Monday, October 26, 2009

Good to Great?

Wednesday, I will write for eight hours on issues of gospel, congregation, and culture for my PhD comps. Part of that time will have to do with notions of leadership, so I've been reading in the literature on leadership. There are leadership books that have real merit and cross the boundaries related to certain kinds of organizations. For instance, the sensemaking literature is equally valid for a retail business as it is a church. But some of this lit doesn't translate as easily, in particular the business management literature.

The book, Good to Great, has received high marks for methodology and results. This came from real social science research--grounded theory to be exact--and its conclusions are both apparent and surprising (the mark of any good study of this sort, it seems to me). And there is certainly much to commend the book, especially if you're an alpha dog running a major corporation. Seriously, if I was running a major corporation being evaluated by the bottom line, I would use this as my Bible.

But the author and lead researcher, Jim Collins, claims more for this book than business application. This book is not about business, he tells us, but about organizations, any organizations. And it is within all of them to be more than good. In fact, for Collins, good is the enemy of great, and all human organizations have the capacity to be great.

One of the keys here is knowing that one thing at which you can be the best. The paper company, Kimberly-Clark, for instance, got out of the paper mill business and focused on toilet paper and diapers because they could be the best at that. Apparently, and this is a quote, they had a real passion for diapers. God bless them.

These companies (only 23 out of the Fortune 500 list qualify) also have heroic leadership of an underdog sort. Humble-but-driven types who put the good of the organization ahead of their own ego needs. They make sure that the work gets done without taking any of the credit for it. Moving from good to great just depends on finding one of those persons--who, by the way, should also be brilliant. Otherwise, you're stuck with good, or worse.

Now I like this on the surface, because this rips the notion of the outside gunslinger who comes in and sets everything in place. Slow and steady, it seems, wins the race. The big flashy guys are often more trouble than they are worth. And Collins' book also blows up the myth of compensation driving excellence, i.e., without a big bonus structure, leaders simply do not perform. Not a factor, says Collins.

But as someone who coaches congregational leaders, I am overall discouraged by books like these. While Collins thinks that the principles apply meta-organizationally, the truth is it works only when an organization's identity can be boiled down to one thing simply stated. Great diapers. But there are some human organizations, congregations among them, that aspire especially to things that cannot be reduced so easily. A concept, like shalom, for instance, which should animate a congregation's life, is complex and holistic. It has to bring many things together. So, shalom refuses reduction and bears tensions which cannot be resolved easily as favoring one over the many (one of the marks of "great" is being able to get rid of dead weight quickly, even if its your brother-in-law).

It's got to be embarrassing for Collins at this point to have Fannie Mae as one of his exemplars. Doh!

Which brings up the question of criteria for evaluation. How does one measure greatness? Is it only internal to an organization? Would, for instance, a company that refused exponential push toward internal satisfaction for the sake of a better world be greater than Fannie Mae? In other words, how can one evaluate an organization apart from the conditions of the world around it, conditions that they both exploit (in good and bad ways) and create? Fannie Mae has left all of us in a helluva mess. How does society as a whole factor into evaluating something like this? And might a concept like the Kingdom of God lead to a different group of "greats?" Maybe some of these organizations still make it, but maybe they don't.

Don't get me started here. My frustrations are numerous with this book. I will stop with one last one (to keep me from getting started). I'm guessing that most church leaders, not to mention most business leaders, would look around the room after reading a book like this and either fire the preacher or give up. Again, I like some of the principles here. The bit about freedom and responsibility is very helpful, if not a little prosaic. But they are all stated in aspirational terms--things we would aspire for. And aspiration beats the snot out of most of us, paralyzing many of us, and sending the rest of us off on a never-ending, neurotic quest for a messiah. Collins is convinced there are more of those just lying around than we think, but my hunch is that most groups of elders would look around the room and disagree.

Here's the good news (perhaps even great). Churches are invited into strategies that do not pretend to words like "great." We are invited, all of us, to embody words like "leaven" and "mustard seed," words that know power in something other than big and awesome. And we are assured that even with pathetic little faith, God can still be revealed. This is no excuse for shoddiness. But it is an invitation to begin where we are with what we have because that is the point. God can be seen even in that--especially in that.

Because this too is an expression of human potential--the potential to welcome one another as we are, not for how great we might become. And most congregations have more real hope there than they do in the pages of Collins' book.

As I read Collins' book, I kept thinking of all the people who taught me things about being human who had no capacity for "making the leap to great." The chronically ill, the mentally challenged, the hopelessly awkward. They shall inherit the earth. And that's pretty great.


Ben Berry said...

Amen! I always enjoy reading your blog, Mark. Plenty to learn and chew on. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. . . . wonder how this would play at mega-Church conferences where the dominant model over the past 10 years seems to have become pastor as CEO? As the largest organizations have demonstrated over the past 18 months they were driven by the wrong values, so too sadly, for the very reasons you outlined, several of the mega-Churches are going to implode. And the fall will be even more damaging that the fall of AIG, or Enron, or fill in the name. Those places made no claim other than profit. Congregations (of whatever judeo-christian ilk) process something more. Brotha, it's not if, it's when. People, yes, much more complex than a diaper.

III said...

Fantastic entry, Mark. I remember a preaching class I had with you where your main critique of one of my sermons was that I "didn't use the resources of the text" -- the language of Scripture. I appreciate how you brought that out here, and re-imagined how we should view our own organizations.

Good luck on comps

Mark Love said...


Thanks for commenting. You know that preaching teachers are mean and unreasonable. The only way we can justify our existence is by being hard on students. :)