Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations – Part 1

This blog series was originally focused on introducing the curriculum I’ve been writing for church planters and social transformation entrepreneurs: Do Good Plus Do No Harm. While piecing together the four parts of the series, I realized it had turned into something else. For over a decade, I’ve been dialoguing with survivors of spiritual abuse in church plants, “legacy churches,” and Christian non-profits. One concern that surfaces repeatedly is, “We need a way to identify toxic organizations and certify ones that are truly ‘safe.’ Who could we do that, and how? What would that process look like?”

After almost seven years of working on my curriculum, I keep coming back to the same elements that I believe are building blocks for exactly that kind of certification system. While they may seem “negative,” because they started from actual, soul-damaging situations of abuse of power in religious organizations, I don’t know a better way to arrive at principles and practices for what’s “healthy” and “whole” than from experiencing the opposite: malignant leaders and toxic organizations.

And it seems to me that too many textbooks that are supposed to be about quality leadership and great systems don’t always seem to take into account the realities of how harmful organizations happen, or the destructive aftermath they leave in the lives of those victimized in them. So, how useful are they for developing a certification system that can identify and intervene in sick systems, or even predict and help prevent them? Maybe this curriculum will serve as a base for building a certification system that can.

Part 1 – Introducing “Do Good Plus Do No Harm”

Part 2 – Top 20 Problems I’ve Encountered in Organizations

Part 3 – Top 10 Dimensions Our Systems Need to Equip Participants and Counteract Abuse of Power

Part 4 – Leadership Certification Checkpoints and System Trustworthiness Checklist

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Introducing “Do Good Plus Do No Harm” – Will This Curriculum Work for Us?

I started volunteering in non-profit organizations when I was a junior in high school. That was not exactly common in the early 1970s. I’ve participated in a wide range of issues, entities, and endeavors, including with public media, political campaigns, 501c3s, educational institutions, and faith-based ministries (both long established churches and newly planted ones).

Many of these service experiences proved to be wonderful and worthwhile. However, just as many raised tough questions about social change and power, when organizations that supposedly had that as their mission ended up harming participants and recipients. Most of these situations weren’t easily fixable – like by firing this or that person, or by producing this or that document. No, something corrosive seemed intertwined in the very DNA of the organization, its leadership, and its paradigm. It made sense to me that solutions would integrate dimensions of information processing, organization building, and participation experiencing in order to do good plus do no harm.

I’m curious and always have a lot of questions. (In fact, I was once introduced before a guest lecture on cultural changes as “someone who works on answers to questions no one else is asking yet.”) For me, more questions seem to arise out of problem situations I experience than just theories that I am studying. This curriculum comes mostly out of questions I developed in real-world toxic situations. It merges solutions I figured out for one ongoing stream of problems I’ve been dealing with for 40 years (namely, abuse of power in religious organizations) and three newer streams from the last 20 years:

Church leadership systems and organizational methodologies. I kept seeing woefully unqualified people end up in “leadership” roles, in part because of a system slanted toward them. Many of these were good people whose theory, theology, and experiences had enough overlap with the assessment system for them to be endorsed. However, sometimes people succeeded in an assessment situation, but turned out to harm others because they were highly narcissistic (in it to benefit themselves, ultimately), or even sociopathic (no conscience or compassion). I also saw a lot of searching for a list of universal principles for organizational methods that could work anywhere, guaranteed. But, it seemed to me, that lacked any understanding of cultural contexts and how what “works” in one place could automatically lead to wreckage in another.

Modern-to-postmodern paradigm shift. Terms that meant something to conventional leaders from a modernist background often didn’t mean the same thing to emerging, culturally postmodern leaders. It didn’t really work just to translate the terms. That’s because the underlying modernist techniques often were ones emerging leaders would not use anyway – and in fact would typically find offensive. Something deeper was going on in that made the entire systems incompatible and collaborations improbable, except for a few areas of common ground in thinking or values or cultural concerns.

Newer forms of social enterprise and organizational development for social transformation. I began working more on project-oriented endeavors aimed at personal and social transformation. These were usually time-limited, highly specific, and drawing from a wide range of participants. Later, many people in these projects spun off new teams and projects that were involved with emerging forms of for-benefit organizations (like L3Cs and B Corporations) and pursuing a holistic set of “quadruple bottom line” goals to benefit community, ecology, economy, and spirituality.

The key things I realized along the way from situations toward solutions is that translating the language of paradigm shifts or organizational health or project development wasn’t enough. As with cross-cultural communication, just because someone can translate words or sentences between languages, that doesn’t guarantee that it will make sense when you start building sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into explanations or essays.

I did this sort of interpreting back and forth all the time between modern and postmodern thinking styles, leadership models, and cultural norms. Eventually I realized that, in fact, what we need is not just translation of surface principles and practices, but a deeper look at how clashes of entirely different paradigms cause conflict. Then our process is about finding common ground for the common good, not masquerading the same old systems in updated images. Otherwise, we just create yet another “tip list” of seemingly practical points that supposedly work anywhere – but doesn’t, as I kept experiencing.

So, from those four streams of problem situations, I came up with a range of questions to explore. My top 20 are below. I’ve clustered them according to what volume number I’ve addressed them in, in my Do Good Plus Do No Harm curriculum for social transformation agents and organizational developers. After the top 20 problem list, I’ve got my top 10 suggestions for concepts and components that move us toward system solutions for training. And by system solutions, I mean one set of concept frameworks and practical skills that help us identify and work to resolve multiple problems simultaneously.

Systems deal a lot with processes and procedures, so I end this overview with a look at two processes that I believe are imperative for success in social transformation enterprises. The first one deals with developing qualified leadership – by which I mean people who demonstrate the personal character, relational abilities, and specific knowledge and skill sets for “success.” (And how we define success will predetermine what kinds of leaders and entities we develop.) The second process deals with key components to proving we are people who are worthy of trust in seeking to serve others as guests in their host culture instead of trying to dominate it.

So – will this curriculum work for your team, project, or partnership? Yes …

  • If some of these problem situations and their underlying questions resonate with team members.
  • If you’re looking for larger systems that can help your team process multiple complex issues that are interconnected.
  • If your team values creating a trustworthy environment for social transformation endeavors, and is serious about evaluating candidates to prevent unqualified people from leading and to remove abusive people from roles of influence and power.
  • If you appreciate multi-dimensional materials (text, images, film studies) that cater to various learning styles that are sure to be represented on a team that involves diversity.
  • If you’re okay with taking a look at the “negative” in order to achieve the “positive,” because you’ve experienced what happens when abuse of power gets minimized.

However, I’ll be blunt: If you’re just looking for fix-it formulas and pro tips, this curriculum will fail you. It’s a system which will take your team a while to work through, because its concept frameworks and practical skills to figure out solutions are interrelated. It won’t cover everything you probably would like, but will deal with issues that aren’t covered elsewhere. So, if you’re willing to invest the time to absorb the material, work through the case studies, and apply the ideas and actions, I believe Do Good Plus Do No Harm will pay off for your team.

Will this curriculum work for your team? Check out the more detailed sections below to see if that confirms your decision or changes your mind.

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Series Links: Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations

Part 1 – Introducing “Do Good Plus Do No Harm”

Part 2 – Top 20 Problems I’ve Encountered in Organizations

Part 3 – Top 10 Dimensions Our Systems Need to Equip Participants and Counteract Abuse of Power

Part 4 – Leadership Certification Checkpoints and System Trustworthiness Checklist

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