Reflection on Leadership:
Becoming a shaper of context
By W. Craig Gilliam
Pay attention to silence. What is happening when nothing is happening in a group? This is the group field . . . People’s speech and actions are figural events. They give the group form and content. The silence and empty spaces, on the other hand, reveal the group’s essential mood, the context for everything that happens. That is the group field.
~~John Heider, The Tao of Leadership
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
~~Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
in that between space,
everything is possible.
~~Craig Gilliam, Extremes are easy
Recently I was at a small group gathering on Whidbey Island exploring some important lenses for leaders in organizations and congregations. In this gathering, “context” was the beginning focus. The deeper we moved into context, the more circuitous the route and the more insights or gold nuggets I found along the path. One agreement among all of us was the importance for leaders to consider context whether they are pastors, lay-leaders, district superintendents, bishops, CEOs, executive team members or middle management in a corporate setting.
This article is a half-fast summary of our exploration on this journey; the nuggets I picked up along the way and how these inform my work with leadership, congregations and organizations. These insights are put into my context—honoring the concept and the phenomenon to which the context points or describes.
According to the business dictionary, "context" is defined as “background, environment, framework, setting, or situation surrounding an event or occurrence.” As I use “context” in my work with congregations and organizations, I would include: physical space, open space, silent space, empty space, safe space, container, the invitational tone and mood of the space, relationships (who is related to whom and what has happened between or among them both positive and challenging) and a relational way; trust, vulnerability, generative work, history, the collective narrative, the individual narratives, creative risk, developmental stage of the congregation or organization and other components. The best leaders are aware of context, its complexity and multiple levels of meaning and influence.
One size does not fit all. When taking context seriously, there are no cookie-cutter approaches or linear checklists to follow. Those prescriptive maps are overly simplistic and not extremely helpful when walking with congregations or organizations through challenging times, discernment and important conversations. Context means all are uniquely different while very similar. Consequently, leaders are listening and paying attention to the subtleties and nuances of the narratives as well as the silence and empty spaces.
As we talked about context and the work of effective leaders, we came to agree that EVERYTHING--from the sanctuary, to the committee room, to the boardroom, to the bedroom—depends on the invitational quality, tonality and strength of the “container” as we form and operate from moment-to-moment in given contexts.
I mention container here because, in one of our sessions a friend and colleague commented that one of his deepest lessons in this work is, “No container, no dialogue.” I reframe it as “No container, no conversation.” In the work with congregations and organizations (having courageous conversations), I am very aware of the importance of building strong containers if we are going to have meaningful conversations, healthy communities and effective, collaborative leadership.
As I think about the container in a given group or context, I am listening for what I hear to be its holding capacity; the coherence of the group that is part of this container; what can it bare; to what capacity does it hold or leak, the individual people's capacity to regulate their own reactivity, etc. Our work and the work of effective leaders are in part around strengthening, deepening and widening this container.
For years, I found, and sometimes still find, myself at the mercy of the contexts and “group fields” I wander into. Each group has its own context and with the context comes a field of energy or an emotional field that can impact us deeply simply by entering it. At times, I have been “shut down” or “captured” by these invisible, energetic forces that seem to overwhelm me. Over the years and through experience, I have become better at not being hooked by the fields. These fields are what I believe the New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, imagined, as he talks about the spirit of a congregation.
Working with congregations and organizations and experiencing the strength of the field, I continue to ask myself, How do I/we as leaders become shapers of context rather than living at the mercy of it? Part of the challenge for shaping context is to be grounded and centered, less focused on controlling the external world or group around me, and more focused on taking responsibility for my way of being (I-Thou and I-It) and my responses to other(s) and the given situation or context. This is both behaviors and way of being—a way of presence. As I am learning more about leadership, my role in influencing groups and my influence on the context or field, I am increasingly less concerned about rejection and more convicted that my focus and clarity are:
- how to be present with others in a calm, generative way;
- what I can do and cannot do (voice and/or action) in a given context;
- how to honor and respect agency, my own and theirs, and
- what is the invitation available in a given context for me and the groups with whom I work?
When I am clear on these, it seems to have an impact on the groups and me as I enter. Clarity on these is important for leaders.
I have come to believe that when entering and walking with an organization, a congregation or any group, the outer space/context is only as open as is my inner space out of which I live. They are parallel processes. This is part of the underbelly of leadership—the interior conversation that enables us to offer our best, deepest gifts, and to be shapers of context. Family systems describe this phenomenon as “self-differentiation”.
The next insight for me in shaping the context is cultivating and fortifying via an intimacy with and acceptance of life and my own body, mutually nurturing connections with kindred spirits and selectively and intentionally knowing where and how to insert myself when invited into a given context.
The theologian and philosopher Martin Buber stated, “In the beginning was relationship.” Systems, contexts, energy fields, “the spirit of a church or organization,” healthy or unhealthy, simple or complex, are about relationships. In part, relationship is paradoxically an indicator of the spirit or energy field of the context, but it is also the spirit or energy field itself. Effective leaders tend to pay attention and nurture those relationships and the in-between spaces. The conversations are the relationships, and they are nurtured most deeply when time is spent face-to-face, eye-to-eye both speaking and actively listening, which cultivates deeper relationships!
No matter how stuck a group or adversarial the conversation or congregational/organizational spirit, I am discovering that just about every conversation has windows that appear as moments innately open to the “lightest touch,” “just waiting to awaken the Lazarus within,” as David Whyte poetically describes. Part of the role of the leader or facilitator is to help individuals or groups to hear or notice those openings and invite the people to step through those windows, those openings, those opportunities to deepen, broaden and strengthen the relationships, thus, the effectiveness of the congregation or organization.
By windows or openings, I mean more than common ground or common interests, for that is content. These openings happen at the level of the soul or emotional process. The theologian, Martin Buber, contrast this as “genuine meeting” and "mismeeting." Mismeetings are where two people connect intellectually, but not emotionally. They talk at each other but not with each other. When these deep level openings occur and we recognize, acknowledge and respond to them, it is a light touch through which something happens in and to the relationship(s) that impacts the very nature of the conversations and the relational way itself. At this moment, everything changes; all parts of it are influenced; everything becomes possible.
Another way to frame this conversation is, “How do we invite the very best out in another person or group of people—committee, group in a congregation or the entire congregation?” This is leadership and what I believe it means for congregations to be a redemptive community. To invite out the other’s best, when individuals or groups are stuck or at an impasse, we have to be attentive to those windows or openings. The group and we as leaders have to listen and watch for them. But they are all too easy to miss. When we engage through those openings, we witness and experience Lazarus rising in us, in others and in the in-between space of the relationship—“genuine meeting” as Martin Buber refers to it. The art of conversation and the art of leadership are about our attentiveness to those “between” spaces and the openings that present themselves in the conversation as well as in our silences to help us move deeper and forward.
I have not found many books on this topic, but context is a significant consideration for leaders facilitating courageous conversations about things that matter to people and to the community. Thus, my invitation is for us to give attention to context and our ability to shape or influence it, thus, be effective leaders.
As a leader, one of my growing edges to which I invite you is: How do I/we become a shaper of context, not one who simply lives at the mercy of it? If I cannot shape the context in the given moment, at least, how do I/we dance in the context whereas I/we do not do harm, and by the grace of God, might even do good?
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!
(Thanks to Mitch Saunders, Craig Fleck and others for the conversations out of which some of the thoughts for this article emerged.)
 A relational way is a core principle for Conflict Transformation and courageous conversations.
 Honoring agency and context are also deep values for conversation and conflict work.
 Self-differentiation from a systems perspective means to be able to define self while staying in relationship; to have a sense of self while staying in connection; to stand as self while still belonging. I believe such a relationship was what Martin Buber was trying to get at when he wrote about I-Thou and I-It. He commented, “In the beginning was relationship.”
 Training in martial arts and doing exercise (weights and cardio) help me develop some of my intimacies with my body and its wisdom. Meditation, poetry, diet and an occasional massage are other ways. Sometimes this simply means taking time to listen to my body and what it is saying as I think about or work in different situations/contexts. By tending to my relationship with my wife is yet another way, and maybe one of the most important practices.
 My colleague David Hooker helped me realize and frame this question.