Not just our expectations of others, but our own everyday actions and habits, the way we choose to live our own lives, day in and day out, determine where all the leaders are to be found.

Do you ever find yourself passively sitting through a committee meeting that seems to be going nowhere? At a party trapped in a boring conversation? Suffering silently through the ineffectual efforts of someone you must work with or even for? Putting up with difficult members of your family, year after year making excuses to yourself "she's too old to change" or "he's still just a little kid"? Have you ever found yourself disagreeing with something being said, but rather than speak out, complaining about it later to someone else?

There is the "I-don't-want-her-to-hate-me" school of thought, the
"I'm-too-shy-and-unimportant-to-say-anything" school of thought, the
"I'll-just-mind-my-own-business" school of thought, the
"I-can't-make-a-difference-anyway" school of thought, the
"I-could-do-it-better-but-since-nobody-asked-me" school of thought, the
"It's-not-my-responsibility" school of thought. And for some, there isn't any school of thought, for it doesn't even cross some minds that speaking out or taking action is an option. Passivity is so ingrained that self-initiation never even forms itself into a coherent possibility.

Leadership is not about having ribbons all over your chest, a corner office in a glass tower on Bay Street, the ear of the Prime Minister, or a six or seven-figure salary. Leadership is an inner quality that no one can give to another human being and no one can take away.

Robert Greenleaf says spirituality is leadership. His essay "On Becoming a Servant Leader" is a guide for inner evolution based on inner strength. Edwin Friedman, author of Generation to Generation talks about "leadership through self-differentiation." Over and over, he brings home the point: "The key to successful [sports] coaches is less a matter of how they 'handle' the players than how they handle themselves." Or again, "the key to successful ... leadership ... has more to do with the leader's capacity for self-definition than with the ability to motivate others."

Joshua Halberstam, author of Everyday Ethics asks the real question: "Who is leading your life?" Who do you appoint to monitor the agenda when you agree to sit through a meeting? Who has the power and the proximity to pull the finest from those you work with? Who is responsible for encouraging your family members to live by the best values our society has to offer? Halberstam laments: "'It's not my fault' is the motto of children. Alas, it is also the motto of most grown-ups. The only difference is that adults are more creative in shifting responsibility away from themselves."

In February the members of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto adopted a mission statement that calls each and every one of us to leadership. A copy of that statement forms the first page of this year's annual reports. That mission focuses our collective strengths, energies and resources in four distinct areas:

First and foremost, "individual spiritual growth"; in other words, our mission is to create an environment which nurtures our inner strengths and resources so that we might develop within ourselves a set of values and the moral character which is the very foundation of true leadership.

Second, to "create a caring religious community"; in other words, within this environment, our mission is to challenge one another not to settle for ho-hum everyday existence, but to create a community of psychologically healthy leaders striving to live together.

Third, to "bring about responsible service to and social action in our city and beyond." Nurturing inner spiritual growth and a caring religious community can never be enough, for leadership is ultimately about making a difference beyond our individual lives, beyond the boundaries of our own community. Leadership is about nothing less than changing the world.

Fourth, finally, our mission calls us to "invite others to participate in the life of our congregation." In other words, it is our mission not just to change ourselves, not just to change the world all by ourselves, but to encourage others to become leaders in their own lives and leaders in our world.

Where have all the leaders gone? Evans claims that we have forgotten what real leadership is. He writes:
After the Second World War and up until recently, life was good in North America and particularly in Canada. We were not much tested. ... It was the time of leader as Leader-Lite -- a charismatic, chatty, beer-commercial-beautiful escapee from a Harry Rosen window who always had a clever remark ... and, if ... wrong about a solution to an ugly problem, threw money or resources at it. ... The prevailing view seems to be that leadership is a technique to be learned at a MICA Management Resources seminar or a form of self-adulation to be acquired at an est-inspired Landmark Forum weekend.
I believe religious institutions like this one can provide an alternative to Leader-Lite, an alternative to MICA Management Resources seminars and Landmark Forum weekends. For religion calls us to spiritual growth, to healthy community, to social responsibility, to generosity and sharing. Religion calls us to moral character building and to the values that can sustain a world. Sophia Lyon Fahs, the mother of modern Unitarian religious education, writes:
Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness. Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

What our world needs is places like this community, which nurture self-confidence and self-worth, which widen and deepen our sympathies and forge bonds in a world community.

William Ellery Channing, father of modern Unitarianism, writes:

I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion; which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or the few.

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering.

I call that mind free which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.

Where have all the leaders gone? There are still those among us who do not cower to human opinion, but delight in virtue, sympathize with suffering, and hunger, thirst, seek after righteousness.

Evans observes that with regard to the Somalian affair, "A few lower-ranked, public relations people at Armed Forces headquarters, ... when ordered to participate in the military's document shell-games, ... did not threaten to resign, or run to the defence minister or call the media. They just refused to play the game." Likewise, I notice that there are a few organizations that have simply declined the invitation to follow the Red Cross lead in trying to stop the Krever investigation from assigning blame.

Stripped of all its trappings, leadership is nothing less than the exercise of moral courage. Evans concludes, "There is no quick way out of our leadership vacuum. There are no messiahs on the horizon. There is just us. We can perform little acts of faith, small acts of moral courage."

Each and every one of us, no matter our age or our station in life, each and every human soul living today, on the face of this earth, can be a leader.