Archive - May, 2010

Open leadership builds trust

There are three ways to look at how society is informed. The first is that people are gullible and will read, listen to or watch just about anything.

The second is that most people require an informed intermediary to tell them what is good, important or meaningful.

The third is that people are pretty smart; given the means, they can sort things out for themselves, find their own version of the truth.

The means have arrived. The truth is out there.
–Dale Peskin, co-director, The Media Center

As United Methodists, we can draw a strong sense of assurance from the system that we have developed over the years for handling issues facing the church – a system that values open conversation, honest disagreement and Christian conferencing.

A case in point: The Council of Bishops recently heard an update on a study commission’s work focusing on clergy appointments. The bishops discussed the topic in an open meeting and in a public setting. Since it was newsworthy and important to the church, United Methodist News Service covered the discussion, noting in its coverage that the study commission’s work was still ongoing.

The two stories that the news team did – one on the council’s discussion, the other on reactions from clergy – sparked a lot of discussion on Facebook and on the comment pages accompanying the stories. The topic is clearly one that people care about and felt moved enough to comment on.

Deliberating on a challenging issue in an open meeting reflects well on the Council of Bishops and serves the greater good of the church. When issues are discussed in closed meetings, or when news is not reported about issues of consequence, the result is that the church is cut out of the conversation. Not informing the church about a major issue until a final report is presented is not the most constructive or transparent way to do the business of the denomination.

In contrast, open discussions can lead to conversations among a wider constituency. These conversations, in turn, can inform church leaders as they process an issue. In this case, news coverage of clergy appointments prompted people to speak out on the issue, and it generated conversations among the people most affected: church members and pastors themselves.

Openness and transparency give church members greater trust in their leaders. Likewise, open disagreements on an issue can be healthy and constructive, if done in a positive way. Leading a church or any other large organization can be messy. People don’t expect their leaders to always be perfect or in agreement with each other. Open and forthright deliberations, done in a spirit of Christian conversation (in United Methodism we speak of “holy conferencing”), go a long way to build trust and lead to a better-informed church.

A well-informed church is a blessing for good leaders because it becomes a partner in the journey and not just a passenger.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at how new media are enabling conversations in our age of disruptive technology and asynchronous communication. And I invite you to share your thoughts and carry the conversation forward.

Illegally Harvesting Madagascar’s Rosewood Trees

Illegal harvesting of Madagascar’s rosewood trees is occurring unchecked because the government is in turmoil according to a report in the New York Times. I’ve walked in these forests and the report offers one more disappointing example of the consequences of bad governance, poverty and avarice in Africa.

The island nation off East Africa is an ecological treasure perhaps unsurpassed in the world. Animals, insects, flora and fauna flourish unlike anywhere else. Civil instability has led to a failure of governance. No one controls the reins of government and, therefore, no regulatory agency can halt the illegal harvesting of Madagascar’s ecologically unique forests and make the order stick.

Poverty makes the valuable trees easy picking for local people who profit little from the cutting, but in the absence of anything better their share is enough incentive to destroy the forests. Unprincipled buyers of the illegally harvested wood add to the problem. For several years cutting of exotic woods has been monitored and its traffic controlled. This has made more end-users sensitive to the problem of endangered forests but it hasn’t resulted in stewardship of Madagascar’s rosewood.

Saving a forest is not as emotionally compelling as saving endangered animals and preserving Madagascar’s forests  hasn’t been given the same degree of attention as the Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests. It’s a smaller, relatively isolated land area. But the devastation is no less important or permanent.

If its forests are destroyed, the ecological chain that makes Madagascar such a unique and rich trove of natural treasure will be damaged perhaps beyond recovery. Another casualty of Africa’s struggle with governance.

Mogadishu, Somalia–World's Most Dangerous City

A report by Richard Engel of NBC News is not only frustrating, it’s frightening and disheartening. Engel reports from Mogadishu that the city is all but destroyed and all who could leave have gone. Those who remain are under the rule of the Al-Shabaab, an Islamic insurgent group that has imposed Shariah law.

What’s frustrating is the continuing state of anarchy that has marked Somali life for the last 19 years and the inability of either internal or external intervention to create change. And it’s frustrating that Somalia was for so long considered a remote and insignificant point on the map. Now that it’s a training ground for terrorism, and fifty U.S. citizens have migrated there for training or to participate in the insurgency, it’s being re-discovered. The long-term neglect of the people, however, is paying the wrong dividends now.

Beyond the horror of the inhumanity, it’s also shocking to see the utter destruction of Mogadishu, once a strikingly beautiful city on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The glimpses we see in Engel’s report reveal just how damaging years of violence have been.

Somalia’s troubles seem inescapable. Perhaps a million Somalis are internally displaced and the population of Mogadishu, according to Engel, has dropped from one million to 700,000.

Engel reports U.S. drones can be heard circling Mogadishu nightly. This reconnaissance is one way the U.S. is supporting the African peacekeeping mission, a mission that never leaves the main roads according to its commanding officer.

Once remote and overlooked, my guess is we’ll come to know Somalia, for better or worse. As a former CIA officer states in Engel’s report, today Somalia is a “grade A problem.”