Brent Ward is a full-time professor of business at Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University. Brent holds a PhD in Business Management with a focus on employee engagement. Brent also has Masters Degrees in Project Management, Management Information Systems, and Business Administration. Brent also holds graduate and post-graduate certificates in Accounting and General Education. In his spare time, Brent is president of a project-focused non-profit called The Community Improvement Initiative, a 501 (c) 3 charity that focuses on events and beautification of South Central Orlando, Florida. Throughout his membership in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brent has served in a wide variety of church positions. Many of these positions involved quorum, ward and stake leadership.

Enter Brent…

Too often, we hear jokes about high priests. Jokes regarding age, sleeping through meetings, having “seen it all and done it all”. These statements imply high priests lack the vigor of younger groups in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

But jokes like these fail to acknowledge that high priests have many characteristics of highly effective volunteers. These characteristics include significant experience and knowledge about the context in which quorums do their work (church policies, procedures, and culture) as well as considerable life experience and judgment. Further, many high priests have more disposable time than younger church members who are busy raising young children or establishing careers. The fact that Doctrine and Covenants specify an ever-increasing quorum size based on the maturity of its members is evidence that high priests, probably more than any other priesthood group, can be trusted to do good work with very little supervision.

So, why then, do some elders quorum presidents express concerns about the level of commitment they receive from their quorum members?  How can leaders encourage engagement (known as vigor, dedication, and absorption) in the work of their quorum?

In my experience, much of the frustration that such leaders experience can be attributed to inadequate involvement of quorum members in the development and execution of the “plan” for the quorum.  Typically, many of these quorum leaders find themselves simply reacting to requests from their bishops, ward councils, and stake leaders. Often, a plan for the work of the quorum is absent. When such plans do exist, they are often decided by the elders quorum presidency, rather than with the input of quorum members. As a result, too many group members remain underutilized or disengaged.

One solution to these problems is participative leadership. This style of leadership involves inviting quorum members to take ownership of planning, execution, and decision-making regarding quorum work. Participative leadership also requires support from leaders as the members execute the plan. Participative leaders see their role as unleashing and supporting such commitment, rather than providing purely directive management. As most research has shown, a participative style of leadership not only influences the performance of the group, it also increases the overall satisfaction of group members. It also results in strong attendance, retention of members, and in my experience, positive regard for leaders.

Invariably, when leaders are exposed to the concept of delegating their power of decision-making to group members, they raise concerns. What if their ideas aren’t what is needed right now?  What if they go beyond the bounds of their authority?  As a leader, I’m ultimately accountable for what they do – how can I assure their results are consistent with the needs of our ward and group when I’ve given up control?

Answers to these questions can be found in the following steps involved in energizing the high priest group through participative leadership

1. Assess the strengths of the quorum.

One key to effective participative leadership is a keen understanding of the resources, strengths, and passions of the group. This means getting to know quorum members on an individual basis.  Their chosen careers provide some indication of their relative strengths. Their life circumstances (retired, holding down a demanding job or calling, family size, the extent to which they have children at home) also provide information about their availability.  Effective participative leadership involves recognizing that quorum members are likely to embrace participative leadership when the problems they are encouraged to “own”, align with their personal interests and their availability of discretionary time.

2. Provide Direction

Many leaders, new to participation, mistakenly assume that delegating ownership of group projects means members can do whatever they want. This can be uncomfortable because it implies the leader has given up all control over the results and the means of getting there.  

However, this is a false assumption. Participative leaders carefully frame the process of participation, provide adequate background information and resources, direct the participation of group members toward goals, and share the limits of participation. All these further the success of the elders quorum in a way that preserves leaders influence over results.  

Providing direction can occur in many ways. For wards in which high priests don’t have a cynical view of sharing numbers (baptisms, percent of active prospective elders, etcetera) leaders can share these statistics and qualitative needs, along with any broad direction from bishops or stake presidencies that should be folded into the plan. This can help the group identify the needs of their stewardship, and subsequently, decide how to improve weak areas and reinforce areas of strength. For quorums with members who tend to object to a business-like approach that numbers imply, leaders can share needs in qualitative language. Phrases such as “Ward temple nights are poorly attended”, or “We have trouble retaining new members” can direct the efforts of the quorum.  Another approach is to share the four purposes of the Church (perfecting the saints, redeeming the dead, caring for the poor and needy, and proclaiming the gospel), and ask quorum members what they feel the ward needs in each category. This can be effective when past efforts to energize the quorum haven’t produced the desired results. Giving reluctant quorum member’s freedom to suggest initiatives within very broad parameters can help expose areas of passion that leaders may have overlooked in the past.

3. Share the Participative Process

Elders quorum members also need to understand the process of participation the leader plans to use.  This not only sets expectations for how participative decisions will be made, it also increases group members’ overall engagement level. This occurs as group members realize their leaders are granting greater autonomy than group members have enjoyed in the past. Participation can range from simply asking the quorum their opinion on a narrow issue, with the leadership retaining the final decision, to completely delegating the power of decision making over the group’s plan to its members. However, leaders find that the more autonomy and power given to the quorum membership, the greater the group’s motivation and performance. Further, research has shown the more senior the target group, the greater their responsiveness to participative leadership.  Therefore, it behooves leaders to grant their quorum as much decision-making authority as appropriate given their strengths and capacity to serve.

4. Set Parameters

Granting autonomy doesn’t mean the elders quorum president is without influence on how results are achieved.  Participative leaders recognize that even individuals granted decision-making authority are subject to constraints — just as elders quorum presidents are subject to constraints from their bishops and stake presidents.  Therefore, after forming project teams, participative leaders are not afraid to help the project teams define the group leader-project leader operating agreement.  

A useful tool is Stephen R. Covey’s Performance Agreement. In this agreement, leaders and followers establish the project objective, resources, guidelines, accountability (the nature of status reporting) and outcomes (positive benefits) of a delegated project. In my experience, most projects in the elders quorum don’t need a formal, written Performance Agreement. This is a result of their relatively small size. However, elements of the agreement, such as resources, (“based on your request, there is a budget of $100 for this project”), guidelines (“let me clear a date with the ward council first”) are common — even if only verbal and informal. Further, establishing how and when autonomous teams should report progress (accountability) allows the leader to follow-up with the teams without being intrusive. Accountability, established in advance, also tends to reduce the perception of micro-managing, with its accompanying demotivating effects.

As a general rule, try to include only the minimum number of constraints on the projects that are absolutely necessary.  Give significant freedom, without unreasonable boundaries, to the quorum. As a wise man once said, “Boys need rules; men need principles”.  Although the statement may not necessarily apply to elders quorum projects – the maxim embodies the idea that constraints should be the minimum necessary to achieve success.

5. Review Progress and Create Urgency

In my experience, quarterly reviews of the entire plan provide the most effective blend of space and urgency. Space allows the team enough time to do the work, but enough urgency to discourage procrastination. Annual reviews or annual plans are a recipe for inaction unless distilled into quarterly chunks. Also, don’t be afraid to ask quorum members for specific milestones when the project is established. Questions like “How long do you think you need to establish a feasible date for this service project?”, or “What has your group decided about …”  Phrases like these are effective for encouraging action while communicating the group’s continuing ownership of the project.

What Does Participative Leadership Look Like?

An example of a completely participative leadership looks like this: In my first stint in high priest group leadership, we’d had limited success in the quorum taking ownership for specific projects; we had a large number of initiatives, most of which did not engage the quorum.

In an effort to galvanize the group through participative leadership, our high priest group leadership dedicated a Sunday meeting to express our faith in the collective talent and wisdom of our group. We also affirmed our personal commitment to allowing them considerable autonomy in how they carry out the work of the group. At this meeting, we shared a four-step process of participation in which they would craft our quarterly, high priest group plan.

The first step was brainstorming initiatives and ideas. Our leadership would distribute a piece of paper divided into four sections, each with one of the four purposes of the church at the top.  We would invite the high priest group to brainstorm initiatives they felt our group should be pursuing over the next quarter to achieve these purposes. We also encouraged them to brainstorm ideas they felt met the existing needs of our ward. The high priest group leadership would also contribute to the brainstorming. This way, both leaders, and members had a voice.

Second, the ideas would be consolidated into an anonymized checklist. Anonymity was meant to prevent quorum members from giving undue attention to initiatives suggested by the leadership. On a subsequent Sunday, quorum members would check off the initiatives they felt they had the time and interest to support, along with their name. The high priest leadership also added items such as “Willing to lead [insert suggested project here]”. This was to expose the leadership passion in the group for initiatives that needed leaders.

We also shared our expectation that if group members felt they could not devote time to this type of quorum work, they could keep the sheet without turning it in. This would be without any negative judgments from the leadership; we respected their time and assessment of their personal circumstances. This element of the process was significant as it indicated the group members on whom we could rely, it also showed respect for the entire quorum’s volunteer status. As Max Dupree, the former CEO of Herman Miller said, the best leaders abide by the principle “When you ask someone to do something, make sure you wait for an answer”.

Third, the leadership would aggregate the checklist, and form project teams for those initiatives that had clear support from the group.  Individuals who volunteered to lead certain projects were invited to be project leaders. When no leader had volunteers, we would invite specific quorum members to lead the project. Although we didn’t share this in our planning meeting, if neither of these avenues produced leaders, the high priest group leadership assumed leadership of the minimal, remaining, leaderless project(s).  Leaders were responsible for providing us with dates of key milestones for larger projects.

Fourth, the follow-up would happen in the form of status reports on progress in our first Sunday high priest group meeting. Status reports could occur during the opening of any high priest group meeting if members felt they had something they wanted to report.

The initiatives and milestone dates that emerged from this process represented the quorum’s “operational plan” for the next quarter. At this point, project teams would be free to execute the projects with considerable autonomy.

Avoid the Pitfalls of Participative Leadership

There are a few caveats for participative leaders.  When leaders promise the quorum autonomy, they create a psychological contract between the quorum leadership and the project teams. If leaders become too involved in the projects after they are defined and organized, make suggestions on the details of implementation, or change the original concept of the project mid-stream, group members tend to lose motivation. This level of involvement tends to break the psychological contract of participation you established earlier. It can also discourage full participation in subsequent quarters. After projects are established, it’s best to stay out of the way and let the brethren do their best work, while providing support and advice when approached.  Therefore, participative leadership requires a significant amount of discipline from the elders quorum president — discipline to trust the quorum members who have volunteered to do the work.

Second, in an effort to be participative, don’t be afraid to place limits on the work of quorum members when they are clearly crossing boundaries that should not be crossed.  Although this may well dampen commitment, ultimately both the interests and passions of quorum members and the interests of the organization need to be served at the same time. In my six years on quorum leadership, the need to redirect a project leader in this way only happened once. However, this redirection was necessary to be in compliance with inviolate church policy, as well as the parameters in the informal performance agreement.  Fortunately, such measures are rare, as they have the potential to quell the passion and motivation participative leadership normally encourages.

Finally, avoid the temptation to place too many initiatives in your quarterly plan. It’s better to succeed on a few, focused initiatives than to overwhelm the group with too many initiatives that don’t bear fruit. Our quorum’s best quarters had somewhere between three to five initiatives with a quorum of about 15-18 regularly attending high priests.  You want your quarterly review meetings to be successful – and the success of the group’s focus on only a few important initiatives will provide momentum for enthusiastic involvement from the quorum in future quarters.

Enjoy the Fruits of Participative Management

It’s during these quarterly reviews that the effectiveness of participative leadership becomes evident. After applying these steps, one quorum gave enthusiastic reports of many of the initiatives that executed successfully. This included the partial renovation of a local center for mentally challenged people, a workshop on financial management for the entire Ward, a quorum social, a visitor welcoming program, and a home teaching blitz. After the meeting, several quorum members expressed appreciation for the new style of leadership. Today, members of our group continue to mention the effectiveness of participative processes we used over five years ago.

But the fruits of participative management go beyond successful execution of plans. As Clayton Christensen, the noted LDS business author commented, “Management is the noblest of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team”.  

Although Christensen appears to be speaking about professional management outside the Church, his comments seem to apply to the elders quorum leadership. Empowered, fully engaged elders quorum members, working in their areas of strength and passions, lead to enriched lives for these group members. Active, engaged participation is a powerful defense against inactivity, cynicism, and feelings of isolation. And it allows the elders quorum leadership the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to the vitality of the church experience for the elders quorum membership. Participative leadership, when practiced well, is a means to that end.

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