The poet who loves plumbing

28 03 2007

On occasion brownblog will welcome guest bloggers. These are people who I think have something fantastic to say. The first guest blogger is Peter Barney who is Director of Scripture Union in Western Australia. Peter gives his take on leadership…


Peter: Mark invited me to post on leadership in Christian Ministry. My pleasure, I like the topic of leadership, it is a big part of my day to day job and I like thinking and chewing over leadership concepts as well as putting them into practice. I think it is best to share what I am thinking and implementing, it is about all I have got to offer as I am on a learning journey with this stuff. I will say I do write as a part of an organization that takes the concepts Mark has tossed up in the ‘Don’t tell me, ask me’ article as a given.

I have discovered a term for leadership that I am finding very helpful. The term comes from James March a Professor of Business at Stanford University who describes leadership as Plumbing and Poetry (On Leadership – James March, Thierry Weil). ‘Plumbing’ is explained as the capacity to apply known techniques effectively. While ‘poetry” draws on a leaders actions and identity and pushes them to explore unexpected avenues, discover interesting meanings and approach life with enthusiasm.

Leadership requires the gifts of a poet, to find meaning in action and render life attractive. March argues that “The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive collective action”. Words, ideas and visions are evocative and lead us to say more than we know and teach more than we understand. Freedom for exploration, experimentation and dreaming coming from all parts and levels of an organization are important.

So are we encouraging poetry in our organizations? Do we give permission for this type of thing to be occurring in an organization? My observation is that for lots of Christian groups this is often championed really well. There is real space for dreaming, thinking and new ideas. There is often lots of Poetry, and amongst the dreaming and visions will often be some ideas that need to be actioned and implemented

Plumbing links to the efficiency of everyday tasks within an organization or movement, plumbing has never been popular, it never will be it is not very romantic or heroic and we tend to always want leadership to link to the heroic and romantic (well I do anyway). I believe plumbing is still very important in leadership today, it is easily ignored and often forgotten. March identifies 4 key components to good plumbing they are Competence, initiative, identification and unobtrusive coordination.

In summary, do people know what they are doing, are people encouraged to deal with issues locally, promptly and autonomously, people take pride and have ownership of the organization and people are coordinated effectively, quickly and inexpensively. There is much information on doing the plumbing well in hierarchical organizations, there is a lot less on doing the plumbing well in some of the more organic structures and organizations that so many of us are attracted to or trying to implement.

The funny thing is, that in many situations there is a rush to be a part of a more organic or flat structured organization. This is done without thinking about what competence, initiative, identification and unobtrusive coordination will look like in these structures. The end result is that leads to many of the organic and flat structured organizations have higher levels of stress and dysfunction

One of my learning’s is that we need to focus on building the capacity of the individuals in our organizations and also focus on the building of the capacity of the teams they will operate in. Some of the staff teams I have been involved in have done reviews of their own strengths and weaknesses and how these combine to make an effective team. This has been really valuable. The next step is to use review material that looks at the overall performance and dynamic of the team and not the individuals within the team (the default review I have always used). I have been given a lead on some resources that do will do that but I haven’t even followed up the link yet so it might be a while before our teams will engage this material.

So that’s my next step, what’s yours?


Peter Barney




One response

28 06 2007
Leslie Meijer (SL)

My late uncle had an appointment to U.S. Military academy at West Point. He turned them down and chose to just rise throught the ranks. But in the U.S. Army he learned a thing or two. He taught me that leadership boils down to two acronymns


He said if leaders didn’t know those acronyms they had “missed the train.”

Do What You Say You Will Do……. active commitment

Do the Right Thing ……….. values driven

nuff said. Our problems in the church are a clash of values / or at least the priority of those values. What is the right thing? There’s the rub.

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