Art of Herding Cats

I was looking through some personal files the other day, and I happened to find some old progress reports from elementary school. Particularly interesting are the comments from grade two.

“Anthony is reading quite well in his group—his vocabulary is very good and he is able to attack new words quite well. However, his printing is messy and improvement in this area should be encouraged.” Not the first time I’ve heard something like that….

Here’s another comment: “Anthony’s attention tends to wander quite often and as a result he often falls behind in his arithmetic assignments. He is not doing as well as he could since he does not have a good grasp of the basic facts.” Not the first time I’ve heard something like that. . .

But now the final comment, and the one most pertinent to our topic this morning: “Anthony does not do very well in group work and always ends up arguing with his partners.” The comment sends me way back, over the long years, to my second grade mind, and I can almost touch its shocked realization that other people weren’t going to do what I said, when I said it, just because I said it, no matter how eminently clear and reasonable things felt to me. In moments like that, other people seemed perversely independent and idiosyncratic and complex, like cats, doing their own thing, though somehow I knew that, if all the right conditions were met, the cats could be herded, the cats could all get on the same page and accomplish something larger than any of them could ever accomplish alone.

I knew it. Thus my sense of shock—and the life-long pursuit, ever after, of learning the art of leadership. Learning what it is not, and what it is.

And clearly, to begin with, it’s not about dominating others. It’s not about acting like a second-grader when, like me, you happen to be forty-three.

I risk stating the obvious, only because there exists a stubborn impression that leadership in its essence is exactly about dominating others. As my colleague Erik Walker Wikstrom writes in his excellent little book, Serving With Grace: Lay Leadership as Spiritual Practice, “How do I understand the word ‘leader?’ This is a sticking point for many people in congregations today. […] [L]eaders are people who tell everybody else what to do and how to do it. Leaders exercise ‘power over’ and are relics of a patriarchal system that is no longer appropriate in the twenty-first century (if, indeed, it ever was).” That’s what Erik Walker Wikstrom says. The word “leader” can generate distrust when it comes up in liberal religious community, because of what instantly springs to mind.

What springs to mind for you, when you hear that word, “leader”? Lots of baggage we can put on that word, making it hard to see what it’s really all about.

If the image of dominator doesn’t come to mind, what about that of the saint? Me, a leader? Aren’t leaders the kind of people who go straight to the work naturally and make few to no mistakes? Aren’t leaders the kind of people who have easy eloquence and speak without anxiety in front of groups, who feel fearless when real people feel fear, who effortlessly cast vision and instantly inspire loyalty? Me, a leader?

Underneath the question lurks … perfectionism, and to the degree we demand perfection from ourselves, we demand it from others who dare to show up, step up, show the way. Paul Loeb, in his fantastic book Soul of a Citizen, tells the story of a small Minnesota college where a half-dozen students were sleeping in make-shift cardboard shelters. They wanted to dramatize the plight of America’s homeless. One participant recalled, “People who passed by treated us like a slumber party. They told us we were cute. But when we kept on going for a couple of days, people started to get annoyed. Some called us crazy or fanatical. One girl said that we were being hypocritical—homeless people don’t have blankets. I said yes they do; they just don’t have homes. To me it looked like she would have been satisfied only of we got soaked in the freezing rain and got hypothermia, or we launched a hunger strike, or something else!” That’s what the Minnesota college student said. In other words, if in your social activism you aren’t martyring yourself, presumably like the heroes and saints of old, then what kind of leader are you? What’s wrong with you!

How we define leadership is key. There are consequences. If to be a leader there must be perfection, then naturally if you take a leadership position, and you end up doing ten impossible things, but an eleventh impossible thing goes undone, or God forbid something goes wrong, you get to be the punching bag.

False images have consequences. Consider yet a third, that can turn us off even as we might unquestioningly accept it as accurate: leader as potential burn-out case. The people we always go to for help when no one else steps up, and they help again and again and again and again until they break. That’s leadership. The burn-out track.

A special case of this is the “good citizen”—the warm body willing to do what needs to be done, whether or not it happens to be a good fit for his or her skills, interests, and type. “Someone has to do it,” they say, so they do it; and with this—with the best of intentions and a most generous act of commitment—we often see the beginning of a long road of frustration for everyone concerned, and resentment that builds and builds, and burnout is around the corner.

Institutionally, this version of leadership as a burn-out track takes the form of a myth of limitlessness. It begins with a true premise: that the needs of this world are endless. The needs of newcomers and regulars; the needs of various age and lifestage identities like infants, children, youth, young adults, young parents, parents of children and teens, empty-nesters, divorcees, career transitioners, widows, the elderly, and the dying; and then the needs of various theological or social identities like theists, atheists, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, gays, straights, whites, blacks, and on and on. All these needs, and so many others–and don’t tell me that the needs of one aren’t as important as those of another. Don’t tell me that the needs of the elderly aren’t as important as those of teens. Don’t tell me that the needs of theists aren’t as important as those of atheists. Don’t tell me that the needs of gays and lesbians aren’t as important as those of straight people. Don’t tell me that! How could you tell me that? The needs are all equally deep and equally important. So how do we decide between them? How can we serve one without serving all?

This is the question—and the myth of limitlessness has an answer. Do it all. Make ourselves available to every call for action, even as resources are limited. Go in all directions at once. Resist all efforts to focus, or prioritize, because all such efforts feel unkind. Just can’t say NO. Just can’t say LATER. There must be a response to every need, and it’s got to happen now. Every need, entitled to an instant response.

And in the end, here is where we are if as a congregation we have bought into this false dream of limitlessness. Here it is. Our congregational reality will ironically be one of scarcity. You would think otherwise, but no. It’s because we may accomplish spectacular things, but that won’t matter, because we can always point to a need that has not yet been met, and so there is always an excuse to chastise ourselves, always an excuse to feel guilty. Scarcity and disappointment will characterize our congregational reality, and so will this: internal strife. Different congregational groups all demanding resources on their own terms and timetable, without loyalty to the best interests of the congregation as a whole. Different congregational groups in isolated silos, like different compartments of the brain not talking to each other, oblivious to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the interdependent web, which applies as much to institutions as to anything else.

Domination is just not going to herd any cats. And neither is sainthood, neither is the burn-out track. The art of leadership lies upon a completely different path.

And here we turn to a more positive vision of the art. Not domination, first of all, but servanthood. Leadership at its finest is a matter of serving the genius that lies within the heart of a group, listening for it, collaborating with the group to give it voice.

My favorite way of doing this is always to ask a group, what does success look like? (Who here has ever heard me ask this?) Asking the group to envision the end of a program or event, and people walking away fulfilled.  What does that fulfillment look like? How have people been changed? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What would need to happen for them to go to a friend and say, “Listen, I went to this event at UUCA, and it was amazing. You have to come with me next time!” What would take a person to this level of enthusiasm?

What does success look like? I love this approach because it has never resulted in the kind of arguments that apparently happened to me all the time in the second grade. Quite the opposite. By beginning with the end in mind, by directing everyone’s focus on that, what’s avoided is getting prematurely stuck on a favored tactic. Know what I’m talking about? It’s coming to the table stuck on an idea about what needs to be done, without first making sure that everyone around that same table has a shared sense of where we’re wanting to go. Without this shared sense of things, arguments over favored tactics get messy, fast. Cats staking out territory, spitting and clawing each other. That’s what can happen.

Ask the leadership question, though, and you end up in a completely different place. We put our favored tactics aside for the moment, we stop problem-solving for a moment, so that we can all share in the creation of a vision of success that gets us excited and pumped up. What does success look like? What does fulfillment look like? Ask the question, and then get out of the way. Write down what you hear. Faithfully record it. Then reflect with the group whose genius you are serving, whose energies you are trying to rally and move forward: If this is what success looks like, then what tactics will help us get there? Vision first, tactics next.

Note the process in all of this. The leader steps up to establish a clear framework for discovery, and then he or she steps back. Just gets out of the way.

Erik Walker Wikstrom, in his book I mentioned a moment ago, Serving With Grace, offers up an image of leadership that echoes all this. “The analogy,” he says, “is sometimes made to geese which, during their transcontinental flights, assume a ‘V’ formation. The goose out front is quite clearly the leader, not only helping to show the way but taking on the task of breaking through the headwinds to make it easier for all who follow. Yet the updraft of all the beating wings of the ‘followers’ makes the leader’s flight easier. And it’s also true that, at regular intervals, the leader drops back into a follower’s position and another leader comes to the front. Shared leadership,” Erik Walker Wikstrom concludes, “is not an oxymoron….”

And neither is imperfect leadership. This is my second positive point. The art of herding cats does not require sainthood but, rather, a persistent habit of calmly showing up, trying things to see how they work, learning from what happens, evolving. This nothing less than commitment to excellence. As the covenant that guides the work of our staff says, “We acknowledge that perfectionism is an obstacle to growth. As part of our commitment to excellence, we will view our mistakes as opportunities for personal and professional development and sometimes even openings for creativity and new perspectives.”

“If you don’t make mistakes,” it is said, “you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake” (F. Wikzek). ”Never say, ‘oops,’” says another wise voice. “Always say, ‘Ah, interesting’” (author unknown). But this is exactly what perfectionism blocks. Perfectionism freezes us up, as individuals and institutions. We’re saying oops constantly. We’re staying away from the really hard problems that are inevitably going to expose our weaknesses and growing edges. It makes us, in a word, unlucky. That’s right. I say this, thinking about a social-science article I encountered several months ago, about how to be lucky. It says, “Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the centre of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots. The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the centre dot, creating more anxiety. They became focused on the centre dot and more than a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it is with luck—unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.”

That’s what’s going to herd cats. Leadership as servanthood, and leadership as openness to where you happen to be right now, with a commitment to growth. Finally, this: leadership as living within our means. Practicing the sacred art of saying NO in order to clear the way to practicing the sacred art of saying YES. For both are sacred, and both are needed.

It means that in our service to the world, we spend only the energy and talents we already have, never saying YES to volunteer positions that aren’t a clear fit. Don’t sign up reluctantly, since no one else is stepping up. Don’t just be a “good citizen”—be a discerning one instead; find where your interests and passions meet the congregation’s need. “The pitcher cries for water to carry,” says Poet Marge Piercy—but not just any old water will do.

Living within our means also suggests that, as an institution, we never allow the creation or maintenance of programs and activities to get beyond existing resources of people and money. Government has to do this, and so do we. We just don’t get the cart before the horse. First things first. And yes, it’s going to mean that some needs go unmet. Not because they are unimportant. Far from it. But if a great idea—old or new—lacks people to champion it (and I mean not just brainstorming it but bringing it all the way to full fruition), then we have to press “pause.” And, pressing pause should be no shame at all. It’s got to be OK. So is letting go of congregational projects and programs that, to continue, require arm-twisting and life-support. It’s got be OK to honor them and then let them go. Got to take a deep breath and trust the process. Got to trust in the creative uncertainty that’s a part of it—the creative time of waiting for the next viable idea that will light this place up to find us. Resist the temptation to do something that only a God could do, which is to refuse to let any balls drop, and to do it all NOW, to juggle everything all at once. Only God is that good a juggler.

In liberal religious circles, a word like “leadership” comes with a tremendous amount of baggage. It’s no wonder that, when the word comes up, or the invitation goes out to take on a leadership role, we can scatter like cats. My hope is that we can unload the baggage and see leadership as if for the first time. Re-imagine it. Leadership as servanthood. Leadership as openness to learning and luck. Leadership as the sacred art of saying NO so we can practice the sacred art of saying YES.

I’ll leave you with one of my very favorite images of the art of leadership: the waitress in the sacred kitchen. The waitress as each of us individually. The waitress as us collectively, this congregation. The image comes from the Rev. Meg Barnhouse. She writes, “I love for a waitress to call me “Hon.” It’s comforting. She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her, but we fit into well worn, ancient categories: I am the Hungry One and she is the One Who Brings Nourishment From the Unseen Source. When I was younger, I worked as a waitress in Philadephia and New Jersey. I learned useful things while serving food to strangers. I know how to rush around with my hands full, thinking about six things at the same time, which has stood me in good stead as the working mother of two small sons. I know that people are not at their best when they’re hungry. That knowledge helps me to understand world events. If the citizens of the world were well fed, we’d have fewer wars and less mayhem. The most helpful thing I grasped while waitressing was that some tables are my responsibility and some are not. A waitress gets overwhelmed if she has too many tables, and no one gets good service. In my life, I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and one or two causes. That’s it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing. If I went through my life without ever learning to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,’ I would burn out and be no good to anybody. I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems that everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, ‘Sorry, Hon, not my table.’”

And so may it be. Let the cats be herded. AMEN.