May  2018 08
Lessons in Humility

I have not encountered anything in my 32 years of institutional leadership that doesn’t go with the territory, or that others have not experienced. But I am an individual, with my bio-chemical, culture-shaped, spiritual-intellectual-emotional particularities.

By no means would another person experience the work as pastor, program director, dean, church relations director, development officer, or president as I did. Two people can “experience” the same sequence of events and actions, and their post-experience reflections indicate they did not have the same experience at all! 

In the following list, I am gathering lessons that I kind-of learned, that I should have learned, that I did not consistently put into practice over the past 32 years of congregational and seminary leadership.

This list is in some ways a list of mistakes I made and of learning opportunities not fully internalized. The list is part confession, part a reflection on my limitations and, thus, an exercise in humility. 

  • I thought being self-disclosive, vulnerable, decent, and showing I had nothing up my sleeve was enough to gain trust. (Colleagues at Garrett-Evangelical once giggled to each other during an administrative meeting. Their laughter caught my attention and I saw they were looking at me. I asked what was up. They said: “We can always gage the emotional climate in the room by looking at your face, Gary.)

Well, my actions were not sufficient to gain trust from everyone. Sometimes I took an action, or failed to take an action, and someone(s) so disagreed that it was hard for them to trust me again. Some people like more information on personnel changes than both prudence and the law allow; but as a consequence of not knowing what they think they should know, trust diminishes. People who knew me from earlier battles were more likely to extend trust than those who came after those leadership-defining incidents.

Working in a multicultural workplace takes more intentional trust-building than a more homogenous school. For a variety of reasons, what it takes to earn trust today requires more attention and energy than it did 20 years ago. I should have acted more consistently in a way that likens trust to housework: whatever was done the day before, and no matter how well the work was done yesterday, it needs to be done again today. 

  • Space shapes people. Any congregation that has ever changed its worship space knows that, or any family that moves from a bigger house to a smaller house or vice versa knows that space shapes people. The Phillips culture was different—not better, not worse, just different—when I returned in 2005.

After more than 15 years living in tents, the seminary moved into its current space in 2003. The work culture I came back to was different from the one I left, especially for everyone who came after the days of renting and borrowing, and it took me quite a while to see and accept the differences. 

  • I was told by colleagues that the leadership role would occlude me personally, that people would project on me, that I’d be a screen. I knew that, and I’ve really struggled with not being seen.
  • I often read, and several trustees underlined the point, that strategic change work is painful. The people you start the change process with are not necessarily present at the conclusion. This has certainly been the case.

By no means has every personnel change at Phillips since 2012 been the direct result of strategic work to expand Phillips’ audiences, fans, prospective students, and donors. But there are some direct ties between the plan and position changes.

And, I was also told that the biggest regret managers and leaders have when they evaluate strategic change outcomes is that they did not act on personnel matters early enough. I would affirm that regret, while also still being blind to how I might have seen matters more clearly at an earlier stage of the work.

  • I heard years ago that leaders need to develop and practice at least one spiritual discipline, in addition to all the other self and vocational-care disciplines (e.g., diet, exercise, attending to relationships, hobbies, sharpening the saw/going to the well). I haven’t been awful at these, and I have not been really good at any of them.

My “just in time” efforts at disciplines got me through—but barely. I did not set up personally nor ask for institutionally either the support or accountability around practices that cultivate resilience and sustainability. It is a mistake not to ask for and contribute to support and accountability for sustainability.

  • There are many aspects of the positions I held that fit me well and for which I was well-equipped to do that piece well, sometimes even with excellence. And, sometimes the office, especially the office of president, has felt like an ill-fitting suit.

I am a middle child who wants everyone to get along; and that can’t-we-all-get-along stance does not always fit the executive office when you need to make a decision and that decision will anger someone!

Suffice it to say that even the presidency of this (by higher education standards) small school took everything I had and, at times at the end of a day, I wish I had something different or more to give.

In light of the above, I am grateful for the times when the board of trustees and colleagues have offered grace sufficient for the day.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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