Monday, August 30, 2010

The Legionaries of Christ: Management Consulting

Many of us have lost our faith in large institutions. People feel manipulated and used by their employers. They don't feel any better about their elected representatives. This malaise, increasingly spills over into faith-based organizations.

Most religious congregations would concur that democracies are good and totalitarian systems are bad. Yet, in a way, some have tolerated dictatorships. This is just as true in the corporate world of business. The people at the top often do not have enough information to know what needs to be done.

Of course, there are no guarantees that any organization, religious or otherwise, will continue to thrive into the future. There are myriad ways to go wrong and not even the best laid management plans or (Vatican) oversight can protect from all of them. But still, just maybe, there are alternatives to religious management models that owe as much to ancient military command and control models as they do to a spiritual understanding of the vow of obedience.

As a member of the Legionaries of Christ in the early part of my career, I learned a good deal about leadership and management which has served me well in the latter part of my career both in terms of what works and what is grossly dysfunctional.

As a management consultant, I have to stay abreast of the latest, global approach to management and leadership. Not too long ago, I was reading some ideas from Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies. I decided to paraphrase and adapt an article by Professor Gary Hamel and see if Nayar's ideas could work in the religious environment.

I wondered what might ensue, if I were to apply some of Nayar’s management approaches to the Legionaries of Christ, especially as they grapple with the necessity to move away form the dysfunctional aspects of the methodology bequeathed to them by their founder. Here is what I came up with:

The world has become too complex for the Superior General to play the role of “visionary-in-chief.” Instead, the Superior General must become a “management architect”—someone who continually asks, “What are the principles and processes that can help us surface the best ideas and unleash the talents of every Legionary of Christ?”

Today, as never before, the Church needs leaders who refuse to be seduced by the fatal allure of the familiar.

Is it really is possible to change the management DNA in a religious congregation, approved by the Church and established more than 50 years ago? If so, how can it be done?  Legacy management practices, complicated by a dysfunctional understanding of the (religious) vow of obedience,  reflexively perpetuate the past—by over-weighting the views of long-tenured superiors, by valuing conformance more highly than creativity and by turning tired religious practices into sacred truths.

As Gary Hamel says, “Everybody knows there are downsides to management-as-usual, but are they any alternatives? We can dream about religious congregations where subjects eagerly challenge their superiors, where honesty trumps deference and where the pyramid has been turned upside down—but then again, we can also dream about world peace and cold fusion. That doesn’t mean they’re achievable.”

This sort of skepticism is understandable. After all, the technology of management varies little from religious order to religious order. It is therefore easy to assume that the governing status quo is also the best and only way to operate. This means that while there may be other ways of planning, coordinating and controlling, there aren’t any better ways—at least not for Congregation that must contend with demanding pastoral needs and professed religious.

Dogma often masquerades as truth, and that we are often comforted by the deception. There are many who would prefer a lazy ramble along the gentle contours of the tried-and-true conformity to the Evangelical counsels rather than taking a fresh look at how they might be practiced in ways that might be unproven and different.

“We must destroy the concept of the Superior General. The notion of the ‘visionary,’ the ‘captain of the ship’ is bankrupt. We are telling the religious, ‘You are at least as important as your superior. Pastoral “value” is created between the religious and the souls entrusted to his care. It is the Superior’s job to enable innovation at that level of interaction. Obedience based on “command-and-control” does not foster innovation.

Revolutions don’t usually start with the traditional Church hierarchy. But I think there is space for a model of obedience that feels more like a community than a bureaucracy and operates more like a democracy than a hierarchy.

Suppose the Legion of Christ was to forthright in analyzing the Congregations shortcomings, allowing, if needed brutally frank exchanges.

Suppose the Legionaries agreed that, fundamentally, they are “a service business.”  In a service business, it is first-level religious, not the superiors who play the most critical roles in creating “pastoral value.” The contemporary religious world is filled with people who have knotty spiritual and ethical challenges. When these people come to a particular Congregation of priests they are most likely to be helped by faithful, creative and highly engaged religious. The “value zone” lies at the intersection of religious and the people entrusted to their care. That is why it is vital for the “front-line religious” to have input into the decision making processes.

The top-down hierarchical management model favors those with hierarchical power rather than those who deliver pastoral care – the very place where “pastoral value” is created. Many religious congregations’ management processes are more attuned to the needs of control-obsessed superiors than of pastoral-obsessed religious. The archaic pyramid shackles the professed religious and keeps them from contributing all they can in the ways they might long to. A younger, tech-savvy generation of religious has grown up on the web where they learned to collaboration and to distrust hierarchy.

Think for a moment of a religious management philosophy based on the principle of “reverse accountability.” Superiors should be accountable to those in the “pastoral value zone,” just as religious who profess the vow of obedience were accountable to their superiors.

Suppose all religious had access to the basic financial data of the congregation. It is hard to feel empowered if your superior has all the data and you have very little.  Front-line religious would have positive proof that the Congregation was willing to trust them with strategic information. “Need to know” would be transformed into “right to know.” In such an environment, misappropriation of finances would be substantially more difficult.

Suppose the leadership team were to create a forum (it could be online) and encourage the religious to ask tough questions and offer honest feedback. Nothing censored – every post displayed for the entire religious order to see. Apart from the benefits of commitment to transparency and as way to hold superiors accountable, such a forum could provide an early warning system for critical issues facing the religious order.

Suppose the Superior General had a section on the forum where he could solicit advice on the crucial issues he was wrestling with. Religious would be more accountable on the “pastoral-level” but they would also feel a sense of responsibility for tackling the big thorny issues that faced senior leadership.

Suppose the Legion had a web-based “Internal Service Desk” where any religious could open a “pastoral service ticket.” They would do this if they had a complaint with an internal service group (travel, procurement, school management & etc.). Once opened, the ticket could only be closed by the concerned religious, once their issue had been resolved.  If the issues are not resolved within 24 hours, the ticket gets escalated up the line. Possible benefits: staff departments would be more accountable to those in the “pastoral-value zone.”  Everyone’s concerns handled quickly and efficiently, regardless of rank. A host of new data would be generated to improve internal policies.

Just about every religious order has its own feedback process. Nevertheless, these processes don’t usually focus explicitly on how superiors are affecting those in the “pastoral value zone.” A religious fearful of retaliation will often pull his punches when reviewing their superior. Feedback that only comes from one’s immediate colleagues tends to reinforce long-standing organization silos. If a religious could rate the performance of any superior whose decisions impact their lives, anonymously, and these reviews could be seen by anyone who submitted a review, superiors would be challenged to be more responsive and exercise their authority judiciously.

Suppose the congregation’s planning process incorporated an online, peer-based evaluation process. The result could be a torrent of advice and counsel.

Pastoral-Level Councils. The goal here would be to help religious connect with team members who shared similar interests and passions. Supported by a web-based platform, the new initiative could spawn a host of communities around cultural, recreational and pastoral issues. These loosely structured teams would be a critical source of new ideas and strategic insights. When one of the councils reaches a consensus around a particular recommendation, it is transferred to a dedicated group that pushes the idea towards execution. There would, of course, still be a hierarchy, but its role would be greatly diminished.

Read Professor Hamel's full article, unadulterated by my paraphrasing here

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