Daniel Duckworth is a leadership professional. He works primarily as a transformational teacher to transform the leadership performance of executives and managers. He also works as a transformational consultant to facilitate strategic execution of major change initiatives. He is affiliated with the University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations. After a decade in Michigan, he returned to Utah, where he founded Crux Central, LLC in 2019 to facilitate his new mission to learn to make deep change accessible to the masses (not just to the executives). You can access more of Dan’s work at danduckworth.net.

Enter Daniel…

A woman in our ward spoke authentically in sacrament meeting. She told of her children who are social misfits and whose wrong choices have pushed them further from the mainstream. She taught with grace, despite herself appearing uncouth.

Her sermon climaxed with a profound question. She exhorted us not to try to create perfect children but rather to try to create perfect relationships. “Do you trust the relationship enough,” she asked, “to trust that when your children are overwhelmed or in trouble, they will seek you out?”

I was struck. By normal standards, this woman is a failed mother. She told us as much by relating her children’s deficiencies and mistakes. But by a different standard – the one her question symbolized – she is a high-performance mother because her kids come to her when they are overwhelmed or in trouble.

In parenting, as in leadership, we normally focus on solving problems and completing tasks. We measure success by how much we get done and how good we look doing it. When the poor performance of others – our children, employees, or parishioners – gets in our way, we turn to coercive tactics to improve their output: rewards, punishments, and scrutiny.

In all this, the relationship is lost.

But there is another way to parent and to lead: it is to build relationships of trust and to trust the relationships we build. This way is difficult and complex. It leaves us exposed to criticism, as we may accomplish less and with less panache.

But this way – “love unfeigned”, etc. – is Christ’s way. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when this way leads to transformative experiences.

The same day I heard the mother’s talk, I brought this discussion into the priests quorum. I asked the young men, “What does it mean to stop trying to create perfect parents and instead try to create perfect relationships? Because every time you complain about your parents, you’re essentially telling them, ‘You’re not perfect, and I wish you were.’”

One young man commented over the silent self-reflection that gripped the others, “Whoa, this just got really deep.”

Another finally remarked, “A perfect relationship is one in which you can talk to your parents no matter what you’ve done wrong or think they’ve done wrong.”

Then we shifted our attention. “What does it mean to create a perfect quorum?” I asked.  “It means that everybody knows that everybody else here has his back,” said one quorum member, “and that we work together as a team.” The room nodded.

Under the direction of a new quorum presidency, the first fifteen minutes of our meeting that day had been pandemonium. The assigned teacher was not prepared, nor did the other young men respect his authority. When the teacher broke us into groups, one young man who is marginally active and highly disengaged stood up and sneaked out. He never returned.

As we now spoke of “the perfect quorum”, I pointed out the change in the room’s climate. It had gone from chaotic to restful, and we were bonding. There was ample evidence the Holy Ghost had joined us.

I then claimed, “Had we started the meeting like this – had we been a perfect quorum and the Holy Spirit been with us from the beginning – the brother who walked out would never have even thought to walk out. He would have been far too engaged by us and the Holy Spirit.”

I then reminded them of the testimony meeting at our recent Trek. After listening to 30 or so of his peers speak authentically, a less-active young man stood up. Confidently, he spoke his mind, “I don’t know if God lives, and I don’t know if this Church is true. But I do know that you love me. When I’m with you, I feel it.”

Later, waiting in the Trek outhouse line, I asked a timid young man his impression of the meeting. “Fascinating,” he blurted. When I pushed to know why, he replied, “Normally, all of these people” – he waved his hand over the camp – “are consumed by what they look like to others. But in that testimony meeting, no one cared about presentation. Everyone was real.”

During testimony meeting, I told the priests quorum, we had experienced a perfect community, a space where relationships and growth mattered more than performance, where no one was judging or manipulating anyone else’s behavior, where people could be real no matter what they believed or what others believed.

I taught them that God has a special word he uses to describe perfect relationships, perfect families, perfect neighborhoods, perfect businesses, perfect schools, perfect quorums, and perfect wards. Whenever two or more of his children work together in harmony – not because they’re perfect but because their relationships are perfect in Christ – He calls it Zion.

I’ve experienced the perfect ward.

For a year, my family and I roamed the U.S. while living fulltime in an RV trailer. Each Sunday, we attended a new ward or branch. In most of those, we experienced the same dry climate that characterizes the average ward or branch in modern times: well-intentioned, earnest, yet exhausted members who said and did all the right things but lacked all passion and power. We left their buildings drained.

But there was one branch that defied this culture. Its memory brightens our thoughts to this day. In Michigan City, Indiana, a sleepy Midwestern town not far from where we’d previously lived, we experienced something that can only be aptly described as magic.

In fact, even as we approached the building, we sensed we were about to experience something unique. And we did. So much so that we didn’t want to leave. With our RV trailer parked adjacent to the Church’s lawn, we lingered for hours afterward to change clothes, eat lunch, and, frankly, bask in the experience.

After quite some time, much to our surprise, the branch presidency emerged around the back of our trailer. They were filled with so much genuineness and confidence, we talked like old friends, not strangers. We felt in them the same force of attraction that had drawn us into an authentic experience with the members of their branch that entire morning. Whether in relief society, elders quorum, young men, young women, or primary, or now with the branch presidency – all eight of us felt the same draw. It was so strong that we speculated for months whether we would ultimately settle down in Michigan City.

In our leadership work, we would refer to Michigan City as “positively deviant” or a “positive outlier.” The positive deviance construct holds that in every social system (like a network of locally-led congregations) we will find a normal distribution, also called a bell curve. In other words, most individuals and organizations will meet expectations, some will fail to meet expectations, and others – the positive deviants – will exceed expectations – this despite operating under the same constraints.

What set the Michigan City branch apart? The answer, I observed, lay not in how the members related to us as strangers but rather in how they related to each other. Authenticity permeated every question, every answer, every act. There was less emphasis on what was happening (talks, classes, assignments, transactions) and more emphasis on how it was happening – and not the mechanics of how but rather the substance of how.

Right before our eyes, the people were building relationships of trust and, just as importantly, trusting the relationships they’d built. On the surface, it looked nearly identical to every other congregation we’d visited. But under the surface, it was magic. It was Zion. And the force of it nearly sucked us into Michigan City for good.

But magic is not the normal experience in our homes, wards, and businesses. Why not? Because making magic is not the focus of our parenting and leadership.

One reason we tend toward normalcy is our fixation on solving problems and completing tasks. We’re so consumed with efficiency and how we look to others that we have little capacity to imagine or work toward excellence. In this mindset, it’s easy to relate to people as mere factors of production. When they underperform, they hinder our efficiency and sully our appearance. They themselves become the problem.

For example, I recently spoke with a friend who is a counselor in a bishopric in a ward dominated by millennials. Despite themselves, all being millennials, the bishopric, like many of my business clients, complains articulately about what we might call “a millennial problem.”

Millennials, it seems, are unreliable. When they accept an assignment – if they’ll even go that far – they frequently fail to show up or follow through. What’s worse, they often don’t notify anyone. This leaves ward leaders continually scrambling to backfill assignments. It also provides ample opportunity to point fingers.

Even members who do complete assignments seem to follow the path of least resistance. My friend extended a call to a millennial to clean the church building. The man chooses to clean it entirely by himself every week. He resists the bishopric’s direction to invite others to help him. The past two men to fill the role worked in the same solitary pattern. The bishopric is frustrated and perplexed.

“How do I get him to do it the right way?” my friend asked me in exasperation. This is the very question nearly all leaders ask themselves again and again: how do I get the people to do what I want them to do?

But the question is limiting, if not outright flawed. It reflects normal assumptions: 1) completion of the task is the preeminent goal, 2) there is one right way to complete the task, 3) my way is the right way, 4) if you don’t adopt my way, you must be ignorant, lazy, or defiant, and 5) it’s my duty to fix you. After all, 6) this is a hierarchy and I am on top.

In this mindset – which is normal – we are limited to normal strategies. The ignorant must be educated, the lazy must be pushed, and the defiant must be censured. In every case, we must watch the people closely to “hold them accountable”. Of course, to protect our self-image as positive parents and leaders, we do all this subtly. But we fool only ourselves. An agent always senses when she’s being treated like an object.

So the “millennial problem” is not a generation-specific problem at all. It’s a modern manifestation of an age-old problem, one the economists call The Principal-Agent Problem. The principal (boss, bishop, parent, etc.) can’t trust the agent (employee, parishioner, child, etc.) to do the job the way the principal wants it done. So the principal leverages rewards, punishments, and scrutiny to manipulate the agent’s performance.

But there is another way to parent and to lead. Remember the counter-cultural advice given by the surprisingly high-performance mother? She counseled us to stop trying to create perfect children, parishioners, and employees and instead try to create perfect relationships. In this paradigm, the preeminent goal is no longer cleaning a building. It is building Zion, one relationship at a time.

When my friend tells me he’s “tried everything” to get the custodian to change, what he’s really saying is he’s tried every normal tactic he can think of that doesn’t violate his own ethical boundaries. His only remaining instinct, which he can’t bring himself to act on, is to fire the man. Thus, his only remaining hope is to shift his paradigm.

What if the custodian isn’t broken? What if it’s his relationship with the custodian that’s suffering? What if the preeminent goal was no longer a clean building but rather building Zion as the building gets cleaned? What if the bishopric member “made himself a little lower than the [custodian]” and spent several Saturdays side-by-side with him mopping, vacuuming, and connecting? What would change?

This kind of leadership – which is often called “authentic leadership” – doesn’t imply lowering performance expectations. Rather, it implies building relationships so authentic that the act of raising performance expectations draws the people in rather than pushes them away. When that happens, it will feel like magic to you.

If you and I want to create transformative experiences in our homes, wards, and businesses, we must make transformation the focus of our parenting and leadership. And it all starts with transforming relationships.

Let’s return to the broader “millennial problem”, which we’ve already determined is not about millennials, per se. Rather, it’s about relationships. And at the group level, it’s about fit – or misfit, to be exact. The millennial mindset doesn’t fit traditional social patterns. For example, more millennials aspire to travel the world than to buy a home. Should we be surprised, then, when they don’t want to worship in the same building week in and week out? And more millennials are attracted to social contribution than to starting a family. Should we be surprised, then, when they give more energy to social movements than to bureaucratic callings?

Generational diversity in the Church, like ethnic and gender diversity, stokes tension with traditional thought patterns and organizational models. When Gladys Knight, the famous black singer, joined the Church, she complained about its stifling Eurocentric culture. “African Americans need fire in our bones!” she declared.

What if upstart millennials (whom we can’t keep in pews), as well as aging boomers (whom we can’t get out of pews),  are not ignorant, lazy, or defiant? What if instead they, like Gladys Knight, need something they’re not getting from their current Church experience? When a square peg doesn’t fit in a round hole, it’s easy to blame the peg. But the hole might also consider making a few changes.

This isn’t about challenging doctrine or prophetically mandated structures. It’s about upgrading outdated, outmoded elements of local culture, especially leadership culture, that are actually pushing the people away. Frankly, a great deal of what we hold sacred at the local level is actually just culture – or “the traditions of our fathers,” as the scriptures call it.

When Jewish converts in the early Church complained about the traditions of Gentile converts, Peter distinguished between doctrine and culture: you can’t worship idols, he confirmed, but circumcision is optional. He gave this reason: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:28, emphasis added).

In changing times, and with entire demographic segments disengaging, we ought to reexamine the burdens we lay upon the people. So much of what we think is necessary is actually optional. It reflects not doctrine but cultural bias – or “unconscious bias”, as it is often called today.

This shift doesn’t mean accepting low standards and poor performance. It means holding ourselves to a higher standard. It means relinquishing the normal transactional mindset in favor of the positively deviant transformational mindset. It means leveraging problems and tasks and assignments to move us toward our preeminent goal: making magic.

Like Peter, today’s Apostles are culling. Sunday meetings, high priests groups, and many other sacred cows have met their fates at the chopping block. But the Brethren can only do so much from so far away. It’s incumbent upon us, the local leaders, to learn how to engage the people.

Gallup’s research pins 70% of the variance of an individual’s engagement is on his relationship with his boss, not the CEO. In other words, on his relationship with the bishop or group president, not the Prophet. That’s great news. It means we can influence parishioners’ engagement simply by altering how we, the leaders, engage with them.

How do you design a perfect ward?

You shift your paradigm. You drop normal assumptions and begin to explore radically different propositions about yourself, others, leadership, and community – propositions like the one introduced by the surprisingly high-performance mother.

What would it look like to trust in relationships enough to trust the people to come to us or to one another when they are overwhelmed or in trouble?

What would it look like to create a community where every member knows every other member has his back and they all work together as a team?

What would it look like to create experiences so magnetic that the highly disengaged never even think to leave and passers-by long to stay?

What would it look like to create communities in which relationships and growth matter more than performance; where people are real no matter what they or their peers believe?

What would it look like to create communities that shed outdated traditions and adapt outmoded culture to meet the legitimate needs of changing demographics?

What would it look like?

Well, it’d look a lot like Zion.

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