Emma Pavey reviews ‘Leading in a VUCA World: integrating leadership, discernment and spirituality‘, edited by Jacobus (Kobus) Kok and Steven van den Heuvel, published by Springer in 2019.
Leading in a VUCA World: integrating leadership, discernment and spirituality, edited by Jacobus (Kobus) Kok and Steven van den Heuvel, consists in large part of papers from a symposium on leadership, spirituality and discernment from a variety of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholars. Two of the thirteen contributors are women, most are white.
Together the work seeks to contribute insight into leadership, spirituality and discernment in a ‘VUCA’ world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) characterized by “superdiversity and supermobility” (5) and elaborate levels and patterns of diversity and movement. Spirituality is interpreted very broadly by many of the contributing authors as having to do with personal growth and values: “an attitude of openness, attention and consciousness” (47). Joke van Saane takes this broad approach, describing it as “the constant search for meaning, from an open attitude, with a focus on sustainability and credibility, rooted in self-knowledge and in the desire for growth and development” (47). Similarly, du Toit and Lombaard explore the role of simplicity found in a range of spiritual traditions and how it might contribute to sense-making within complex organizational systems.
Certain chapters do reference specific traditions such as Ignatian spirituality, which Kessler and Nullens engage with in each of their chapters in regards to decision-making and working for the common good respectively. Several chapters focus on how spiritually-informed leadership in a ‘VUCA’ world plays out in particular contexts: Kornesen focuses on millennials, while Makka highlights the South African context and the integration of the notion of ‘ubuntu’. Niemandt applies spiritual discernment to the missional approach.
In his chapter, van den Heuvel presents a helpful critique of the simplistic application of ‘spirituality’ in the workplace. He cautions that “the processes of commodification and control threaten genuine spirituality, as well as the richness and necessary multi-dimensionality of life, precisely by coopting the language of spirituality” (175). He turns to Bonhoeffer’s concept of four ‘divine mandates’ (work, ‘marriage/family’ (home life, to be inclusive), government and church) to develop a more nuanced approach. Van den Heuvel suggests that,
while we may strive for unity in our lives, in order to live full lives, we also need multidimensionality — we need to live in different ‘keys’, corresponding to [these] different spheres of life” (181).
Van den Heuvel proposes that a division of spheres of life can help defend against narcissistic, manipulative leaders who insist on ‘spiritual’ commitment to work and loyalty without giving employees any control. In terms of methodology, he also suggests that this approach serves to blend a theology of mandates “from above” yet concerned with the world “below” with the appropriation of social constructivism, a “dynamic interplay” for organizational studies in faith organisations (180).
Kok and Jordaan explore how metaphors, (and more specifically, to use the unsightly neologism, ‘metanarraphors’), bring together disparate elements of meaning to create new meanings and images in the context of mediation sessions. Metaphorical language and its implications can often unnoticed and thereby unwittingly limit thinking and progress; they give the example of describing Brexit as a ‘divorce’ (7). Kok and Jordaan use a largely social-constructivist epistemology and integrate the work of Lakoff and Johnson (2003) on metaphor to think about “a hermaneutics of hope” (19). They describe the importance of self-awareness and development for facilitators of change – a path for mediators but applicable to most domains, where one ideally moves from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then to conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence (4).
Kok and Jordaan explore how metaphors are related to physical experience, cultural learning and expectations of role. The framework could usefully be applied to faith communities looking to ‘see’ the metaphors at work in their language and reflected in practices, in order to critique and, where necessary, change these metaphors. A useful practice to follow is from Moti Moroni, who “break[s] bread” during mediation and thereby creates a hospitable “third space” (19). They conclude that,
[a] good mediator…has the ethical (and spiritual) duty to fight for hope…as a sacred space of potential change…[this is] a form of discernment and a form of leadership which is guided towards the possibility of facilitating moments where bread could be broken and communal solidarity be created (21-22).
In a similar vein, Jordaan’s solo chapter looks at how to shift ‘mental models’; that is, ways to build trust by moving from a competitive to a collaborative model. He begins by noting a saying attributed to the Dutch, “Trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback”, that highlights the precarious nature of trust and its frequent absence in work settings (65). We are led to wonder too about the level of trust in faith communities and how it is gained and lost. For his purposes, Jordaan works from the premise that, “[o]ur trust in others is grounded in our evaluation of that person’s trustworthiness, that is: their abilities, integrity and benevolence” (66), elsewhere adding competency and consistency to the definition (69). His focus is not, or rather not only, on generating trust in leaders by ‘followers’, but also what it looks like for a leader to trust ‘followers’, and how it relates to collaborative methods. For Jordaan,
leadership is focused on guiding and facilitating outcomes— rather than directing them— and safeguarding the collaborative process. It is more about leading the process, not the people. It is about making connections between the right people, bridging diverse cultures and getting members used to sharing ideas, resources and power across hierarchies and silos (67).
In other words, collaborative leadership is process rather than product-driven; it “create[s] the conditions and processes that would maximise synergies between people” (69).
Jordaan argues that good collaboration reflects trust by avoiding micro-managing and allowing a degree of freedom within clearly defined roles (67): “If they are part of the process of decision-making” through dialogue and discussion, Jordaan argues, “members of a collaborative group are more likely to be willing to buy into and take responsibility for implementing the group’s action plan” (68). He does point out, however, that collaborative models of leadership are not always welcomed: they can be time consuming, some people don’t want the responsibility collaboration entails, and the process also requires that leaders “subordinate their egos…and may have to forego credit if the group is successful” (68).
In his chapter, Barentsen explores the role of embodiment – specifically ‘embodied realism’. He proposes using the concept of embodiment to bring together two ways of thinking and discerning: experiential faith through praxis and analytical knowledge. Via reference to nursing as an example, Barentsen suggests that phronesis (practical wisdom) comes through “reflective practice which develops increasingly trustworthy levels of intuition” (123). Through a brief exploration of cultural and cognitive psychology, Barentsen adds to the discussion on metaphor provided by Kok and Jordaan, noting (referencing Lakoff and Johnson) how “primary metaphors are based on our bodily capacities” (125). He argues that,
our bodies are trained, literally ‘in-corporated’, into the life of the group… Culture then, is ‘created’ by our bodies, trained and sensitized in particular social groups, where norms are internalized and embodied in a pre-reflexive process of socialization and inculturation” (124).
Groups and relationships are central to our embodied knowledge which “implies a process of community formation and development, which implicates ethical qualities like patience, openness, respect and perseverance in the process of knowledge formation” (129).
Collaborative leadership is thus where trust meets hope in the engendering of new metaphors and engagement in purpose. This is interesting in theological terms – we might explore to what degree we consider God to engage in collaborative leadership that both builds trust and demonstrates trust in human beings, engenders hope and provides shared purpose and meaning.
As Barentsen proposes, “[o]ur bodies give us a world” (126). He affirms that
[i]f theology is not in some significant sense a theology of embodied practice, it is not theology at all since it has lost sight of the primary mode for living theologically, that is, through incarnating Christ daily in our bodily existence”, (130).
He continues: “Our entire human system of perceiving and knowing is attuned not only to knowing the world and the other, but also to knowing God” (131). We might therefore consider too how we (together) recognize embodied trust and hope, and how we balance experiential knowing (intuition, wisdom, phronesis) with formal learning and (social) scientific methodologies. This exploration will enrich processes of discernment, earthing them in felt experience, valuing integrity, and sharing power. Leadership then becomes “a rational, emotional and intuitive performance to create a safe holding environment for followers in spite of fears and insecurities” (135).