A truth about bosses

As much as we would like to believe otherwise, here’s some truth about leaders of organizations from Robert I. Sutton, an organizational theorist at Stanford University:

The truth is that bosses of everything from small groups to Fortune 500 firms don’t matter as much as most of us believe. They typically account for less than 15 percent of the gap between good an bad organizational performance, although they often get over 50 percent of the blame and credit. Bosses of small (and young) workplaces have the biggest impact, especially on human reactions like turnover, satisfaction, and health. Yet even those bosses are over-romanticized, and their impact is magnified in our minds. In fact, even when bosses have no influence at all, we still heap on the credit and blame. When experiments at Stanford and Caltech were rigged so it was impossible for leaders to influence team performance, members still gave the appointed ‘leader’ most of the credit and blame. Members of poorly performing teams were even willing to spend their own money to get rid of their ‘lousy’ (if irrelevant) leaders.

If you are a boss, this is your lot in life. You can’t change it, so you better learn to deal with it. [Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton (New York: Business Plus, 2010), p. 49.]

Based on my own experience, all this is true of ministers. As a minister, I have gotten credit for successes that I had little to do with, and I have been blamed for failures that I had little to do with. I’ve seen the same happen to chairs of congregational boards. As Sutton says, that’s life — best to learn to deal with it.

Springtime

I had to talk with someone in New England, who happened to mention all the snow on the ground there. I told them that here in the Bay area, we’ve been having warm days, with temperatures in the 60s. I did not tell them that as I was driving to work yesterday, I noticed that new green leaves are appearing on some of the deciduous trees; that for the last few days the evening air has been filled with the scent of flowers; that on Sunday I stood and watched a gorgeous male Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in fresh bright plumage feeding at the hummingbird feeder hanging near my office.

Counting contacts

A couple of years ago, a special ed. teacher was telling me about a technique she finds is very useful to make sure she connects with every child in her classes. She counts the number of “contacts” she has with each child — each time she makes eye contact, etc. — and she attempts to make a minimum number of contacts with each child in each teaching session. This is a common technique for teachers, and other variations of it may use different terminology, and may have different criteria for what constitutes a contact. For use in Sunday school, my criteria for a contact is making eye contact or addressing a child directly in a positive interaction (addressing a child for misbehavior doesn’t count), and I’ve been aiming for a minimum of five contacts with each child in a group of 8-10 children, during a typical 50 minute session.

Yesterday, I was teaching the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. While I was presenting the story of Moses and the golden calf, I was also counting contacts. It’s easy to make contact with the bright responsive kids; it’s also easy to make contacts with the troublemakers (I tend to like kids who are troublemakers, so I tend to have quite a few positive interactions with them).

But about two thirds of the way through the session, I realized that I had made absolutely no contacts with one of the boys. He sat there quietly and didn’t cause any trouble, so he didn’t draw attention to himself like the troublemakers. He never participated in any of the discussions, so again he didn’t draw any attention to himself. He was, in fact, extremely adept at blending into the background and disappearing from view. Even after I noticed that I wasn’t noticing him, I found it difficult to make myself have any interaction with him — he was that good at deflecting attention from himself. At last, towards the end of the session, I was rewarded — he actually looked up at me, and looked me in the eye.

I think this boy is not all that unusual; I can think of other fourth and fifth grade boys who manage to remove themselves from the circle of adult attention in congregations. I know we lose a lot of boys from Sunday school at about fourth and fifth grade, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why. If you’re teaching Sunday school, especially with upper elementary children, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

The “Y.P.R.U. Song”

Scott Wells recently sent me a copy of Songs and readings: A book of hymns, responsive reading, meditations and other service elements for use in families and churches; Including Naming of an Infant Child, Marriage, Thanksgiving and Burial of the Dead, as compiled in 1937 at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, under the editorship of Jacob Trapp, then the minister there. This is an explicitly humanist hymnal, although it would not appeal to today’s fundamentalist humanists for Trapp is willing to use the word “God” in a metaphorical or symbolic sense.

As I paged through this little book, something caught my eye: the “Y.P.R.U. Song”; that is, a song for the Young People’s Religious Union, as the Unitarian youth movement was called in those days:

Y.P.R.U. Song

Forward shoulder to shoulder,
   Fling the banner of youth,
On through worship and service
   To the glorious truth;
Light of our torch wide shining
   Colors always unfurled;
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world.

Far horizons are calling,
   Here, humanity cries
Deep in unfathomed darkness,
   High in the radiant skies.
Forward, questing and daring,
   Mighty our chorus is hurled —
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world;
   We pledge to the life of the world.

These lyrics caught my eye because they sounded so very different from my own Unitarian Universalist youth experience. When I was in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the successor organization to the YPRU, I never heard these kind of sentiments expressed. My youth experience emphasized self-knowledge and individual expression in service of personal spiritual growth, rather than “strength, vision, and courage” in service of the “life of the world.” Yes, we in LRY were committed social justice, and yes we embraced the questing exploratory experience typical of liberal religion. But I can’t imagine us ever singing such a song. I remember us singing along to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes: “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun any more/ I am sorry/ Sometimes it hurts to badly I must cry out loud/ I am lonely…” — but never anything like the “Y.P.R.U. Song.”

I liked my LRY experience. But a little introspection goes a long way with me. I think I would have liked LRY better if there had been less introspection and a little more of flinging banners of youth and hurling of mighty choruses.

Today’s current youth group model still favors introspection, which serves some teenagers very well indeed. But I’ve seen more teenagers drift away once they realize that introspection is the main course.

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.

[poem]

   For a moment
   I was not
   insulated
   from the world
   by a windshield
   or a screen
   or a person
   or a book
   or anything.

   And the moon
   lit up the
   sidewalk so
   it cracked me
   and slipped in
   to where it
   lives for good.

Minor UU folk heroes, no. 85

I just heard a rumor that one of the people who developed and built the Rube Goldberg device seen in the March, 2010, music video “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Gos, was formerly a member of a Unitarian Universalist youth group for which I was a youth advisor. Parents, be warned: the Unitarian Universalist values we impart to your children may affirm that creating geeky-artsy-coolness is an acceptable thing to do with one’s life.

By the way, an article in the February, 2011, issue of Fast Company magazine asserts that it took 85 takes to make the Rube Goldberg machine work in time to the music in a single shot. That’s 85 televisions destroyed. That makes it all worth while, if you ask me.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

All the prophets seem to get sanitized. Take, for example, the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, whom I have recently been re-reading. It was Amos, of course, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech:— “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos looked around at his society and saw that those in power trod upon the poor, and took from them “burdens of wheat”; he heard wailing in the streets; and he made violent-sounding protests against the injustice he witnessed.

Amos gets sanitized just like Martin Luther King, Jr. Orthodox Christians manage to turn Amos’s prophecies into some kind of call for personal salvation; atheists mock him for his belief in God but don’t go any further than that; and religious liberals simply ignore him. All these groups seem to ignore the fact that Amos was writing powerful protest literature that was designed to make us feel horribly uncomfortable about the way we treat other people, especially those who have less power than we do.

It’s not too far-fetched to think of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a sort of lesser Amos: someone who set out to afflict the comfortable, a troublemaker who wanted true justice for all persons, a somewhat cantankerous and definitely edgy kind of a guy. And like Amos, King gets bowdlerized: used to promote self-esteem or to keep kids from fighting; mocked for his very real character flaws; or simply ignored. In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth quoting some more of that famous quotation from Amos, to learn how it is that Amos thinks his God will make justice roll down like waters:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!
   to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord
   is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met
   him; or went into the house, and leaned his
   hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and
   not light? even very dark, and no brightness
   in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not
   smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your
   meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither
   will I regard the peace offerings of your fat
   beasts.
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs;
   for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and
   righteousness as a mighty stream.
   — Amos 5.18-24, KJV

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King, Jr.:— a preacher, a prophet, someone who took Amos’s God very seriously.

Tibetan Monks, closing ceremony

The Tibetan Buddhist monks spent their final morning at the Palo Alto church. In addition to completing the sand mandala, they chanted for ten minutes in each worship service. As beautiful as the sand mandala was, I enjoyed the chanting the most: something about the low notes they managed to produce with their throat-singing, or more properly overtone singing, really got to me.

And of course they destroyed the sand mandala in a closing ceremony. They chanted for a good twenty minutes, and then one of them walked around the table and then drew his hand radially out from the center across the design in each quadrant and then again between each of those places. Then another monk came and swept the sand into the center; he used an ordinary four inch paint brush, which I thought was a nice touch; the best religious ceremonies mix the sublime with the ordinary.

The closing ceremony, just before the monks destroyed the mandala.

After the ceremony was over, I was talking with someone who said that twenty minutes of their chanting was plenty for her; but I said I disagreed, and could easily have listened for another hour.

Tibetan monks, day 3

Another picture of the monks working; the monk closest to the camera is incising a design into a background using a stylus (the point of a compass, actually); the monk at rear is adding a line of sand to the incised design:

At the end of the day today, the mandala was nearly complete:

It is hard to see in this photo, but the mandala is not a two-dimensional work; the sand is built up in low relief that is difficult to capture in a photograph.