How do you as a leader mind the gap between your intentions and the consequences?
One of the most critical issues of leadership on any level in an organization or society is the gap between a leader’s “intentions” and a leader’s “behavior.” As I have taught leadership and consulted with churches over the years, I have seen this issue repeated constantly. There also can be a gap between one’s intentions and the consequences. I want to content in this blog that such gaps are inevitable and that how a leader deals with this issue is directly related to the leader’s ultimate effectiveness. I should remind my readers that when it comes to evaluating leadership, the key ingredient should be not whether a leader is a good or bad one, but whether a leader is effective or ineffective.
First let me describe the issue more fully. All humans have a similar characteristic, namely that we see most clearly “our intentions.” We see less clearly our behavior and its consequences.
For example, as a parent my intention may be to enable my children to be successful. What I may not see is that my anxiety for their success may communicate to them that they are not able to take responsibility for their own lives. I may be overly emotionally involve and as a consequence of my behavior undermining my own intentions. As I said, this is just natural, I cannot easily observe myself. The problem gets worse when I am confronted with a disconnect between my intentions and the consequences. The issue is what I do when I am confronted with this.
Initially, most of us protect our own egos by simply explaining to someone what our intentions are. Often, as the gap between intentions and consequences widen, two things tend to happen. We become more anxious and compensate with justifying and rationalizing by explaining more and more our true intentions. Meanwhile those observing us become more and more emotionally put off and then begin to surmise, some would say project, what our “real” intentions are.
Leaders are of course human. When we extend this natural behavior into an organization and what do we see? We see a leader presenting her or his intentions and others watching the leader’s behavior and consequences. The issue for a leader is how we handle the gap, or said another way, how we handle the feedback over this gap. As I said, most naturally we explain once again our intentions.
Sometimes this is all that is needed. Sometimes a leader has simply failed to communicate clearly what our intentions really are. With better communications, this problem can be helped. However, this is not always the issue. Often the issue is that our ego tries to protect us from looking at the gap between what we intended and what is actually happening. In my experience, if a leader can objectively process feedback about this gap (what I call minding the gap), then make some adjustments in strategies and behaviors, the leader can become more effective in accomplishing one’s intentions and goals. If you are following me, I will now give some examples.
When I when to work for the Diocese of Texas, if was in the last years of Bishop Benitez’ 15 year tenure. I quickly realized that the organization of the Diocese of Texas was stuck on several levels. For example, no one believed more in evangelism than the Bishop. It was one of the reasons he had hired me. Yet, the Diocese at the end of his tenure was almost exactly the same size it had been at the beginning of his tenure. There was a gap between his intentions and the consequences. What the good bishop did was to deal with this disconnect by simply explaining “once more” his intention to have the Church be effective in bringing new people to Christ. Many times during those last months of his tenure, I would hear him respond to a challenge by saying “let me explain this one more time.” Meanwhile his followers had become divided. There were those who believed his intentions made him a “good leader.” Then there were others who were frustrated by his inability to receive feedback and tended to see him as a “bad leader.” These folks would often explain to me as a newcomer what the Bishop “really intended.”
Or take President Obama for another example. After watching him as a leader these past six years, it is clear how he manages the gap between his intentions and its consequences. Mostly he explains once again his intentions. I know this is an area of some passion with partisans loyally and lovingly defending him while critics are more and more questioning his “real intentions,” but step back from this situation and you can see much of our societies’ stuckness.
I believe the President when he says that his intention in the health care act was to see to it that more of the 40 million uninsured Americans be provided effective healthcare through insurance. However, when confronted with the failure of the legislation to effectively reach a significant number of those who had not been insured he returns to his intentions. Add to this that there have been some unintended consequences of the new law. For example, many lost their insurance despite his promises otherwise. What did he and his administration do with this gap between intentions and consequences? Naturally, he explains one more time his intentions.
Will he be effective in improving the health care system and insuring more of the uninsured during the remainder of his tenure? It is unlikely given the growing polarization and his inability to mind the gap. A more creative response would be to admit that such a complex piece of legislation will naturally need to be reviewed and adjusted. Yet to admit this seems to question the integrity of his intentions. When reason departs and rhetoric and spin become the end game, it usually means that the leader or leaders have failed to mind the gap.
My point is this; explaining one more time one’s intentions only further polarizes the situation, confuses many, and adds fuel to those eager to project “one’s real intentions.” Any casually reading of the internet or visit to talk news programs shows us how sad this has become and why it will take another leader to make the necessary adjustments and strategies that could make the health care act more effective.
TEC and Its Intentions
Now take the example of TEC’s current national leadership. As we all know by now, our intentions for the past ten years have been to make TEC more inclusive of others and more able to relate to our culture. I would suggest that some of the consequences are that we have actually lost lots of people (thus becoming more theological exclusive and we are rapidly becoming less connected to our culture by evidence of our inability to recruit others to our community. How do our current leaders deal with this? They explain “once more” their intentions. Until new leadership emerges that can mind the gap, we will continue to be a stuck community destined to repeat unproductive behavior. Mostly today our leaders are seen as good by their supporters and bad by their detractors. For me they are mostly ineffective.
The bottom line for leaders is this. An effective leader has the ability to mind the gap between our intentions, our behavior and the consequences. An effective leader is able to receive feedback and process it in effective ways. The effective parish clergy and Bishops that I have known actively seek feedback (“How am I doing? How are we doing?”) and makes continual strategic adjustments. Even more effectively, such leaders actively involve followers in this process of feedback and adjustments.
This was one of Bishop Payne’s great strengths. For most of his tenure as Bishop of Texas, he and the Diocese make strategic adjustments while keeping the vision of “One Church United in Mission” before the Diocese. He effectively minded the gap. Did he have his distractors? Yes, of course he did, all leaders do. However, he was effective in accomplishing his goals because he avoided “having to explain one more time” his intentions. He was able to use a diverse group of leaders in the process of making effective adjustments to his strategies.
So, let me ask. How do you as a leader mind the gap between your intentions and the consequences? Your ability to do this openly and creatively will determine to a major extent your effectiveness. Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear take note.