Temperaments and Expectations on Leadership

The nature of leadership is fluid. Styles of leadership, as well as the focus and expectations of leadership need to be responsive to the different phases of a community's shared life. While there are many ways to define leadership, it is nonetheless still an abstract concept, in part because of the many ways in which takes shape, depending on the needs of the organization at any one time. And it may even be flexible enough to be exercised in multiple ways, by the same people, at the same time, in different parts of the organization. Thus, the idea of "leadership" as one thing with a hard and fast definition does not match with experience.

Thomas-Kilman Axis on Leadership Styles

One way to depict the changes in leadership by the context in which it is being exercised in by referring to the Thomas-Kilman Axis. This tool is usually used in relation to defining approaches to conflict, but it also is instructive on identifying five types of leadership. Each of the styles is appropriate, but not for times and situations.

The Thomas-Kilman Axis looks at leadership in relation to "Issues" (the vertical axis) and "Relationship" (the horizontal axis). Together, the axis of issues and relationships can be easily laid over Ephesians 4:15, which states, "speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ."

Looking at the types of leadership, five positions can be elaborated. Actually, these five types could be more finely defined with more distinctive positions all over the map. However, these exiting five set up parameters defining edges and the center.

First, in the upper left corner is "forcing" in which the issue is important and relationship has little of no impact in consideration. It could be a simple decision to buy a certain light bulb of copy-paper, or as vital as a decision to call 911 in an emergency. The point is that there is freedom to act because the issue is clearly not impactful on the quality of relationships (e.g. office supplies), or because it is of the vital importance calling for appropriate action in the midst of an emergency.

Second, in the lower left corner is "avoiding" leadership. By nature of its name, this does not even seem like a leadership quality. However, it is an "editing" kind of leadership. That is, there are times when issues are of little importance and almost no impact on relationship. These issues don't need to be dealt with and can be set aside for other more pressing concerns. Avoiding may be necessary to stuff away esoteric theological controversies, or even practical local issues, but still has to make the discernment that these are not issues vital to the community.

Third, in the middle of the map is "compromise". I chose to use a chicken as the icon for this position, only because compromise is too often misused. When misused, compromise demonstrates a lack of willingness to pursue some very difficult issues that actually need reconciliation and definition. On the other hand, it may show significant leadership to hold something in balance for a time. There are issues that are polarizing, yet neither side may have adequate information or understanding, making any action inappropriate. Compromise may work best then as a holding cell for a time.

Fourth, "collaborating" becomes a crucial leadership skill in settings of high relationship and high concern for an issue. For some, this is a default position because everything is important or because every relationship feels vulnerable and thus must be highly valued. As a default position, it may restrain leaders from taking immediately responsive steps or hinder healthy delegation and the empowerment of others to act independently in a permission-granting environment.

Fifth, "accommodating" although there is nothing wrong with highly valuing relationships, there are times when this leads toward an attitude of anything goes. This position can step over the line from creating a permission-granting environment to becoming a permissive environment. Eventually, an ideal will be violated, or a cause not championed, for the sake of relationship. Then, over time anxiety builds and implicit conflict may emerge, often in passive-aggressive ways. However, accommodation is a crucial capacity when the issues can be accurately assessed as of minor importance.

Thomas-Kilman in Action-Reflection

Read over the above mentioned types of approaches to issues and relationships. For each:

  1. Consider the positive qualities of the approach.
    1. How does this build up the community?
    2. How is this capacity seen in action?
    3. How might these qualities be passed on to others?
  2. Each of these approaches have a history:
    1. Tell stories of when these different approaches became apparent.
    2. Consider which, if any, has become a default. When did that occur?
    3. Which if any of these approaches has been especially helpful in the past? Which has been problematic?
  3. Each of these approaches assumes that a community and its leaders can make clear discernment about issues and relationships. How do you ascertain the "high" or the "low" of the relationship or issue?

Next Steps

As a community becomes more familiar with its approaches to issues of relationships and issues, there can be greater clarity in the way choices are processed. Eventually, trust will build up within the community, due to the clarity and shared understanding of how things are discerned. To make aspects of this analysis a part of meetings and working sessions can provide needed reflection and ongoing accountability.

Within the Quaker tradition is the process of discerning the "spirit of the meeting." At the conclusion of a meeting for action, a designated person, known for the impartial discernment, is asked to describe how the spirit of the people in the meeting functioned and how the Spirit of God moved among them. Reflecting on these approaches and how they may have emerged in a meeting may be instructive.