Monday, April 6, 2015
How to Lead by Inspiration AND Participation
Last week I suggested that one of the biggest challenges leaders face, if they understand the dual nature of the Church as both a theocracy and a democracy, is achieving the delicate balance of leading by both revelation and participation. Achieving this balance is much easier if we understand certain basic principles.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell pointed out that good leaders generally alternate between directive and participative methods of leadership. Often the democratic mode of decision making is the best solution, but sometimes circumstances require the leader to make decisions alone, even on the fly. Crises often preclude the time-consuming participative approach. Fortunately, real crises are relatively rare in organizations, and good leaders tend to anticipate and therefore prevent many potential crises. (Conversely, bad managers often light fires so that they can feel useful—and look good—in organizing their underlings to extinguish them.) Sometimes, however, the participative approach stifles individual creativity. By the same token, some members are inexperienced or lack confidence and do need specific direction. A good leader will learn to give these people enough direction that they grow into their responsibilities but not so much that they become dependent on the leader and find their agency compromised. Inspired leaders also quite often operate in a mode that is neither participative nor directive. Sometimes they remove organizational barriers and simply allow people to work either on their own or in impromptu teams, generating brilliant (or at least effective) ideas. In this facilitating mode, leaders encourage ingenuity and individual inspiration and then support and nurture the innovations that result. In the Church, such leaders realize that all revelation doesn’t come down the organizational line of authority. Often, inspired ideas percolate up from the lowest levels of the organization.
Five Contexts for Revelation
So, how does one lead by both inspiration and participation? And what should Church leaders do when they sometimes receive a direct revelation, guidance from heaven that affects the lives of others? Should they boldly decree this knowledge from on high and demand compliance? The answer to this question usually depends on the type of revelation the leader receives. And revelations come in at least five different contexts.
First, and perhaps most frequently, revelations occur in the process of extending callings to members. Now, I think we must admit that not all callings in the Church are the result of revelation (despite the ideal expressed in the fifth Article of Faith says). Sometimes they are the product of simply trying to fill all the empty slots in the multiple organizations within a ward, and some callings don’t really fit the person occupying them or the needs of those served. Such is the reality of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of ward staffing. But some callings are indeed inspired, and I have been on both the receiving and extending side of this situation. Nevertheless, in any calling, whether the product of divine inspiration or organizational exigency, the member has every right to receive a confirmation or, less frequently, a spiritual rejection of the call. And when members are sustained in callings by their fellow Saints, this is, or at least should be, an opportunity for them to practice the law of common consent. The Saints should have the opportunity to approve or disapprove of any calling without being made to feel stigmatized or fearing for their own standing in the Church if they dissent for good reason, as was the case in the early days of the Restoration.
Second, sometimes the prophet may receive doctrinal revelations. Frankly, I can’t recall a new doctrinal revelation in my lifetime, so this may be largely a hypothetical situation. If such a revelation were to come along, however, there would generally be no need for discussion, but we should note that even the Prophet Joseph’s revelations were voted upon by the members to determine whether or not they would be accepted as canonized scripture. Likewise, the 1978 revelation revoking the priesthood ban was put to a vote before being officially accepted as scripture by the Church. (Technically, this was not a doctrinal revelation but a revelation effecting a policy change. The revelation did, however, dismiss several false doctrines that had developed over the years as rationales to support the policy of denying blacks the priesthood.)1
Third, revelation may come when a priesthood bearer is giving a blessing to another member. This could be a health blessing, a father’s blessing, words of blessing and instruction after setting someone apart for a new responsibility, or a patriarchal blessing. These blessings generally include words of counsel, consolation, encouragement, or promise, and the recipient is free to give heed to, exercise faith in, or even disregard the blessing.
Fourth, revelation can come to a leader in the context of counseling members, either as individuals in interviews or as groups in classroom or congregational settings. While the leader may or may not ask for input from others before delivering the counsel, the individual or group listening to the counsel has the prerogative to either follow it or ignore it, and to accept the consequences of either choice.
Finally, most other instances of revelation involve procedural matters or changes in traditional institutional practices. Indeed, if we look closely at our lives in the modern Church, the lion’s share of new instruction we receive from leaders is organizational in nature. The commandments are all well established, new doctrine is rare, leaders may remind us regularly to live Christlike lives, but virtually all other instruction is organizational. And almost all of it concerns procedural matters—policies and rules rather than commandments and doctrines. Although it is the tendency in the Church for leaders to implement procedural changes unilaterally or in counsel with other leaders and to not involve the rank-and-file members in these decisions, if we take at face value the Lord’s direction that “all things shall be done by common consent in the church” (see D&C 26:2), this tendency is inappropriate and leans too far toward theocracy and too much away from democracy in Church governance. In these procedural matters, the leader should nearly always invite participation, input, and discussion, even if he or she has received light from heaven. While pure democracy is both unwieldy and impractical, a bishop could, for instance, share with his ward council the fact that he feels he has received inspiration to change the way something in the ward is to be done. After sufficient discussion, he would then ask for the support and aid of the ward members’ representatives who participate in ward council to institute the change. If the change is substantial and might inconvenience some members, perhaps a vote of the entire ward would be appropriate. Such a course of action would certainly be in keeping with the law of common consent. Far too often, I fear, leaders make decisions unilaterally and inflict what can only be categorized as their own personal preferences on those they are called to serve, forgetting the law of common consent and neglecting the ideal of participative leadership. In summary, this matter of revelation in administrative affairs is not as black and white as some might assume. Sometimes, experience has shown, a leader’s inspiration changes when more complete information becomes available. All the more reason for a leader to openly welcome input before enacting administrative or policy changes.
Of course not every minor decision in a Church unit needs to be discussed by all the members or even a council of leaders. After my second mission president’s arrival in Germany, for instance, he greatly simplified the daily report form we filled out, saving us hours of precious time each month and enabling him to focus on the few aspects of our work that were truly important. He trusted us to work hard and was therefore able to eliminate many of the control-oriented and distracting elements on the form. This was a relatively minor operational issue, of course, and the mission president didn’t need to make it a matter of missionwide discussion. Pure democracy, in situations such as this, is an inefficient and even wasteful form of governance. But dictatorial methods badly applied create even worse problems. This is where the spirit of discernment comes into play—what the Lord may have been referring to with the term “differences of administration” (D&C 46:15). A good leader will develop a feel, sometimes prompted by the Spirit, about which decisions need to involve others. Important issues, however, almost always require participation to some degree. And trivial rules that may be seen as arbitrary should always be open for both discussion and rejection.
Peter and the Gentiles
Participation is important when significant policies and procedures are being shaped or reshaped, even by revelation. Before Peter extended gospel ordinances and blessings to the Gentiles, for instance, he pointedly asked those of the Jewish-born Saints who accompanied him from Joppa to Caesarea, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized?” (Acts 10:47). Then, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, the other Apostles and brethren in Judea heard of this change and “contended” with Peter. They questioned his actions, even though he had acted on inspiration from heaven. Of course, after Peter had rehearsed to them the vision he had experienced and the pouring out of the Holy Ghost upon the Gentiles, his brethren were satisfied. They “held their peace, and glorified God” (Acts 11:1–18). The obvious observation here is that the other Apostles and brethren of the Church felt it was entirely appropriate to question Peter about this change of policy. To them, when the prophet spoke the debate wasn’t over—it was just beginning. They understood that dialogue is simply a necessary part of leadership. Echoing this principle, an emphasis in recent years, particularly with the release of the new Handbook of Instructions, is the importance of councils. They exist for a reason, and a “council of one” is rarely an effective method of administering procedural and policy changes.
Spencer W. Kimball and the Blacks
A modern parallel to Peter’s inspired decision to share the gospel with the Gentiles is the June 1978 revelation that removed the priesthood ban from male Church members of black African descent. In fact, President Spencer W. Kimball’s refusal to simply declare a revelation even when he was certain the change in policy was right, as early as March 1978, is one of the finest examples of participative leadership in Church history. President Kimball repeatedly asked his counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for input. There was a great deal of research and discussion. And when the time was finally right, he desired that the entire group of Apostles collectively receive a revelation to confirm the decision. Consequently, when the powerful spiritual manifestation did occur, it merely strengthened the unity that President Kimball had already nurtured among the Apostles. And before the revelation was announced to the Church and the media, President Kimball presented it in a combined meeting with the Seventies, who were asked for their approval.2 It takes a secure and humble leader to invite such extensive participation in such an important matter. Indeed, we should recognize that for a true leader, ego is a luxury too costly to afford.
Regarding these two examples of participative leadership at the highest levels of Church administration, it is significant that Cornelius received an angelic visitation prompting him to seek gospel blessings and ordinances before Peter received his dream of the unclean beasts. Likewise, shortly before the 1978 revelation, several instances occurred in which patriarchs and bishops spoke inspired words in blessings that anticipated the impending policy change. Congregations of “dry Mormons” in Africa had been clamoring for priesthood blessings long before the revelation finally came. And Lester Bush was compelled to research the history of the priesthood ban, shedding light on inconsistencies between the policy and established Church doctrines and presenting evidence that certainly influenced the Brethren as they sought light and knowledge on the matter.3 We can safely conclude from these examples, that followers can appropriately receive inspiration and even ask for change in advance of revelations that officially transform policies and procedures.
As should be expected, Heavenly Father is the prime example of participative leadership. In the Grand Council in heaven, as we understand it, he presented a plan for our salvation. Because he was perfect, so was his plan, even though it troubled many of his children. Consequently, he allowed discussion and debate. He even permitted Lucifer to present an opposing alternative. After his children had received sufficient information, he allowed us to vote. He trusted us to participate in this most significant of all decisions. He did not force his will on any of his children. Most consented to his plan, which included Jesus volunteering to carry out the central mission it required. Others rebelled and cut themselves off from the blessings of the great plan of redemption. From this greatest of all councils, we receive a pattern for exercising authority in our smaller councils, be they family, ward, or priesthood councils. The central lesson here is that God trusted us, involved us, and honored our agency.
1. See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 10–14, especially note 6.
2. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005). A detailed account of this impressive experience can be found in the longer version of the book found on the accompanying CD, chapters 20–24; see also Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” 4–78.
3. Lester E. Bush Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue, 8, no. 1 (Spring 1973), 11–68; see also Lester E. Bush Jr., “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ (1973): Context and Reflections, 1998,” Journal of Mormon History 25, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 229–71.