Leadership ‘Fractals’ and How Everyone Counts.

The weekend before last I spent with my former bishop in the town of Arundel. I went to Church with him and his spouse, Helen,on the Sunday morning. Here is what happened. I sat with Helen. As we went into the pew, she introduced me to the two people next door to me. At some time during the service, a baby began to cry. I looked around to see what was happening, and saw a very anxious looking young mum. You could almost read the story from her face. ‘I do not want to disturb the service, but I do not know what to do? Is it proper to get up? Should I stay put and quieten the baby? How long is that going to take? So the baby went on crying for a minute or two. Then Helen got up and went over to her. I saw them speaking softly for a moment, after which she gently took the baby outside. From this action I read the following conversation “It’s ok, don’t be worried. We have lots of babies here. If you want to stay I can take him outside for you, or if you like you could go. But don’t worry too much.’ So the issue was settled with kindness and an explanation of the situation.

After Church, I stood around on my own looking at all the people getting their cups of coffee and wondering where the end of the queue was. No one was talking to me, but although I thought that they looked a bit pre-occupied with their own concerns, I was happy to watch the throng. Then a person came up and asked me where I was from and we began a conversation. At the lunch that
 followed, I struck up a conversation again with a person over their
German sounding name, and those people became my lunch partners till it was time for me to go home.

I thought to myself ‘How important these little signs of welcome and acceptance of strangers are. A whole experience in Church for a new or anxious person could be made one in which love was shown or one in which they felt judged by a simple action or inaction.’ I felt proud to be a Christian that day. The congregation took a while to get going at the coffee time, but I too have a responsibility to make connections, and I was pleased with what happened over lunch.

The following week, I went to Sarum College to do the course on leadership. As I entered, the receptionist was very helpful. He explained to me where my room was and I felt that he was genuine when he said ‘If there is anything I can do, just come and let me know.’ This same attitude I noticed in all the staff, from the other staff in the office, to the librarian, to the bookshop staff, to the kitchen staff. The food was good and I could tell that they had tried to speed up the serving by having two distribution points for each element of the meal. The showers were of the ‘water saving’ type, but I did not have to run around in circles under them to get wet and there was plenty of hot water for a responsible water-saving shower. It looked as though they had spent money on installing en-suite bathrooms in the rooms. In the hall-ways of the building was good art, and pictures of all the staff on the walls.

During the week’s education, we were introduced to the idea of ‘Fractal Leadership.’ This rather strange sounding name comes from mathematics. A ‘fractal’ is a small shape that is replicated at several dimensions of an image, so that, for example, a leaf at first glancelooks as though it has lots of veins. But then looking closer, each vein is made up of smaller veins, and each smaller vein is made up of smaller ones. A coastline is a ‘fractal’ too, because at a large scale, it is made up of lots of indentations, but then each indentation is made up of smaller ones, and that indentation is again made up of smaller indentations. If you want to see a really good fractal just google ‘Mandelbrot Set’.  The other idea associated with fractals is ‘chaos theory’. This theory states that most of reality is not of the kind that says ‘Billiard ball “A” hits billiard ball “B” with a certain force, and Billiard ball “B” moves accordingly. This works for very simple systems, but not for very complex systems. The classic example is the weather. They say ‘Can a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon be the cause of a hurricane in Florida?’ Or an older description of such a complex chain of events is this witticism:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a  nail.

I was reminded in this context of
Helen’s actions as a small act of
kindness that could have had large effects. It reminded me that the leadership of the whole congregation in relation to the mum with the baby was held by Helen at that moment, even though the overall leadership of the worship was in the hands of the bishop. And at Sarum College, it was the myriad small things that they did that made me feel welcome and at home and sent a message ‘This place cares’, which improved my attitude of receptivity to the learning. I said ‘If they get these things right, then it is also likely that I will have a good experience in the course.’  At meal times, the whole of the leadership of the College is carried by the kitchen staff.

We heard during the week of an airline in the US that could turn a plane around in 18 minutes. Why? Because the pilot and co-pilot helped with the cleaning of the plane!
So then I began to think about us. I wondered how people feel as they enter the Church for the first time, or look at the building from outside. I loved it the other morning when Frank got up and said ‘I’m the welcomer, welcome’. That was an innovation that was fun. I think it is important that the welcomer arrives at about 10.10, because that is when people start to arrive. I have found it important to collect some information about people who come, with their permission, because then I can send a welcome e.mail to them, and send information about our programme in the future. ‘For want of a form, no e.mail was sent, for want of an e.mail, no help could be sought, for want of help …’ You see the chain of events. At the time of welcoming, the whole of the leadership of the congregation is in the hands of the welcomers. The same is true for coffee. The same is true for how the choir sings, for how the intercessor intercedes and for how the readers read and the communion minister introduces their parts. The fact that we welcome people in the ‘warm up’ counts. The fact that we obviously want to share around the roles in the Eucharist counts. How our notice boards look counts: Are they up to date? What kinds of activities are we announcing?

Although I have emphasised these kinds of things before, my week away where I experienced the way in which leadership in a congregation is dispersed and operates at different levels within a congregation, and spending some more time thinking about leadership as a ‘fractal’ kind of a process has made me more convinced about our need to attend carefully to how we present ourselves as a Christian community.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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