The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
In both posts I’ve described some of the dynamics that contributed to, from many perspectives, a very disappointing leadership effort in a challenging but timely moment. I aim to engage a few more specifically as there are parallels to things experienced and lived out in many other contexts as well – especially cross-cultural. I’ll identify the phenomenon or dynamic, share some thoughts, and provide a recommendation to counteract that.
Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Agendas
EVERYONE thinks they are serving the local people, yet the people and many on the ground give witness to the contrary.
It’s a powerful and dangerous question to ask – “How do we know we are really serving?”
That theme will pop up probably in each post. But it really has become more clear to me than just about everyone who is working believes they are serving or doing some good even when they might not be.
In the context of post-war Iraq, there was great enthusiasm to be a part of something great. Yet as things evolved it was clear that there were many “hidden” (some not so hidden) agendas that many in fact were really serving instead of the interests of the local people. There was the “democracy in the Middle-East” agenda. There was the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election compaign agenda. There was the “economics / oil” agenda. There was also the “post 9/11 war on terror” agenda. The author documents example after example of how decisions and actions were driven by one of these agendas in place of Iraqi interests and without Iraqi input. There was much that did “help” Iraq, but more decisions were probably made for American interests and agendas than for Iraq.
So one of the issues that those with power that are seeking to lead change amidst people different than them has to do with motivation and with managing and guarding against losing the vision to serve amidst the temptations to try to do things in ways that reinforce agendas and in ways that make those in power look good. Many thought they were serving in the Green Zone, but they were serving a vision of creating a Middle-Eastern America, or serving the Republican party interests, or continuing the war on terror without much thought.
We have agendas.
We have visions, goals, strategies that each year affect how we see things and shape what we try to do. There are “internal” agendas that may lead us to serve some ambition or grandiose need to be liked or respected. There are “external” agendas that are about a larger goal or strategy or organizational loyalty that ends up driving decisions in a non-serving direction.
I think I have enough examples now to believe that in organizations and ministries, serving gets co-opted by other agendas (good and spiritual though they might be in themselves). So big initiatives (campaigns, faith goals, strategies…) end up consuming most leadership space. Meanwhile the things that determine success on the ground for people that are outside the cultural framework of those in power fail to get brought to the table.
Leaders should spend their time on big things, the problem is when strategies and initiatives and priorities consume all the space while the right people fail to have the needed conversations. They fail to learn. They fail to listen. This happened in the Green Zone. This happens everywhere. It’s because leaders are tempted to spend all their time talking about their strategies rather than spend time learning the stories of those they are commissioned to serve. People often have motivations to serve and do good – but it doesn’t take much sometimes to distract people from being able to attend to the realities that lie outside of one’s own experiences.
Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader
I think one thing that can help, given the reality that there are always multiple agendas competing for our attention and our hearts, is to just take some time to name them. Sometimes just naming the potential agendas that could get in the way of having a servant posture and producing the fruit of a servant leader has a lot of power to it. Maybe there’s a season where there is a perceived pressure to produce certain types of results. That can lead to tunnel vision on getting what you think you need versus keeping our eyes open on where we need to serve. Maybe there’s a strong strategy, a campaign, or in ministry a significant faith goal. These are things that notoriously hijack leaders’ attention, capacity, and vision to serve. There’s culture driven agendas, political agendas, ambition driven agendas, and many others.
There could be a lot of things that affect decision making as an individual or as a team.
So name them.
List them out.
By putting them on the table, you’ll be more aware of them and more free of them. But until you name them, you’ll be more vulnerable to their influences on your vision and decision making.
* I want to be clear “serving” leadership does not mean doing what everyone else wants. But it does mean that decisions and actions must be sufficiently reflected upon and tested with regard to the ethical, moral, and human impact. That typically means you need enough experience and enough relationships to be able to get input and learning as to what is needed for another people’s best interest as a community.
Leading in ways that are ethical for other communities requires diligence, laser focus, and determination. Serving in the context of organizational agendas is not natural and does not come easy. It requires great leadership.
What are some of the agendas that you face in your decision making and on your team, whatever level it might be? (There are statistical agendas, doctrine agendas, power agendas….)