The world of leadership studies is riddled with clichés. Sharon Daloz Parks uses none of them. Rather, when the noted author and astute leadership consultant speaks, it is with a freshness that provokes a galvanizing examination of one's existing abilities and untapped potential.
"I really want to underscore that in a vertical world gone horizontal, we all have opportunities to practice leadership from wherever we sit," Parks said in a recent telephone interview. "In our time we need to be collectively smart as well as strategically smart. As Judy Brown has added, we also need to be spiritually smart."
In March, Parks will lead weekend workshops in Cleveland and Chicago on "Faithful Leadership for the Common Good." The workshops, sponsored by Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Theological Seminary
, are open to everyone, including emerging or established leaders, the lay or ordained, and those working inside or out of the institutional church. Drawing on the insights of adaptive leadership author Ronald Heifetz and others, Parks will address what it means to practice and cultivate the arts of leadership.
It is Parks' view that leaders are not born; they become. Her workshops are designed to help participants become more effective by identifying, reassessing and honing their leadership capacities.
"It is my hope that those who attend the workshops will leave with a deepened sense of their own call to leadership," Parks said. "I hope they will feel that their own capacity to cultivate new consciousness, conscience and competence has been enhanced."
Parks is a sought-after speaker and consultant for businesses, religious organizations, universities, and think tanks. She holds a doctorate from Harvard University where she served for more than 16 years in faculty and research positions in the Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
She is the author of Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World (2005) and co-authored Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (1996). In 2011, she published a 10th anniversary revised edition of her 2000 book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. Currently, she is principal of Leadership for the New Commons, a senior fellow at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, Washington, and she teaches both executive and pastoral leadership at Seattle University.
All of that is a long way of saying that she knows a thing or two about leadership and has a knack for helping others identify and develop their leadership potential. With feet firmly planted in both the business world and the faith community, Parks acknowledges the universality of leadership concerns in today's world.
"Throughout our culture, we are asking new questions about what we mean by the practice of leadership, and our deepest assumptions are under review," Parks said. "We have had certain ways of thinking about what a leader is. This concern is manifest in faith communities and in every sector of our society — everywhere you look."
She notes, however, that leadership issues within the church have their own unique characteristics.
"One of the things we count on in the life of faith communities is a deepened quality of inquiry," Parks said. “We are called to engage the biggest, most challenging questions of our time, while at the same time honoring the particulars of an individual's hunger and hope. That calls for a very large embrace on the part of those who attempt to offer leadership within the religious faith community."
Leadership is particularly significant in times of rapid change, when people can feel a little unhinged. But none of us can do it alone.
"We're all in this together," Parks said. "Learning how to be good colleagues becomes part of the work of leadership. Further, we need to understand more profoundly how a community moves from familiar patterns through the rapids of change to a more adequate, life-giving pattern."
While effective leadership often must encourage a change in patterns and habits, Parks said good leadership also requires a respect for things that worked in the past but may have outlived their usefulness.
"It has been well said that as human beings we don't fear change, but we do fear loss," she said. "And particularly in the church, the old way has also been very meaningful, and has often been the dependable core of one's life. So we must respect and honor the resistance.
One has to extend compassion and cultivate faithful courage at the same time."
A Risky Matter
Practicing leadership is a risky matter, Parks said.
"We all have default settings that we fall back on in times of crisis," she said. "We have been schooled in certain practices, and it is very difficult to change those default settings.
"As an example, it is one thing to believe in one's head that it is important to collaborate when making a critical decision, but it is a whole other thing to have the trust that if one takes the time to do that, everything will still be okay. That is, in the midst of urgency, to recognize that not taking the time to gain the perspective of others might, in fact, pose an unacceptable risk. On the other hand, leadership is all about risk, and whichever way we move in those moments, we are not going to escape risk. This is when what we most trust must be spiritually grounded in order for us to have any purchase on how to act in uncertain times."
Choosing new leadership is risky business, too, and requires that search committees, for example, have an informed and inspired understanding of the leadership qualities they seek.
A great deal of the adaptive work of our time is located in the practice of search committees, Parks said. "That's one of the primary places where this sense of a crisis in leadership is keenly felt. There are deep hungers for leadership in every time, but particularly in our time. We look for ones who can hold authority well, provide a sense of direction and so forth. But in our time we are also looking for people who have wisdom about the processes of change, who are not daunted by the growing complexity of our social and institutional realities, and who embody practices that foster moral courage."
"In a vertical world gone horizontal, although they may not be serving upfront in a formal leadership role, those sitting in the pews are also playing vital leadership roles. Consciously or unconsciously, we all have an effect in the web of community.
"Each of us must learn to ask: How do I contribute or withhold my energy as collectively we move into the future? How do I discern when leadership is being offered well, and how do I discern when some are simply trying to exploit others? For example, in our time, it is easy to appeal to fear. How can we be alert to that? How do we counter fear with collective practices of deep faith?"
To learn more, join one of the upcoming workshops, which will include one-to-one and group conversations, personal reflection, and presentations:
7 to 9 pm Friday, March 16, and from 9 am to 2 pm Saturday, March 17, at Park Ridge Community Church, 100 South Courtland Avenue, Park Ridge, Illinois. Learn more and register online