Understanding General AuthoritiesBy: Stephen Marsh
I’ve written a fair amount on understanding General Authorities. With this post I will address a few lessons almost all of them have learned:
- Don’t inhale.
- You know less than you think you do.
Of course you can get the “don’t inhale” message in almost every talk by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf. Other Church leaders have given similar talks, where they realized that the attention and the respect they received had nothing to do with who they were, and everything to do with the office they held. Early on they are all cautioned not to “inhale” the respect and attention — not to let it go to their heads. Many of them have a story about how that lesson hit home from them, whether it be watching the change in the way they were treated before, during and after being head of an organization like Rotary to some other story.
It is an important message, an important lesson, and it really affects those who have learned it. I’ll revisit the other side of this lesson, later, below.
You aren’t as smart as you think you are comes in a lot of flavors. From Dallin Oaks “I could be an attorney who is also a general authority, or I could be a general authority who was once an attorney” to Boyd K. Packer’s talks on that subject. The lesson has two parts: those above you in the Church often know things you don’t and other people often know things you don’t. You need to listen to both, but in different ways.
You can see both of those parts at play in Elder Boyd K. Packer – Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council.
Elder Packer’s talk has been discussed quite a bit, but a huge part of what has made him what he is today is a sense of his own limits and that others know things he does not.
He gives several examples.
- He had prepared a talk, read it to some others at BYU and they looked at him askance. He was proof-texting. He stopped and asked what was wrong. When they explained his mistake “I simply said, “What do you suggest?” He said, “Better find another scripture,” and he pointed out that if I put that verse back in context, it was really talking about another subject. Others had used it as I proposed to use it, but it was not really correct. I was very glad to make a change.” He could have taken a different approach (which he mentions in his talk), but instead of doing that he asked for their suggestions. Afterwards “This brother lingered after the meeting to thank me for being patient with him. Thank me! I was thankful to him.”
- He also gave an example from his early days when he had his first calling. He was asked to take a side against a proposed change, supported by all the logic he could see. He did not, and later, with the benefit of a broader perspective that the change made it so that the program served many more people, better, with a focus on the scriptures rather than on something else.
- He also gave some examples of when he was edited, once when the talk he gave missed a word that was actually in the written version … he had just missed it while reading.
- His conclusion “Now you may not need a correlating hand in what you do, but I certainly do.”
Most general authorities have times when they have submitted to the advice or counsel of others and were better for it, or saw people who were too proud to do that and who were worse for it.
The next lesson I’m putting under the general topic of capture.
I’ve written about capture before. How government agencies that are supposed to regulate groups get captures by those with an interest with them. Next thing you know, they are cooperating and co-opted, not regulating.
A similar thing happens in large corporations — or can. Been a lot of attention on how CEO pay went from 4-5 times the pay of line workers to 10 times the pay of line workers to up to 400 times the pay of line workers. Funny how that was predicted, rejected, and then became the basis of the entire leveraged buy-out industry. The essence of a leveraged buy-out is that the assets of many corporations are worth more than the stock. The difference is the value being shunted into the pockets or lifestyles of the managers. I once read a collection of stories about young millionaires, and the vast majority of the ones in the book had realized that leveraged buy-outs were possible, had written papers on it in their MBA programs, gotten Cs, C- or less on the papers, and then gone out and made themselves rich taking companies away from the managers who had captured them.
Well capture occurs in Churches as well. Programs take on a life of their own and a focus that has nothing to do with the purpose of the Church. The same is true of causes. Capture leads to several related results. One, a loss of focus on the big picture. Two, shunting aside the feelings of those who are in other areas (kind of part of one). Distortions of core values. For example, athletic programs in the Church led to a number of problems. President Packer early in his career dealt with almost being captured by a group who favored a focus on competitions (other than sports) that was serving to sideline and alienate the vast majority of people in a program, while greatly rewarding a few.
A flavor of capture occurs whenever someone faces the issue or the question of: “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?“ Sometimes it isn’t capture, of course. I think everyone recognizes President Hinkley’s many talks on how any abuse by a priesthood leader is damning to the leader and how no person, woman or child should ever be abused as focused on giving solace and protection while denying license. But it is easy to go the other way because you are trying to help someone or some group and you’ve lost the larger picture.
All of these lessons are behind correlation.
Consider. Every time a Bishop fails to call the police when he has discovered the abuse of a child, because “this time is an exception to the rule” you see someone resisting correlation. They are trying to help someone, but really giving license. They are not accepting that the policy makers above them in the Church know more than they do. They are inhaling the attention and efforts of the person seeking a different outcome. Every time you see one of these situations, you are seeing someone resisting correlation.
Not only are some of the worst mistakes that leaders have made the result of resisting correlation, some of the things that occur have given rise to a growing group of the disaffected. President Packer brings that up in his talk when he talks about a “growing group of the discontented. That is the rank and file who are trying to do what they are supposed to do and feel neglected as we concentrate on solving the problems of the exceptions.” Many have probably been in wards where they felt that they were doing what they were supposed to do and that while everyone with a cause got time and attention and help, they were just ignored, exploited and neglected. It can be a serious problem.
Bottom line, of course, is that these are things you need to understand when you want responses from the Church
I’ve written before on how to communicate with the Church. You can make yourself holy and prevail on the head of the Church. I’ve written on how you can become a prophet (with a small “p” and have a major impact).
That is hard. If you want to take a different route, if you either want to understand or if you want to communicate with the Church, then you need to understand the people you are communicating with.
They want to give solace. They want to minister to those in pain. But they also want to avoid giving offense to those who feel neglected and they see, over and over again, people taking license from the comfort given others. They see over and over again actions taken that overlap with results in areas that the person taking the action did not intend or understand.
From that perspective you can see why many communication efforts fail completely. I’ve already written about how you will fail if you are trying to communicate a need for personal satisfaction over duty. Everyone you are likely to communicate with chose duty and caring for others over everything else. I’ve written about other factors.
But I think that these core experiences also color the perspectives of our leaders, who they are and what they think. It also colors their expectations of others.
The talk (linked to above, at a DAMU site), is powerful. It probably has something to offend just about everyone in it, if you read the entire thing.
But it also exhibits how Elder Packer learned that he makes mistakes, how he learned and relearned that he needs help from others, and how he came to understand just how much he needs correlation.
The core lessons are significant,not only for the way they look at themselves, but for the way they look at others. For example “don’t inhale.” The lesson that you don’t give way to pride and accept adoration as meaningful or personal. That is an important lesson. However, not only do they apply it to themselves, they are likely to see it in others who are inhaling. So, if someone has a coterie that they are a part of, people who respect and admire them and their perspectives, and have started to inhale, when they deal with leaders in the Church, they can expect that to be noticed. For the reader, if you deal with general authorities (or many area authorities) they will notice if you are part of a group and have started to inhale, given how steadily they are schooled on the subject.
As to the need for a broader perspective, and an acceptance of hierarchy and inspiration as a channel for that, unless the Spirit is speaking through you, don’t expect to get too much in the way of acceptance if you are challenging that lesson. In a way, that is the reason for a Church to exist, to provide broader perspective and a hierarchy to function as channels for inspiration.
Those are my take-away points from these last perspectives on General Authorities.
What are yours? What would you add to the lessons every leader has had to learn before becoming a general authority? Why?
Related material at http://www.wheatandtares.org/2010/10/28/on-being-heard-revisited/