Leading from the Margins: Part I

I have been reading an extraordinary essay published in the mid-1990s that strikes me as making a powerful case about how we function within institutions when we live and work from the margins.    What I find fascinating, as much as anything, is that it speaks to a capacity that does not get enough air time or profile.  We do not talk about this – or, if we do, it is not with a shared or common appreciation of how to speak constructively about it.  

How do we lead from the margins or the edges of the organization. 

I am grateful to a colleague and friend, Ken Badley, for passing it on to me:  “Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change”, by Debra E. Meyerson and Maureen A. Scully. 

Without doubt, there is an ideal:   that when we are located in and working within an organization that there is a high level of personal identification with the mission of the agency or the school or university or the church group – either the congregation or the denomination in which that church is located.   If we have a teaching appointment with a university it would follow that the ideal would be that we feel a deep congruency with the mission and vision of that particular university.   Or, if we are part of a church or denomination, that our personal theological, liturgical and mission-related convictions reflect in large measure those of the denomination as a whole.   If we work as a nurse in a hospital, we feel keenly that this hospital has a set of core values and commitments that we can eagerly affirm; those values are, to a large extent, our values as well. 

But each of us will also likely find ourselves within organizations where we believe in the organization but are now in a season where we might feel that we are not so much in deep congruence with the mission and values as perhaps more located, emotionally and intellectually, at the margins.   It might be for a season:  we accept a teaching appointment in a college that gives us a job and that is doing or would be doing good work, but we know it can only be for a season since the mission and vision and ethos of the college is not quite who we are.   It is not bad or wrong, just different.   Or perhaps within a congregation a pastor is appointed with whom we can and do respectfully disagree and perhaps disagree in fundamental ways.  But, it is our church; and we stay the course.  We do not leave every time the church appoints a pastor with whom we do not see eye-to-eye.   And we say to ourselves that we’ll lie low and bite our tongue and bide our time with the thought that in due time there may be a pastoral transition that might bring someone into leadership whose values are more aligned with our own. 

And yet in other cases it might not be “only for a season”.   For some, their entire church-related lives may well be as part of a congregation or denomination where there is a fundamental difference – in vision or values.   And yet, we conclude, it is our tribe; it is our people.   We know we are not leaving, despite the misalignment.    Even on a national level we might feel a huge disconnect between our own deep personal values and those of the nation-state in which we live.   But, we are citizens – and while we could, at least theoretically, flee for some ideal country [for some it is Norway or Iceland, for others it is the Caiman Islands perhaps], this country is the land of our birth, our citizenship, our history and our key relationships.  And so we are going to stick around. 

In these situations, we are a minority voice and presence.   And the question that this essay asks is this:  what does it mean to influence positive change and make a constructive difference from the margin – from a position of the minority voice or, perhaps, the position of limited influence or power?   There is much wisdom here and I a series of blogs I hope to summarize and interact with these authors – this is only Part I. 

And, first learning is this.  That we are all, in some aspect of our lives, at the margins.  And, rather than insisting that we can only make a difference if we have authority and power to make things happen, why not instead learn what it means to be an influencer from the margins?   Sure, there may be situations where we are the chair of the board, or the president of the organization, or the senior pastor of the church.   Those times may come.  But for many of us, this will not happen.  And, regardless, we will all find ourselves at the margin in some significant aspect of our lives. 

That is, as Meyerson and Scully note, “it is always tempting to wait until one has yet more formal power and security and can really affect change.” [p. 593].   But their point, and mine here, is that might not come any time soon if at all.  And while we might wish it otherwise, formal power and security is not being given to us.  

And second, we need to live hopefully and generously, even at the margin:   we can be a minority presence that does in the end make a difference.   It will perhaps be over an extended period of time; and it may only be through small victories or through seeds planted or watered that do not bear fruit right away.   But, if we are patient and remain hopeful and leverage the points of influence that are given to us change will come. 

What I am suggesting is that leading and influencing from the margins is an essential institutional capacity.   [more . . .in next week’s blog]

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.