Thoughts initiated as I read Charlene Li, Open Leadership, (Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Who needs to be reminded that living today, and the organization that supports our living today, is becoming ever more complex? When life was simpler we were better able to identify the questions we needed to ask – what job am I most suited to, how much does it pay, who should I marry and so on. Choice was more limited.

If we were business managers in those simpler times, we were used to living with the idea that if I controlled production and the means of production, I could guarantee output. But as workers became more educated they began to have their own ideas about production. The manager began to ask, “If I’m responsible, I have to have control…if you’re telling me I have to give up control, how can I manage the discrepancy between control and results?” (Li, p13)

It sounds like a fair enough question.

It’s a question being asked in many places. After all, why appoint a manager on a higher salary if he doesn’t manage (control) the company? Why appoint a Minister to a church if he isn’t going to call the shots? Why have teachers if they don’t have authority to teach? We are so accustomed to hierarchical systems. We assume that the person at the top is expected to take control of the wheel and steer the ship. We assume that someone at the top is responsible for what is below – the buck stops there.

But today’s access to information and education is turning that model on its head. A student in Grade 7 can know more about oceanography than her teacher because she watched a program by Jacques Cousteau on TV the night before class. So when a disparity about some aspect of oceanography emerges in the classroom between the student and the teacher, the teacher feels he has to show that he’s in charge. He exerts his authority to tell the student she’s wrong. The story may end up with the student in detention for not accepting his bullying. But actually the story doesn’t end there. The student decides not to do any work for that teacher anymore. She has that power. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The old model of top-down control just doesn’t cut it anymore in the same way that Newtonian thinking is not capable of dealing with many of the issues of an Einstein age.

I want to suggest that in today’s complex world asking the right question is at the heart of our problem about management and control. I think it’s like, in the Newtonian age, questions were directed in one direction but in the Einsteinian age, questions are multidirectional (and maybe even curved!). To deal with today’s complexity, it is no longer good enough to just ask a question, one needs to ask the right question.

So instead of the manager asking a question about how he can continue to keep control to guarantee right consequences for production, the manager needs to ask a different question – look in a different direction. He could ask instead, “How do I develop the kind of new, open, engaged relationships I need to get things done?”

Without accepting the new paradigm of openness, participation and collaboration, the manager is likely to be stuck with a careless, poorly performing organization, in the same way the domineering teacher was stuck with the passive-aggressive psychological boycott of his student.

In theology, the Newtonian paradigm is demonstrated in the process of trying to find consensus in the Bible about particular issues. But today’s complex issues demand a judgement about what question needs to be asked amid competing points of view. Otherwise, valid minority points of view are overridden by the history and ideology written by victors. Feminist theologians have recovered the status of women in the Bible, against the tide of patriarchal writings. While the situation about possession of land in Palestine today is highly complex it is convenient for some Jews to demand its Biblical borders, obtained by the genocide perpetrated in Biblical times by Joshua, while ignoring the more hidden Abrahamic story of peaceful negotiation with its indigenous custodians (Genesis 23).

So how can we know the right question amid the throng?

I wonder whether the touchstone might be the Two Great Commandments of love of God and neighbour. Put another way, how might spirit be nurtured – how is faith and hope enlivened and suffering transcended; and how are the needs of others, particularly the disadvantaged, being met and right relations developed?

That might be a prism to help direct our view to choose the “right” question.

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