TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Reflecting on leadership

I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never be hungry;
he who believes in me will never thirst. (John 6:35)

In last week’s gospel reading from John, we were reminded of our God who provides nourishment for us as a pilgrim people, when we once again heard the story of the five barley loaves and two fish. In our first reading this week, from the Book of Exodus, we capture again the story of the wandering people in the wilderness, grumbling that they had been abandoned, with the Lord then showering them with manna, so they would remember that “I, the Lord, am your God”.

I sometimes liken us to the people wandering in the wilderness feeling lost, and losing our faith in a God who loves us and journeys with us. I imagine that those people who are not connecting with a faith community, especially to hear the Word of God and to share at the Eucharistic Table, may particularly feel lost and alone.

I have had another interesting week and I hope to focus once again in this message on leadership. I will share with you two events from the week. The first was an afternoon tea I was invited to attend with Tanya Plibersek, to participate in a conversation about Foreign Aid and Australia’s global responsibilities. The second was the Priest/Principals Program ‘Recognising Reality’.

I accepted the afternoon tea invitation because many years ago I found myself in a similar meeting with Kevin Rudd, before he was Prime Minister. I was pleased to be at a table with him and a few other people as we chatted about this real need for us as Australians to assist with the poorer countries of the world. However, what I encountered on this occasion was very different. As I walked into the space I realised that I had entered a political party ‘meeting’ and I did not know what to do, where to sit or anyone who was there. I found that I walked into the room and then walked out again so I could determine if I should be present – and yes, I did receive an invitation. I did re-enter the crowded room and finally found a seat. Clearly most people knew each other and my presence meant nothing to them. I did engage in introducing myself to the people on my right and left. Once Tanya Plibersek arrived, she was introduced and what I thought was going to be a conversation, two-way dialogue and shared-learning became political point scoring. I was disappointed because almost every statement began with a negative slur on the other side of the political divide. I was left reflecting on true, good and inspirational leadership. I am pleased that the ALP’s position around foreign aid is more enlightened than those of the present government in which we have seen a diminution of this support. Our own overseas aid agency, Caritas, has had its funds significantly reduced because of cuts to this spending in our federal budget. I hope you are able to read my comments without thinking I am being in any way political. These are just my observations, as I ponder with you about leadership at all levels in our Australian context. Tanya did say we need to be more generous and to tell the good news stories of what our aid achieves in the poorest of the poor countries. There are presently almost 60 million displaced people in the world, more than at any other time in history.

Then on Friday, I sat with the priests and the principals with a day facilitated by the Director of the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) and Associate Professor of the Australian Catholic University, Dr Ruth Powell. She was invited to explore with us our local diocesan context – the NCLS takes place in parishes across our diocese every five years - as well as what the NCLS can teach us about vital faith communities. One of the great gifts that Ruth brings to this field of work and research is her deep faith. She is a world class researcher who is a woman of faith and because of this, when she speaks, she is worth listening to because of the questions she asks in the context of our post-modern world in which we are trying to be a vibrant faith community.

NCLS Research identifies twelve key Leadership Strengths that contribute to effective leadership. These come under four key headings:

  1. Engage with Others
  2. Develop Shared Directions
  3. Create a Secure Base
  4. Make Things Happen

1.Engage With Others

Listen: Listen Deeply

Engaging with others involves listening deeply to them, understanding things from their perspective. Solid foundations are created if leaders can be fully present for others, stepping beyond their own agendas.

Connect: Build Mutual Connections

Effective leaders work with and through people – building teams, alliances and networks – becoming a trusted part of the social fabric. They need to come alongside others, discovering common interests and building solid platforms for new possibilities.

2. Develop Shared Directions

Envision: Envision together

Churches and organisations grow best when they have a clear, owned vision that binds people together. Effective leadership focuses on purpose and the future, not just on immediate issues or matters of maintenance.

Explore: Explore options creatively

Effective leadership will help people understand the importance of moving in new directions. It will encourage lateral thinking and inspire people to look at old problems in new ways. This can be critical to arriving at effective responses to difficult situations.

Inspire: Inspire heart commitment

Inspiring heart commitment is vital for a group to move in new directions. Effective leadership will connect people’s passions with a group’s visions and directions, generating emotional commitment and heart connections to the journey.

Empower: Empower people to contribute

It is not only important to grow commitment to new directions but also to help people find their place within those directions, empowering them to make contributions. Leadership needs to draw out and nurture each individual’s gifts and skills.

3. Create a Secure Environment

Structure: Create clear positive structures

Clear positive structures matter. People appreciate trustworthy systems where they know how things operate, what is expected of them and where they can contribute readily, with their efforts valued by leadership.

Communicate: Develop reliable communication

Clear reliable communication is important at all levels in order to create a nurturing and trusting environment in which people feel safe. This is important in formal meetings, less formal gatherings and in conversations. Effective leaders will encourage reliable communication among others and model it themselves.

Optimism: Build a culture of optimism

A culture of optimism in a group will encourage people to build on what they have, inviting them to explore potential and hopes rather than limitations or needs. Even when facing serious challenges, effective leadership involves looking beyond them to the hopes and aspirations of the group or community.

4. Make Things Happen

Act: Move to action

There comes a moment when it is important to step out and give something a go, even though it may feel risky. A leader’s capacity to move to action, to make things happen, to bring people together around an initiative or hope is an important leadership strength.

Resolve: Maintain Resolve

Leaders face many competing demands and pressures that may blow them off course. Having a clear sense of purpose is vital; as is the determination and resolve to hold fast to those purposes when things get difficult.

Learn: Learn and Grow from Experience

Action without reflection can be very dangerous. Leaders, expecting others to learn and grow on the journey also need to be willing to learn and be changed, perhaps in quite significant ways.

I hope for those of you engaged in leadership, and particularly those engaged in parish leadership, school leadership, CatholicCare leadership and other Catholic Agency and organisational leadership across our Diocese, find these four key areas and the twelve sub-areas helpful for your self-reflection and organisational reflection on leadership. You can also go to the NCLS website and log onto a tool to assess your leadership strengths. When I completed this tool, I found that my four core strengths lay in each of the four areas. If you recognise that you cannot possibly have strengths in each of the areas, then finding others who do, can really contribute to a good leadership team and parish/organisational environment.

Ruth used the term missional edge on Friday. I liked this image of us as a church body. We mission on the edge and we do this from a position of faith. It is our faith that makes us who we are, and brings that point of difference to anything in which we are engaged, be that community outreach, worship, education, healthcare, aged care, welfare services or just our normal work places.

I will expand on this a little more next week. Until then stay warm and well.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.