Through the Looking Glass

Leadership from the Other side

by Liam Glover

[4 minute read]

 

Welcome to 2021! From the material I have read over the past couple of weeks, it is anticipated parts of this year will be post-covid. This idea is not well defined, but conveys a sentiment that we can start conceiving a world where we can go back to talking about the weather (rather than the ice breaker covid conversation) and where news services do not lead with covid newsbreaks and updates.

It also means we can conceive our leadership post-covid too.

A reality of covid in 2020 was that the home became a place of, well, pretty much everything. We worked from home, exercised from home, engaged in worship services from home, shopped from home. For those of you in leadership, you probably led from home too!

And most of these activities were mediated through glass – be it television, phones, laptops or desktops – utilising forms of video conferencing technologies. (I think at one stage I had become a ‘Zoombie’ – maybe mid May.)

John joined Arrow for a short term, five month contract in 2020 – which started and finished without me meeting him in a physically proximate way. Thankfully, I had shared many coffees prior to him coming on board in this way. And in faith, will again in days to come.

Lewis Carroll, in his book, “Through the Looking-Glass”[1] takes the reader to an alternate world beyond the glass where the world operates differently… backwards, sometimes forwards, often diagonally, from the way Alice knew her world.

I think we find ourselves there now. Where our leadership assignment is beyond the glass and the world does look quite different and operates differently.

Leading can be tricky and what it is to be a great leader is undoubtedly a fusion of various attributes – character, humility, passion, vision and capability, among other things. A good, faithful and successful leader could be described as someone who possesses emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, adaptive intelligence and growth intelligence. (Much could be written about the quotients that measure each of these intelligences, but that is not the purpose of this blog.)

What I would like to highlight, though, is the priority of a leader to possess emotional intelligence, having empathy for those she is leading and the group of people being served by the organisation of which she is a part.

As leaders, many intuit expressions of empathy, as an innate intelligence or pre-disposition. At the same time, as many leaders know, emotional intelligence can be intentionally developed as they practice leadership.

The world of neuroscience continues to contribute in significant ways to our understanding of the human function. A study by Gallese points towards the presence of mirror neurons, mediating our “capacity to share the meaning of actions, intentions, feelings, and emotions with others, thus grounding our identification with and connectedness with others, which is a crucial functional mechanism for empathy.”[2]

Our eyes precipitate mirror neurons, allowing leaders to have empathy for those they are seeing. However, seeing others through the (looking) glass does not trigger the generation of the same neurons. Studies point towards a correlation between time spent engaging with digital screens and a drop in levels of human empathy.[3]

In fact we know from the work being done by neuroscientists and psychologists that our engagement with the world via screens is changing the very structure of human brains and how they operate.[4]

Is community, connection and therefore leadership through the glass more of a compromised reflection of what is possible when we are together, even though our neurology tells us that it is equally as good?

What does that mean for those leading in 2021 and beyond?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Engagement with team through glass is seen as complementary and supplementary to gathering together in a physically proximate environment. Being physically together enables us to say, like I remember well from the movie Avatar, “I see you.”
  • Recognising that engagement exclusively through glass will not allow the level of empathetic engagement as a face to face experience might enable. (Our mirror neurons can still be trigged through glass – yawning during a zoom meeting can still be contagious, as can the shedding of tears.)
  • Creative activity happens best in the physical company of others. Where possible, reserve virtual connections for transactional engagements, prioritising times of being physically proximate for creative and innovative work.
  • We are representing an incarnational gospel. An enfleshed gospel where the God of heaven incarnated himself in humanity. Arrow’s cry is that we are led more by Jesus to lead more like Jesus to lead more to Jesus. The medium is the message. Our physical presence is in some ways the presence of Jesus.

Our 21st century world means interaction via glass will be increasingly normative. Remember, though, the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Recognising that first century mirrors are nothing like the mirrors we know today, his words have even greater impact. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Perhaps like the sheep in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, we should seek to practice the impossible daily, remembering that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

 


[1] Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass” UK, 1872.

[2] Victorio Gallese, “Mirror Neurons: Embodied Simulation, and the Neural Basis of Social Identification” in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19 (2009): 524.

[3] See, for example, Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[4] Andrew Shepherd, “Mirrors, Screens and Photographs: Facing the Other in an ‘Age of Terror’” Thought Matters Conference, 2017, 12.