What We Know that Just Ain’t So

By Donna Bowman

Leadership requires the humility to face an uncertain future and the courage to seek discomfort.

I became a university instructor with zero training in leadership. It was the turn of the millennium, and as far as I knew, leadership was something you had or did, not something you could learn or think about. At a division of General Electric where my husband and I worked during my doctoral studies, leadership was a word on the cover of the business-guru books that littered our supervisor’s desks, and a graphic on the Six Sigma training PowerPoint slides. I figured nobody could teach you leadership. You found out if you were a leader by trying to lead people.

My students and I come from similar backgrounds and had many of the same formative experiences. High-ability students change in some ways from generation to generation, but some things you can count on. We were identified as academically talented early and tracked into advanced placement classes and a college prep curriculum. Our schools emphasized standardized test scores, and we probably got the chance to take those tests multiple times to improve our outcomes. Competing for limited spots in elite settings—class rank, college admissions, scholarship offers—defined success for us, and colored our relationships with our peers.

I was a loner, an introvert, happiest when reading on my own. I was emphatically not a joiner. Not only was I not running for elected office or volunteering for positions of responsibility in organizations, I wasn’t even interested in being a part of them. While that doesn’t describe the majority of my students these days, they are united in their distaste for that most dreaded form of academic assignment, the group project. Even the most involved, gregarious, or organizationally inclined students hate group work. And that’s because of the competitive, zero-sum definition of academic accomplishment in which we were immersed as smart kids. Our world keeps score through GPA, ACT, and GRE. In those arenas, you go it alone. Any time you’re forced to drag someone else behind you, it can only hurt—never help.

Now my university has a Leadership Studies department (where my dean is tenured). And the undergraduate honors program where I teach has leadership as one of its three major goals for students (along with scholarship and citizenship). Suddenly it’s something we’re all talking and thinking about, on a regular cycle.

Early in our discussions about the student goal of leadership, we wrangled about how we could expect that of every student in our program. Can they all go occupy leadership positions in campus organizations? Could we possibly create enough group activities in classes for each of them to practice this skill of leading an endeavor?

We decided to interpret this goal through the more focused idea of self-authorship. By this, we mean that students come to an understanding of their own freedom and responsibility to choose the values, principles, and trajectory of their lives. Making these decisions authentically requires awareness of the many possibilities (and so we bring them into conversation with diverse examples of flourishing lives founded on a variety of values, representing divergent choices). Students also need to recognize that they will never have enough information to make a choice they can confidently defend with plenty of evidence. They’ll have to choose—like all of us must—while we’re on the way, before the results are all in, without knowing for sure how it will turn out.

I see a clear connection between this goal and my process worldview. One of the many ways process theology saved my life was by showing me that Christianity need not be founded on eschatological triumphalism. We are not moving along the grooves in a vinyl record, on our way inexorably to an end already recorded and determined in God’s timeless perspective. And that means that the struggle against the evils of our epoch is not an empty exercise, ultimately meaningless in the light of the final inevitable victory (of our side). What will happen is not knowable because it is not yet, not actual until we get there. So, we cannot dismiss the possibility of setbacks or even defeat, nor deny the reality of the evil that results. What we do to affect the future matters, and we are responsible for our choices.

My upbringing in the church was marked by smug certainty. “God is in control” can be a comforting expression of hope for those who lack control over their own lives, but when spoken by the wealthy white majority in whose privilege I partake, it is a door slammed in the face of the changes needed for true justice. “God is in control” means “everything is just as it should be.” “God is in control” means “I don’t care what the scoreboard says; my team’s victory is assured.”

The self-authorship I had to learn, haltingly and unsystematically, was that my tradition did not have a monopoly on truth-bearing perspectives. My meaningful choices were not limited to saying the sinner’s prayer and assuring myself a mansion in heaven. I needed to shift from dogged certainty to epistemological humility—holding my views firmly enough to act on them, yet lightly enough to change them in the face of new information or altered perspective. For our students, that’s the beginning of leadership: knowing what you do not know, recognizing that you are still obligated to act, and accepting that your actions will create a future marked by the values they express.

It’s a lot to ask of people in their early twenties. I don’t think I really started to grasp it until I was in graduate school, closer to thirty. On the other hand, I didn’t have anyone trying to teach it to me. I didn’t have any community where we could talk about what we were going through together, as we learned it. As far as self-authorship goes, I was a product of the school of hard knocks. I wasted a lot of time, made many costly mistakes, and most critically, I thought I was all alone.

Leadership does involve others, both necessarily and optimally, and that requires the interactions my students would rather avoid. The next step of leadership, the part that I’m now trying to teach more actively and intentionally, is the value of discomfort. A smoothly running process is pleasant, but we can skate through it without engagement. Friction—an intentional gumming-up of the gears, a situation that needs work to make it work—teaches us how to problem-solve, and this is especially valuable but least frequently applied in the social arena. Students are used to having problems put to them as exercises to be tackled individually, as practice. They hate group work because it adds problems of personal interaction on top of that. Yet this despised process demands exactly the kind of attention and effort that builds leadership beyond the individual, in the interpersonal dimension.

The opposite of triumphalism is fatalism—if the future is already determined, then I am doomed to be a follower of a path already laid out for me. Any attempt to set my own course merely kicks against the pricks. And those smoothly running processes that students love, those exercises devoid of frustration that can be completed on autopilot, encourage fatalism—as does, I would argue, all systems set up in higher education to disempower students. Put your head down and endure; there’s nothing you can do about it; that’s just the way it is, and we all have to deal with it. Process thought reminds us that nothing is set in stone, and therefore everything can be changed.

I spent the first ten years of my teaching career learning that I needed to give my students way more information, guidance, and support than I received in order to create an environment where there were minimal barriers to the learning I wanted them to do. Then I spent the next ten years learning that I needed to create barriers so that they couldn’t get away with not expending effort. It was the effort, the friction, the discomfort, that created the conditions for real learning, the kind that can be transformative.

An open future requires not only our humility about what we know and what path we forge into it, but also our willingness to endure the discomfort of this uncertainty. If we are honest with ourselves about this, we might also be honest with each other. And that paves the way for the kind of solidarity that empowers everyone in the community to step up, leading when it is their turn and when their abilities can make the biggest difference.

Donna Bowman is a theologian and professor of interdisciplinary studies at the Norbert O. Schedler Honors College, University of Central Arkansas. Her books include Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women’s Theological Imagination (Lexington Books 2015) and The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Being Human (Fortress Press 2018). When not knitting or teaching, she’s watching and writing about television.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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