The Role of Leaders in Creating and Changing Culture

Take-Aways from an interview with Bozoma Saint John, Chief Marketing Officer, Endeavor

Bozoma Saint John…I”d not heard of her before the  Global Leadership Summit in August 2019…but a lot of the rest of the leadership world had.  Employees at Uber, Apple Music and iTunes know her and now, through her work at Endeavor, a global leader in entertainment, sports and fashion, people in 30 countries around the world do as well.  So, perhaps it’s time that some of you serving as leaders in the church come to know her, for what she had to say during the GLS bears strongly on parishes and dioceses, and therefore on the effectiveness of the Church globally.

The role of leaders in creating and changing culture is the part of her dynamic interview I want to share with you.  Here’s what I took away from the interview:

  1. Leaders are responsible for both creating and changing the culture in the organization.  Since all cultures are a mixture of toxic and thriving (and this includes parish and diocesan cultures), it falls to leaders to be able to foster the thriving and reduce the toxic.  Toxic cultures are places where people hurt each other, compete against one another for resources and rewards and lose touch with the mission.  Thriving cultures are those where members feel like everyone is moving in the same direction and the competition is for excellence in moving the organization toward its mission.
  2. Leaders are responsible for changing the narrative within the culture:  this is both the story the organization tells its members/customers and the story being told by leaders and staff, one to another.  How do leaders do this?  Listen not to respond but instead to understand, to identify who is being heard and whose voices are missing from the table, and to determine who is making decisions.  Leaders also change the narrative by showing up to all interactions as their full selves:  curious, empathetic, vulnerable, visionary and mission focused.
  3. Leaders are always wondering what would make individual experience better:  for staff and members, for visitors and guests, for vendors and suppliers?
  4. Leaders share the requirement to change the culture with everyone who exercises influence with them.  This is not a single-person “show.”
  5. Leaders see that the organization is embracing diversity and inclusion.  This means that not only are a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences gathered around a decision-making table, but that they are also invited to set the agenda and drive the conversation.

Those are the five big ideas that came from this powerful, influential and articulate woman.  Let me see if I can help translate them to the ecclesial environment so you can see just how important these ideas are.

  1. How many of you know that at least one part of your parish or diocese is toxic…that is, it is a source of hurt, it takes a lot of time and energy to mitigate the pain and therefore keeps you from using that energy in carrying out your parish/diocesan mission?  Here are places where toxicity can happen in a parish:  within a staff, where there’s someone who is not suited to the work, or who once was but is now burned out; in parish councils where their mission is misunderstood and their time spent not in moving the parish towards its mission but in criticizing or demonizing; in a particular committee where someone has created a small kingdom of which they are the leader and they attempt to influence others to their point of view rather than to Christ and the Church.  And how many of you can name places where your parish is thriving?  Gifts and talents are multiplied, resources stretched and souls drawn ever closer to Christ through healing, teaching, reconciling and praising?  Many of you reading this recognize that for all the areas thriving, those that are toxic destroy.  It falls to leaders, you included, to change this culture so that more efforts thrive and less are toxic.
  2.  Now to the narrative…the story we tell others and the story we tell ourselves.  My favorite example of this is the story a parish tells of itself, that it is a warm and welcoming community.  that same parish a) never checks to see if people new to the parish or new to a ministry experience warmth and welcome; b) does not have systems and structures in place to make room for new faces and voices in committees and councils; c) does not work to know people’s names, gifts, talents or stories; d) does not reach out to those who have drifted away.  The story parishes tell themselves is that this is their identity but then never check that story.  And over time, a few who have experienced warmth and welcome drive the narrative and those who did not went away, or went silent.  The leader’s work?  To shape the story so that the narrative matches the reality ever more closely.
  3. Leaders are always wondering what would make an individual’s experience better.  When was the last time you as an ecclesial leaders asked this of your staff, your committee/council participants, your parents and the strangers who come to be among you?  When did you as a leader evaluate a proposal based on how it would or would not improve someone’s experience of the parish/diocese?  When did you evaluate your parish systems and structures with this question in mind?
  4. Leaders make culture change everyone’s business.  In the strongly hierarchical nature of the Church, it is far too easy to make the pastor or bishop solely responsible for the culture.  But alas, even if they are not engaged in this, you can and should be.  If you have a sphere of influence, and if you are reading this you do, you can see that within that sphere, the culture of the Gospel characterizes your work.  And pastors and bishops, changing a culture to be more like the Kingdom of God Jesus envisioned is NOT your work alone.  It will take everyone following your lead and influencing their constituents for culture change to happen.
  5. Finally, leaders make sure that their culture change efforts are infused with diverse people and perspectives, and that those peoples have a chance to not just sit at the table, but to drive the agenda, to point out the needs and to lead the change.  That means that staffs need multiple streams of knowledge and people from diverse backgrounds and experiences to inform their work.  Hear from immigrants, legal and undocumented.  Hear from people of color, from the poor, from the young, from those who have left the Church and those who have never come near.  And let them tell you what is important and how to respond.  While that is happening, leaders listen…be curious, learn and be vulnerable as you share just how hard it is to change the culture.  Show up fully human:  challenged, comforted, confused and committed.  Jesus did.
Jesus came to establish a completely different worldview/culture on the earth:  one that embraces diversity, is wildly inclusive and finds its unity in one idea:  to love God with everything we’ve got and then to love each other as God does…willing the good of the other before our own well-being.  Ecclesial leaders…we are in the business of culture change if we are following Jesus’ way.


So there you have it.  My takes from Bozoma Saint John’s perspectives.  Perhaps you will allow them to help you lead your parish or diocese in culture change?


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.