Curtis Lebaron teaches in the Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at BYU. I first was introduced to Curtis LeBaron when I listened to his BYU devotional talk he gave in July 2009. I was extremely impressed by his research experience and thought it applied so well to church leadership.

I later contacted Curtis LeBaron and asked if he would be willing to allow me to ask him some questions about his research and see how we could apply it to typical church leadership. He graciously agreed and I had a wonderful hour interview with him.


Professor LeBaron’s main focus in research is through a method called ethnography. Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures. It’s typically used in anthropology. Here’s what Professor LeBaron had to say about it:

Research methods are kind of a menu of choices and they all have strengths and weaknesses. Most of the social science research that has been done in the last 50 years or so has been informed by psychological model of understanding. Of course research methods and theory need to be compatible in any kind of research project. I am speaking in very broad
terms so please understand that I am generalizing probably irresponsibility.

Psychologists have been very good at experimental methods often bringing people into a laboratory where they study under controlled conditions. How people behave, how they make decisions, how they live in the social world. A lot of insights have come from that kind of work. But one of the weaknesses of that approach to study human behavior and trying to understand people in that way is that it removes people from the natural environment in which they live and work and behave on a day to day basis. To some extent the argument goes, who we are is related to where we are; who we are is related to the situations in which we behave. As soon as we separate ourselves from our contexts we are no longer who we are within our context.

So ethnographic approaches which come not from the field of psychology but from the field of anthropology primarily–they try and understand people by looking at people within their natural circumstances or situation or context and of course when one does that the downside is that we can’t control those conditions because they are naturally occurring so they are not laboratory like settings where variables can be control and hypotheses can be tested. So we have to study people and learn about them by looking closely sometimes conducting interviews. And my research comes from that kind of a tradition. Now there is kind of a twist on that which is when I go into a situation I don’t just observe I make audio and video records of people actually going about their work, conducting meetings, having conversations, making plans, forming strategies, developing new ideas, foster innovation–all those sorts of things. Things that can be captured on video tape. They can be carefully analyzed and studied and those details that come from the recorded data can be examined against a backdrop of understanding that come from interviews or documents and histories. And so it’s a different approach to research than most people take.

Imagine what could be learned about leaders if we recorded typical Elder Quorums or Relief Societies around the church. This probably wouldn’t be realistic, but thankfully church leadership principles can be very similar to those in the secular world. The following interview explains what Professor Lebaron learned from his research and how it can be related to LDS church leadership.

Interview with Professor Curtis LeBaron

Leading Saints: Is there anything from your research that you have discovered as far as leadership goes that could tie over with leading in the church?

Curtis LeBaron: Yeah, I think there is. One of the things that we see demonstrated so well in places like general conference is the importance of stories and telling stories effectively. Leaders need to be heard, they need to be remembered, they need to be valued. If anyone of those three things is missing then their leadership is going to be less effective. One of the beautiful things about stories, whether they are stories from the scriptures, or they’re stories from life experiences is that people tend to listen to stories; they tend to be interested in them and the human ear just quickly opens up to stories more than it opens up to abstract kinds of ways of talking. Stories enter the mind and the heart very quickly. They are not only heard but they are remembered.

There is something about stories. For example, just off the top of my head I remember a story that President Monson told years ago about the octopus catching devise—the maka-feket. I remember the story of how it was used to trap these things. And it is through the story that I am able to access the principle that he was talking about. I think it was related to repentance. I can think of other stories that President Hinckley has told or President Kimball. So stories are memorable—and of course the valued part, I think stories come with lessons. Stories ring true to us. Stories capture life in a way that includes its complexities. In any single story we can have the main character kind of caught in the web of circumstances that are analogous that we find ourselves in day to day. So we value stories and the messages that come. So that is one example.

Another example is something that is a key leadership principle is attention to the individual. We have in the gospel the beautiful juxtaposition of things universal and things individual. The gospel reaches in both directions. We believe in heavenly father and the savior who on the one hand are beyond our comprehension in the sense of the universal scope and the universe. On the other hand they know us on an individual level. I think in the church we are very good at doing both. The church is now an international organization it’s a huge organization but yet look how well it tends to the need of the individual. So I think we see that as a beautiful thing within the church. I think that local leaders, I know that one of the groups that you are trying to serve are kind of ward level leaders or stake level leaders that want to make a difference. I think the most effective leaders are those that can see the big picture of their calling but never neglect the individuals and what that means for me is actually taking time and making contact with people.

Just yesterday the primary president in my ward–she came by and brought a flower for my six year old daughter who is one of  her primary students and she explained that we had both been at a wedding reception on Friday evening and my daughter had tried to talk to her and had been crowded out by other adults. And this wonderful leader and sister in our ward had noticed my daughter’s two attempts to come in and talk to her and had been kind of  shut out or literally blocked out with other people who were standing in the circle. And so this primary president came over and brought her a flower and apologized that she hadn’t been able to talk to her. And it meant a lot to my daughter. That kind of leadership is so effective.

LS: You mentioned in your BYU devotional, “the moment of transition or boundaries are moments that define leaders.” Can you expound on that principle as far as transitions go with leadership?

CL: Yeah, this is something that I have noticed and it has come from my own research even though I am not the first person to focus on the importance of transitions. These can be transitions like the beginning and the ending of a meeting. These can be transitions that are life transitions like when a young man or a young women graduates from one class to another like going from a deacon to being a teacher. They can be transitions such as when a calling is extended and accepted and there is a setting apart. All of these kinds of transitions are important for leaders. Leaders have to be very careful about how they facilitate the transition.

The reason transitions are so important is that during transitional moments we do what is called identity work. This is a little more technical than what I got into in my talk but identity work is we behave in ways that define who we are relative to one another. So I mean such things as relative status. Who is more important? Who has more authority? Who is in charge relative to other people? We manage relative status, and when I say we manage it through subtle ways of behaving through our behaviors we subtle establish for one another who is in charge—who is to be respected, who is to be acknowledged and listened to.

Another definition of identity is our social distance or closeness. So how close are we? Are we intimate? Are we friends? Or on the other hand are we just kind of co-workers and acquaintances? I think a lot of times we make the assumption that we begin as individuals and that we come together to form groups. I think arguably it is the other way around. I think our sense of who we are as individuals is something that comes through our association with each other. Individuality is a product of group interaction and so when we go to church and when we attend teachers quorum or beehives class or Relief Society or primary we are engaged in a process that unavoidably helps define who we are in this world. Because who we are is always relative to who we are in relation to one another.

During transitional moments identity work goes on and leaders have to be very careful that they manage those transitions well so that
people receive the kind of messages that leaders want them to receive.

LS: So, these moments of transition are opportunities for leaders to maybe point out the individual but also help the individual define who they are? Am I understanding it right?

CL: Right, yeah, Whenever we’re going into a new situation. Whenever people come together in a room they have to show one another what they are doing. They have to answer the question, who are we? Who are we in relation to one another? And what is our work? And they have to answer those questions–those questions are like hanging in the air. So transitions are a way for leaders to answer those questions maybe even explicitly but unavoidably they do it subtly, and they need to be thoughtful about what they want those answers to be. With a young man that is being ordained to a priesthood office, it is a wonderful opportunity to answer those questions in relation to that young man which is to talk about their infinite worth, to talk about the goodness in their lives that has allowed them to accept a new position in the Aaronic priesthood and so forth. It’s an opportunity to celebrate that and to state it explicitly and unavoidably they do it subtly.

LS: In that situation not only does that young man learn more about himself but he learns that his bishop is somebody who is inspired and cares about him?

CL: Yeah, I mean it goes in all directions. Not only is it an opportunity for the young man to learn of the bishop’s concern and love for him but it is an opportunity for others in the room to witness that and to see that love from the bishop to the young man and that is kind of a public pronouncement of sorts. It makes that information public for everyone to see. When we raise our hand to support or sustain someone in a calling we can follow the bishop’s example as we see the bishop support that person and sustain them.

LS: In your BYU devotional you have a consistent theme of four statements. The four statements of: I see you, I understand you, I like you, and I can work with you. What is your philosophy behind that? Or what is the background on those statements?

CL: Well a little bit of philosophy or theory might be a better word. In the social sciences in the field of linguistics there was a guy named John Austin at Berkeley in the 1960’s and 70’s who developed something called Speech Act Theory. And that has been picked up and further developed by a lot of people. And the idea is this–when we communicate our words just don’t mean something they do something. They do many things. So, communication isn’t just about meaning it’s about action. The technical meaning or the dictionary meaning of the words that leaders say maybe much less important than the actions that those words accomplish. And it is often the actions that we remember and that impact our lives much more than those words do.

So for example, if you go to a party and you go to that party or that social event and somebody snubs you or says something rude to you, you may not be able to recall exactly what their words were but you may remember for the rest of your life the action of being rejected or being put down. Or the converse, somebody may reach out and validate you or include you or something like that and the words take a back seat to the actions that are being performed. So in the talk, what I was doing was identifying some of the actions that were being accomplished by the words being used. Those words may have had a particular meaning but it wasn’t the meaning of the word that was most important, it was the actions they were accomplishing.

The beautiful thing about the gospel and about the Savior’s teachings is that at the same time He was communicating or teaching about things like love, like peace, and so forth His words didn’t just mean those messages they were also doing those messages and that is one of the things that made them so powerful. When leaders are able to give us instruction about something and the content and meaning of their instruction is coupled with or is joined with displays that in the moment illustrate that instruction. So for example, the Savior’s message of love and peace was always coupled with His behaviors that communicated or that accomplished love and peace. So when the meaning and the actions coincide it’s especially powerful.


*This interview was originally published in September of 2010

Pin It on Pinterest