Sunday, January 31, 2010

leading from within: learning again from parker palmer

In a nine year period beginning in the 1980s I was blessed to live in a community (Greensboro, North Carolina) that led me into a collection of experiences that, in hindsight, were generative. In each instance a lay member of the congregation that I served nudged me into an initiative or an experience: interfaith retreats for youth (Anytown) and interfaith/interracial missions to Israel through the National Conference of Christians and Jews; silent retreats and pilgrimages to Dayspring and the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.; an annual workshop at the Center of Creative Leadership on "Leadership and Spirit"; an ecumenical group of pastors who organized a retreat on the Cursillo model; and that same ecumenical group of pastors, in collaboration with visionary lay members of a variety of churches, who formed the Servant Leadership School in Greensboro.

I remembered the Servant Leadership School when I began reading Parker Palmer's Leading From Within recently. I think I picked up the pamphlet at Dayspring, and I know we used it as curriculum in the Servant Leadership School's classes. In those years I also heard Palmer lecture at Duke Divinity School, sharing what would become the content from Let Your Life Speak. In the essay, Palmer defines two complex and essential terms, first spirituality and then leadership.

Drawing on the work of Vaclav Havel, Palmer insists that conciousness precedes being; the inner life is not the victim of the external world, but its "co-creator". Palmer reflects on the reality of projection, our tendency to see the external world through our own lens, and in so doing to change the world for good or for bad, "projecting", in his words, "either a spirit of life or a spirit of shadow on that which is other than us."

Palmer's affirmation of the spiritual life is a critique of both Marxism and capitalism, and in the essay he is making a strong and necessary argument: we have privileged the external world to the exclusion of the internal world, and yet the inner life is always the co-creator of the world outside of us. This co-creation is a function of leadership. "A leader", Palmer insists, "is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow or his or her light." Writing in 1990, prior to the recent wars and the economic collapse, Palmer reflects on our temptation to focus on positive thinking rather than the shadow side of leadership. This delusion prevents us from taking responsibility for the harm that leaders do, and leads to the avoidance of necessary inner work. That inner work is a deep immersion in our fears and failures (I would also say our sin), on the way to the discovery of a profound life together (and here I was reminded of another brilliant Palmer essay, "On Staying at The Table").

Palmer concludes Leading from Within by noting five shadows of leadership: our identify differs from our role (an insight found later in Ronald Heifitz's Leadership Without Easy Answers); the universe is good and not necessarily a battleground; we operate out of a functional atheism that leads to workaholic forms of behavior; fear; and denial of death. Struggling with these five shadows (or at least naming them) helps the leader to know his or her effect on a community or a congregation. Our calling is not only about manipulating the external world around us; it must also include attention to what is going on within us, for our sakes and for the good of the mission.


Post a Comment

<< Home