Monday, July 20, 2015

On Crowds & Generous Leaders

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

I am grateful this morning for two posts on the Episcopal CafĂ© blog site, one by David Sellery and the other by Andrew Gerns.  Both are priests in our church and their writings led me down several very fruitful paths of reflection on today’s gospel reading.

Sellery ponders the nature of crowds.  Way back in 1841, Charles McKay wrote an influential book titled The Madness of Crowds in which he famously stated, “[People], it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”  He blamed a crowd mentality on everything from financial bubbles to witch-hunts to the popular style of men’s beards.  Surely McKay was thinking about Beanie Babies when he wrote:

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

McKay’s writings inspired other thinkers.  In his 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche observed that “insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”  He, of course, provided the philosophical underpinning for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.  Ralph Waldo Emerson was even more descriptive:

“Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled.  I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.”

Apparently he had just finished shopping at Suffolk’s Wal-Mart. 

Given this mindset, we might expect that a sermon preached on today’s text a hundred and fifty years ago might emphasize how Jesus drew particular individuals out of the crowd, empowered them to be disciples, and basically dismissed the rest as a mob possessing heighten needs and unrealistic expectations, but having little or no value.  But this is not at all how Jesus treats the crowd in today’s reading, is it.  He has compassion for them.  He teaches them.  He touches them.  He heals them.  In short, he is a shepherd to them.  He values the crowd.

Francis Galton didn’t subscribe to this approach at first, but he came around.  In 1906 the British mathematician visited a local country fair where he observed a competition to judge the cut and dressed weight of fattened ox.  Over 800 people placed a wager.  Galton recognized that most were not experts and had no real insight on the matter.  Surely their wagers would be all over the map.  Galton saw this as a test of democracy.  He later wrote, “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes.”  What was the average person capable of doing?  For most, very little.  What could a group of individuals produce?  Not much, according to the prevailing thinking at the time.

After the competition was over and the prizes were given out, Galton secured all the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests.  Sure, he reasoned, some intelligent wagers would come close to guessing the actual weight, but the presence of all the uniformed people had to skew the results.  Therefore he reasoned and the average of the guesses would be way off the mark.  Imagine Galton’s surprise when he discovered that the crowd’s average guess was 1,197 pounds, while the actual weight was 1,198 pounds.  Not one single individual wagered a guess closer to the actual weight than the collective wager produced by the whole!  This led Galton to conclude that crowds can have astonishing collective intelligence that far exceeds the cognitive capacity of individuals.

In 2004, wanting to set the record straight, James Surowieki published a book to challenge McKay’s now ancient work.  He gave it the title The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.  In it he argues that groups often are able to make better decisions collectively than a single individual member is capable of doing.  Do you remember Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  When phoning a friend, the correct answer was indentified 65% of the time.  In comparison, polling the audience produced the correct answer 98% of the time.

According to Surowieki, three conditions are necessary for a group to be intelligent: diversity, independence, and decentralization.  The best decisions, he says, are the product of disagreement and contest rather than compromise and consensus building.  This is an especially hard truth for faith communities such as ours because we value so highly ‘getting along’ with one another and we don’t want to risk hurt feelings by having actual differences of opinion on substantive matters.  Surowieki highlights another challenge we face: 

“Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table.  Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives.”

What we learn from all of this is the crowd has value.  It needs to be respected by its leader and nurtured.  And Andrew Gerns’ blog about generous leadership gives real insight into what this looks like.  Generosity, he says, is about more than money.  It is “a spiritual quality that trusts that God has given us the people we need, in the situation we have to do God’s work.”  It is a style of leadership, he says, that “both calls out and relies upon the vision of the people of God in community.”

What are the qualities of a generous leader?  Based on the writing of Tim Stephens, Gerns’ identifies the following; and as you listen, think how each might apply to Jesus and the leadership style he employs in his ministry with us:

·   Generous leaders want their people to succeed.

·   They are not competitive with their team.

·   The have an open-door policy and are generous with their time.

·   Generous leaders would rather err on the side of grace than be just or strict with policies.

·   They have an open hand.

·   They freely share what they are learning.

·   They love to give away credit to others even when they could rightly keep it for themselves.

·   Generous leaders care about their team.  They know about each team member’s goals and dreams, and diligently try to help them fulfill those desires.

The opposite of a generous leader is a selfish leader and it looks like this:

·   They keep the credit for themselves.

·   They circle all conversations back to themselves.

·   They hide competitive advantages from the team.

·   They are always looking to determine blame for mistakes (“Whose fault was this?” rather than “We made a mistake, let’s learn from it and keep going.”)

I am sure you have plenty of experience with both kinds of leaders.  I have and you don’t need to phone a friend to figure out which I preferred. 

In a 2002 article titled Love is the Killer App, Tim Saunders makes this startling statement:

The most powerful force in business isn’t greed, fear, or even the raw energy of unbridled competition.  The most powerful force in business is love.  It’s what will help your company grow and become stronger.  It’s what will propel your career forward.  It’s what will give you a sense of meaning and satisfaction in your work, which will help you do your best work.

Saunders says there are two reasons why leaders who love will succeed more than those who do not.  First, he says, there is an abundance of choice in today’s market.  Choice,” he says, “spells doom for villains.  At a time when more of us have more options than ever, there’s no need to put up with a product or service that doesn’t deliver, a company that we don’t like, or a boss whom we don’t respect.”  The second reason he identifies is that you can no longer keep secret your inferior product, snotty company mindset, or boorish individual behavior.  Modern day communication means information is out there everywhere and people are acting more and more on what they know and learn from others.  They will not support what they do not respect.

In this morning’s gospel reading we find Jesus valuing the crowds that come to him, even at a time when he is seeking solitude and rest.  His life is dedicated to helping others succeed, to forming teams and communities that care for one another, to extend grace rather than shore up hard line rules and regulations, to give freely, to teach openly, to credit others when credit is do (think of how often he praises a person for his or her faith, openness, or generosity), and to empower disciples to carry on his work.  He is not a tyrant who capitalizes on a mob mentality to in order to manipulate others for his own benefit.  Rather, he gives of himself so that others might be healed and whole and able to give themselves to others in kind.

Milton Mayeroff, in his book On Caring, wrote that love “is the selfless promotion of the growth of the others.”  Isn’t this a description of how Jesus loves us!  Isn’t it a description of the love we have for a spouse, for our children, for our grandchildren, and for our aging parents!  Isn’t it the kind of love we seek to bring to this place and to our community!  May Christ who embodies this love give us grace and power to live it.