Seven Tips for Becoming a Better Leader
By Wm. Andrew Schwartz
Open-relational leadership means leading by example, empowering others, being adaptable, humble, and showing compassion.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “People quit bosses, not jobs.” A bad boss can make an employment situation unbearable. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky and stay self-employed. For everyone else, I’m sure you can imagine countless scenarios that demonstrate poor leadership. Sometimes it’s as innocent as incompetence, other times it’s as vicious as abuse. Ever work for a micromanager? You know, the one breathing down the back of your neck and dictating every move as if they don’t trust you to handle simple tasks. Or how about the “exceptional” boss, who believes the rules apply to everyone but them? Every day with this person is a lesson in “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy. Or how about the employer who needs an EpiPen anytime something “new” is suggested? This is a leader who’s stuck in the past and allergic to change. From movies like Horrible Bosses, shows like The Office, and a variety of viral memes, examples of bad leadership are everywhere.
Often, bad leadership is the result of bad worldviews (including bad theology). What we think about power, perfection, relationality, freedom, and other “big” philosophical and theological principles shape our notions of leadership and the way we structure our organizations. So here are seven insights from open-relational theology that can help you become a better leader.
1) Leaders are Examples not Exceptions
In open-relational theology, God is not an exception to the nature of reality but an exemplification of it. If the world is interconnected then God is the most connected. If the world is deeply relational then God is the most relational. While some theologies place God outside of the world as we know it,open-relational theology says that God is intertwined with the world—an exemplification of, not an exception to, the ways of reality. Likewise, an open-relational leader is not an exception to the ways of the workplace. One who leads by example is a leader people want to follow. While a “boss” might tell people the way, a true leader “shows” the way. Open-relational leadership invites imitation.
2) Leading for Change Means Changing to Lead
A fundamental insight of open-relational theology is that “all things flow.” Life is like a river, and you can’t step in the same river twice. To be a leader in a world of change requires being adaptable, flexible, and well…changing. Unlike the mountain, which is thought powerful because it is unmovable, open-relational theology sees the river as powerful because it is adaptable. In open-relational theology even God grows, flows, and changes. As new things occur in the world, God adapts accordingly. Leading for change means changing to lead. A leader that resists change remains out of touch and ineffective. Open-relational leaders “go with the flow,” embracing change as a welcome feature of reality. Open-relational leadership means being adaptable and allowing oneself (and one’s community) to mature.
3) Leading is Learning
In classical theology, God is often described as “all-knowing.” This attribute is thought to make God more reliable. Although we might not see the big picture, if God sees all (including the future) then we have reason to trust in God. When it comes to classical models of leadership, uncertainty represents instability, and this undermines confidence in a leader’s capacity to “steer the ship.” As a result, classical leaders often pretend to have all the answers. Because they know everything, they have nothing to learn. This type of leader quickly becomes arrogant; closed off to the wisdom of others. By contrast, in open-relational theology God knows all that can be known. But since the future is still open (is possible but not actual), not even God knows the future with certainty. This is the “open” part of open-relational theology. When new things happen in the world, the knowledge of God grows. Open-relational leaders embrace the unknown as an opportunity to learn. Admitting you don’t know something isn’t a sign of failure, but a mark of good leadership. To lead is to learn. The best leaders aren’t know-it-alls, they’re the ones who prioritize personal development. From new languages, new skills, or new perspectives, learning is the key to leading toward an open future.
4) Strong Leaders are Vulnerable
Perhaps more than any other characteristic, God is classically associated with power. In fact, some argue that to speak of God is to speak of the most powerful entity—a Supreme Being with “all power.” Power is often defined as the capacity to influence, control, or transform others in order to advance one’s own purposes: to affect others without being affected. In these theologies, God’s power is reflected in God’s impassibility (God’s ability to affect the world without being impacted by the world). Such power is linear and exerted one directionally. Leader and follower, employer and employee, teacher and student, minister and parishioner, these are all relations that imply a particular power dynamic. The first person in each pairing has more power than the other. Leaders who assume a linear model of power become “my way or the highway” authoritarians who perceive vulnerability as weakness (the opposite of strength). They harden themselves against the influences of the world around them. By contrast, open-relational theology describes power relationally. In this relational model, strength is a matter of both giving and receiving; of affecting and being affected. In open-relational theology, God exemplifies this give-and-receive relational power. This is the “relational” part of open-relational theology. The open-relational God is not an unmoved mover, but the most moved mover. Open-relational leadership is marked by mutual influence. To be a strong leader requires vulnerability. Mutual influence is a source of creativity and novelty. Vulnerability is essential for learning and changing, which are fundamental to open-relational leadership.
5) Leadership Happens from Within, Not Above
As described above, the mutual influence model of leadership is rooted in the notion of relational power. While relational power is bi-directional, it is also non-hierarchical. Classical conceptions of God’s power depict God (at the top) influencing the world but never being influenced by the world. This linear power flows top-down. Top-down leaders are repressive and hierarchical. They tend to operate unilaterally (even coercively) to “make” things the way they want. By contrast, an open-relational model of leadership is horizontal and egalitarian. Open-relational theology describes God as working persuasively rather than coercively, working cooperatively rather than unilaterally. Open-relational leaders lead from within, not from above. Whereas the classical leader “runs things” as a top-down authority figure, open-relational leaders guide through interdependent cooperation. Teamwork makes the dream work.
6) Business is Always Personal
Open-relational theology sees the world as a community of subjects, not a collection of objects. A world of subjects is a world of experiencing entities. Experiences are felt as values. While objectifying people might make it easier to fire them (like replacing a cog in a broken machine), this mechanical worldview distorts the true nature of reality as experiencing value relations. Leaders who follow the “it’s business, not personal” model objectify others; ignoring their experience. Open-relational leadership recognizes that business is always personal because it involves persons. With personhood comes freedom. To be an experiencing subject (a person) is to possess the freedom of self-determination. Because business is always personal, open-relational leaders don’t overpower, they empower. Puppeteers overpower, but people aren’t puppets. As free creatures that are creatively self-determining, people must be led through empowerment. That means providing the necessary conditions and support for them to succeed as persons, not machines.
7) To Lead is to Love
In open-relational theology, self-giving love is the central characteristic of God. God does not simply choose to act lovingly (as some theologies contend). From an open-relational viewpoint, God always works in love because it is God’s nature to do so. The nature of God is the nature of love—the two cannot be separated. Employers who are who rude, selfish, and inconsiderate are some of the worst. No doubt, kindness can go a long way toward good leadership. But open-relational leadership demands more than being nice on the outside—more than fake smiles. To lead is to love. We are all more than our work, so you can’t “hate the worker and love the person.” There is no separating the two. An open-relational leader truly cares about the lives of her team members—not just their work. Open-relational leadership means promoting the overall well-being of those you lead.
Ideas matter. Theology matters. Bad theology can inform bad practices. This is true in leadership, as well as other areas of life. Theologies of all-powerful, distant, unmoved divinity set the stage for models of leadership that are hierarchical, one-directional, and incapable of leading in this relational world of becoming. An open-relational model of leadership, informed by an open-relational theology, produces leaders who lead by example, empower others, who are adaptable, humble, and compassionate. Open-relational leadership happens from within, not above, in a spirit of love. If leadership is done right, maybe people stop quitting bosses.
Wm. Andrew Schwartz is a scholar, organizer, and social entrepreneur. He is Executive Director of the Center for Process Studies and Assistant Professor of Process & Comparative Theology at Claremont School of Theology. Schwartz is also Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of the Institute for Ecological Civilization (ecociv.org).
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.