The Receptive Leader

The focus of this essay is upon the openness and receptivity of the person who serves as the leader or chairperson of a church group: board, council, work area, session, etc.  The research being done by the Center on leadership in church groups divides “receptivity” into two factors in order to examine the extent to which the church leader (a) seeks and uses the ideas of others, and (b) gives members the confidence that they may feel free to talk openly with the leader about matters affecting the group. 

Receptivity by the leader to the members of a church group is an important aspect of effective leadership.  It is obviously not the only leadership skill required by the person seeking to do a good job as a church officer, but a person who is open and receptive to the members of the group will be providing a quality of leadership which will be extremely beneficial to the group.  Many people assume that strong leaders are persons who dominate church groups and persuade the group members to do what the leader wants to do.  Studies of the most productive leaders in North America (studies over a 25-year period) show that they consistently practice openness and receptivity to the ideas and concerns of the members of the group.

1.  Effects of Leader’s own Attitudes and Behavior. There is a carryover into the group setting of the perceptions people have of the degree of openness and receptivity a leader shows in one-to-one relationships.  Some attitudes and behavior that indicate receptivity include:

a. Warmth and approachability.  The importance of these qualities in a church leader seem self-evident.  Yet many leaders are unaware of the unconscious ways they put distance between themselves and others.  Preoccupied, half-listening, rushing to combat or counter others’ ideas, judging others’ motives or suggestions — all show a lack of receptiveness to others.  A skillful leader will practice active listening and search for overlapping ideas to build upon, rather than to defeat another’s position altogether. 

b. Sympathetic paraphrasing.  Even when the leader disagrees with another person’s position, s/he should 

be able to state it back to the speaker in a sympathetic light.  This assures the other that s/he has been heard and not merely caricatured.  Final solutions can then be sought which incorporate the best intent of all parties. 

c. Risking one’s vulnerability.  A leader who accepts the role of paragon and expert on most matters facing the group will be tempted to dominate and to insulate him/herself from superior ideas which may come from others in the group.  Non-defensive listening, exposure of one’s own uncertainties, and seeking both positive and negative “feedback” from others will signal to the group members that it is “OK” to try out tentative ideas without being made to feel foolish. 

d. Advancing own ideas for critique.  A leader need not be timid about sharing his/her own good ideas.  But the style of presentation can be an excellent way for the leader to “model” an open and collaborative posture.  S/he may present them with the invitation for the group to examine and improve on them if possible.  By inviting critique, the leader can avoid either abdication or domination. 

e. Inviting group solutions.  A leader who feels obliged to present the answer to any group question or problem is shutting off valuable additional insights which could emerge from corporate sharing and discussion.  A sounder approach is to help clarify the issues and then give the group a chance to generate options and form a final solution. 

f. Acting on the ideas others contribute.  No higher compliment can be paid to a person’s ideas than to see them implemented by the group.  A receptive leader will press for the implementation of programs and proposals projected by the group.  Moreover, s/he will look for subsequent opportunities to report on successes arising out of the group’s solutions, and to note as appropriate any particularly outstanding part played by various individuals in envisioning and accomplishing the success. 

2.  Some Ways to Express Receptivity in Groups.  The leader of a group plays the key role in setting the overall climate in which the group does its work.  There are several things a leader can do to foster a climate of openness and receptivity: 

a. Clarify norms.  Let the group brainstorm and display on newsprint “Some Helpful Ground Rules” which will make it easy for them to risk the sharing of their ideas.  Avoid letting group norms drift into repartee and “good-natured” put-downs.  This will cause people to play it safe and hold back ideas. 

b. Encourage differing views.  The leader is to some extent the “gatekeeper” of who gets the floor.  S/He should not only see that differing points of view are heard, but also not allow an attack upon a person for stating a differing opinion or idea.  If one of the group’s “ground rules” is to allow differing views, the leader can easily remind the group of that “rule” when  arguments or attacks occur. 

c. Avoid too-early solutions.  One of the causes of friction is the urgency to rush to a solution before exploring a range of options and gathering adequate information.  By encouraging the group to take time in the data-gathering and option-testing stages, the leader not only ensures that persons will be heard, but indeed, the solutions arrived at are likely to be better. 

d. Build on partially-formed ideas.  Seldom does a fully developed solution to a group problem occur to a single person at the time the problem is stated.  But a partially-formed idea can spark another person to add-on and improve it.  By encouraging such “builds,” the leader gives persons a sense that the whole team is involved in creating solutions.  This not only releases members’ creativity, it also builds commitment to make the ultimate solution work.

e. Give credit.  On the opposite pole from the barbed put-down is giving others credit for the ideas they spark in oneself.  To say “Susan, what you were saying gives me a good idea” allows another person to see she has had a hand in helping generate answers, even though the final form may be quite different from the starting idea.  Leaders can model such crediting of others and help the group to incorporate this mutually-reinforcing behavior among themselves. 

3.  Advantages to Leader and Group From “Receptivity.”   Members tend to transfer onto the group the feelings they have of the receptivity of the leader.  If s/he seeks and uses their ideas, and is seen as one who fosters free and open talk, members will feel more free to behave in open ways in the group.  Advantages of this spirit of openness include: 

a. More creativity.  When members feel personally more safe, they are willing to risk more venturesome thoughts.  This, in turn, sparks the imagination of others.  Though many of these “risky” notions may be sifted and refined, there emerge many more creative ideas to choose among and to perfect by the wisdom of the group.  

b. Increased trust.  When persons feel valued and affirmed for their contributions, this engenders trust both in the leader and mutually among members.  A trusting climate is valuable in itself; but it also contributes to greater productivity and to individual satisfaction. 

c. Better quality of leadership.  A leader is evaluated not only for her/his own contribution of ideas, but for the total performance of the group.  Greater productivity, trust, and satisfaction reflect well upon the leader’s role.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. How does it help a group when the group leader seeks and uses group members’ ideas?

2. List at least two steps you plan to take to practice “seeking and using group members’ ideas” more often.

3.  How does it help a group when the leader is approachable?

4.  List at least two steps you plan to take to be more approachable.

5.  How is being a receptive leader an expression of Christian Faith?