Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations – Part 3

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


I served a total of nearly 20 years of my work life at two universities and one seminary. I spent significant amounts of time in roles where I wrote up processes and procedures, edited catalogues and manuals, researched institutional history and governance, planned conferences, transitioned departments to digital systems, and created visual aids that captured school statistics and data. All of this gave me an insider perspective on many aspects of how educational institutions run their business – for better or for worse. That was complemented by my years of collegiate studies and many practitioner trainings on “recovery ministry” topics, learning styles, futurist skills, and start-up theories and skills for social transformation enterprises and church planting.

These experiences uncovered many gaps and excesses in our conventional systems for equipping people for both vocational and volunteer work. Since the mid-1990s, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the problems I’ve observed and experienced, trying to figure out practical ways to upgrade such systems to make them more holistic and more relevant to the changing times in which we find ourselves. I was particularly focused on approaches that promoted volunteer workers as guests in a host culture rather than as dominators, and relied on intercultural teamwork to get things done.

The following list shares my top 10 list of concepts and components to accomplish that task. I designed this list originally for faith-based trainings, because that has been the majority of where I’ve done most of my work. But, I’ve adapted it here for broader audiences who want to do good plus do no harm.

The items that are ideas generally are interwoven throughout this curriculum. Others require larger components to be added in forthcoming modules as time allows. For instance, plans for the larger Opal Design Systems eventually include the following elements:

  • Field Guides (curriculum for social transformation entrepreneurs).
  • Personal Profiles (assessment tools for self-discovery and team building).
  • Organizational Profiles (evaluation tools for identifying overall “health” of an organizational system, plus pinpoint problem areas that need to be addressed).
  • Cultural GPS system (for dealing with cross-cultural communications and culture shock issues).
  • Group simulation games and practice projects (to apply ideas with teamwork in a more monitored “laboratory” setting where it’s safer to make mistakes).
  • Case studies (media, historical, and quadruple bottom line).

Not all of these elements can be presented in the text of a curriculum, because they require a relational context – teamwork, internships, mentoring. But some such elements can at least be simulated, through case studies. Altogether, these create the Opal Design Systems. I will also recommend other well-developed systems that have compatible approaches. These include assessment tools, organizational systems development, project planning and evaluation tools, and systems of indicators for qualitative measurement of project impact.

Content Presentation for Thinking Narratively

GOAL – To move toward a story-based approach to thinking about social change, where we learn to see principles and problems embedded in the unfolding “plotline.”

  1. Shift to systems-oriented narrative thinking. The conventional approach to developing a faith or philosophy integrates around the world of the mind, abstract categories, and theoretical principles or propositions that we draw out of patterns we see in our source materials – whether those sources are life experiences, great works of literature, scriptures, speculation, etc. This analytic approach is more intellectual in nature, and can easily fall prey to the flawed Enlightenment drive to achieve “linguistic and philosophical or theological perfectionism.” That is the notion that if we can just find the right words to describe something, we have captured the true essence of it, and will then have a perfect way of thinking about the world. (For instance, see The Search for the Perfect Language by Umberto Eco.)

Narrative thinking provides an alternative approach. This holistic way to build a system for interpreting life integrates around how people relate in the world. It’s about sharing our life through our stories. A storying approach is concrete – it keeps in mind culture, and not just language. It is also paradoxical –keeps in mind both people’s experiences and interactions, and the larger picture of God’s providence in human affairs as they interweave through a society’s history. Storying won’t give us all the in-between details or abstract philosophical principles we might want to know. But, tracking what happens overall – as our interconnected plotlines unfold – shows how change happens: personal maturity without reaching (or needing) perfectionism. And God’s unique design for each of us helps us better understand the trajectory we can move into as He transforms our character while we pursue knowing Him.

Customization Skills for Connecting Productively

GOAL – To create an environment that equips participants in practical skills they need to connect, communicate, and customize activities well – for individuals, teams, organizations, and cultures.

  1. Apply customization for learning style differences to all levels of communication and teamwork. Equip all teachers, trainers, mentors, supervisors, and students to apply an understanding of learning styles, creativity theory, and immersion learning experiences to customizing their work for all different kinds of learners. If we cannot even learn to communicate and work on a team with people who are different from ourselves, however do we think we will develop the ability or credibility to create a social transformation endeavor that connects with the very people we hope to help?
  2. Apply cultural sensitivity to all dimensions of communicating, planning, and serving. Train participants in the component skills of appropriate and effective cultural engagement. This includes cultural exegesis – detailing a culture through observation, analysis, and interpretation of what we see. And, because not every aspect of every culture (including our own) is good, relevant cultural engagement skills also include how to avoid the errors of syncretism (absorbing their cultures’ harmful features into our culture), colonialism (imposing our features onto their culture), and isolationism (not caring about the need to transform features in our culture or theirs that are harmful).
  3. Address both organizational strengths and challenges. Having some strengths doesn’t guarantee sustainability, and avoiding symptoms of problems doesn’t make them go away. So, train team members in the complementary processes of building healthy organizational infrastructures through “appreciative inquiry” and evaluating problems and progress through “differential diagnosis.” These help keep both individuals and organizations focused on reducing harm while moving toward greater health.

Immersion Experiences for Developing Practical Skills

GOAL –To achieve a more holistic understanding of social problems, possibilities for transformation, and productive collaboration, in part through highly practical learning experiences as individuals and teams.

  1. “Project rounds and mini-internships.” Doctors in training do rounds to visit all different kinds of patients and get a better understanding of the range of medical issues involving the whole person. Wouldn’t an experience of general “rounds” make sense for people who feel called to serve as social change agent, regardless of what specific concerns they are most passionate about? Well-supervised and well-facilitated on-site visits or interviews could help round out an individual’s vision for what needs to change and how others are engaging in transformative projects and partnerships. Case studies could provide a virtual visit for some of these rounds. Both in-person and virtual rounds should include such features as a review of the organization’s history, evaluation of its current status, challenges being encountered, and practical lessons learned.
  2. In-depth internship. Apprentices in on-the-ground service projects and partnerships would benefit from an extended, well-supervised and well-facilitated Field Education practicum within one certified agency. The minimum should be one year in the same project, with regular input from the same certified on-site supervisor and off-site mentor, so there is enough time invested and continuity to see the larger scope of the project and its impact.
  3. Partnership collaboration tour-of-service. Apprentices would benefit from an additional practicum or internship experience that involves collaborative teamwork with members drawn from partner groups or agencies. It might be a one-time event, an ongoing activity, or a comprehensive system like community development. But the focus should be learning to work through issues of diversity, developing skills of communal discernment and decision-making, and communicating cross-culturally.

Research and Development for Sustaining Constructive Impact

GOAL – To develop resources that help social transformation enterprises place participants in a role and at a level that matches their gifts and maturity level; provide evaluation and restoration tools to reduce toxicity in their organizational systems; and teach local people to create insightful resources that equip future generations to understand the heritage (both good and bad) of the local culture.

  1. Discern how qualified (or unqualified) a leader or participant is – or whether he/she is currently disqualified and needs to step down. Discern how healthy or harmful an organization is for its participants and those targeted as recipients. We need evaluation tools for determining whether an individual has a threshold level of maturity and relevant skills for serving – especially in the emerging holistic paradigm – and/or in overseeing, mentoring, and supervising others. We need parallel tools for discerning whether an organization has a threshold level of being healthy to work in or with, and to identify where there might be toxic elements in its system. The more these sets of tools interrelate, the better. That way, they create a more comprehensive system for pinpointing potential problem areas, since most would involve both specific people and specific elements in the organization.
  2. Move from paradigm-bound assessments to transparadigm placement. Character issues and maturity are always relevant. But processes and styles of visioning, organizational systems, leadership hierarchy, teams, supervision, etc., are very different depending on the cultural paradigm we find ourselves in. We need a placement system with tools for evaluating how leaders and participants would fit overall within a variety of cultures, what might be best or worst matches for them culture-wise, what specific issues might cause them the most “culture shock” due to stark differences with their native culture, and what social issues may hold the greatest potential for them to have a positive impact precisely because their view is different from the culture’s in which they serve.
  3. Create a legacy of “cultural capital” resources and cultural engagement research. Replication of knowledge and skills takes place more thoroughly when we are intentional about passing them on. We need to train people to create a base of knowledge that can provide a historical perspective on the local culture and the organization’s impact on it over time. This is a part of leaving a legacy. It involves creating “transgenerational resource banks” by conducting historical studies and case studies of local culture and collecting relevant resources on service to local people groups.

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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