Since St. Paul sat down with pen in hand to serve as the first Catholic journalist, we Christians have been told to think of ourselves as a body — the body of Christ. Paul refers to Christians as Christ’s body in many places, but his two most complete reflections are found in:

  • 1 Corinthians 12:24-13:13
  • Romans 12:4-21

More recently, organizational gurus have been urging leaders to think of all organizations as organisms rather than mechanisms — in effect, as bodies. That’s a huge paradigm shift for many people. After a century of incredible technological development, we’re tempted to think of everything and everyone in mechanistic terms.

Paradoxically, however, we are now building things that behave more like organisms than mechanisms, so even engineers are having to think in organic terms.

When we see organizations as bodies, we also quickly see that all but the very best of them are dysfunctional bodies — adversely affecting both organizational performance and personal happiness. A recent survey points to some of the problems.

When we see our organizations as organisms, two things become immediately apparent:

  • Diversity is not just a challenge, it is an absolute necessity of life (Paul makes this very point in wonderfully down-to-earth language in 1 Cor. 12:14-26). Yet, who hasn’t wished from time to time that everyone on the team would just get on board and see things the same way?
  • Feedback is not just an aggravation, it is a process vital to sustain life. Yet, who hasn’t occasionally wished that everyone would stop coming up with problems and complaints and get on with the task?

There’s no doubt that diversity is a challenge and feedback can be a big aggravation. But serious research suggests that organizations suffer more from a lack of diversity and broad feedback than by an overabundance of either. Some results from a recent survey of over 3,000 people on nearly 200 teams by the authors of Egonomics, David Marcum and Steven Smith, point to the problem.

  • Only 55% say they share mistakes at work openly with their team so people can learn from them. In what shape would your body be if only 55 percent of its parts reported problems they ran into with the environment, like touching a hot stove, or with your own internal processes, like digesting spoiled food?
  • Over 50% say their own team acts more like a driver’s license bureaucracy than an entrepreneurial start-up when it comes to getting better and finding new ways to improve. What if more than half of your body parts quit interacting to innovate — if the bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves in your toes, feet, ankles, lower and upper legs, knees and hips quit responding to changes in terrain as you walk on a beach, or the bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves in your fingers, hands, wrists, upper and lower arms, elbows and shoulders didn’t all work together to find your keys as you head to your car? What if your conscious mind had to direct all that behavior out of pride over its role as chief decision-maker or fear that its role might be diminished?
  • Almost 80% see their colleagues as capable and collaborative, yet 44.3% don’t think their teams have the intensity or passion they need to really dig in and debate ideas. What if your eyes and ears respected each other as capable, but your ears didn’t care enough about your welfare to alert you to an unseen truck, or your eyes didn’t care enough to alert you to an unheard truck silently bearing down on you in a crosswalk?
  • Only 30% believe the best ideas prevail rather than what’s produced by consensus, hierarchy or autocracy. What if your body parts didn’t respond correctly and immediately to threats without first getting agreement from all your body’s other parts, or if they had to ask your conscious mind what to do in any emergency? What if your hands couldn’t reach out to catch your fall without consulting your brain to find out what to do?
  • Only 50% believe that people on their team know how to bring up a politically sensitive topic when needed, or that it’s safe to speak up in a meeting. What if your head decided it was safe to cross the street, so your lower body didn’t react when an unseen car suddenly veered toward you?
  • Almost 50% believe that if you go a little against the grain and try something different that you’ll be labeled, ignored or demoted. What if you started to fall down a stairway for the first time and your arms were reluctant to cover your head without permission? What if in the last few seconds of a basketball game you saw a clear opening to the basket but didn’t take it because you weren’t absolutely certain your shot would go in the hoop?

When we see organizations as organisms, we also see that most organizations are pretty dysfunctional organisms. The problem is ego — our own or others’.

Ego isn’t a bad thing. It describes our self-awareness, and we need it to exercise free will or act in our own long range self-interest. Yet unbridled ego keeps us from being all that we can individually become — all that God intended for us — and it also keeps us from contributing all that we might contribute to others in the course of life.

The big problems involving ego are pride and fear.

  • In pride we want to assert ourselves.
  • In fear we want to protect ourselves.

The individual parts of a simple body don’t have to deal with pride or fear. They simply do their best to function as uniquely valuable, contributing parts of a larger whole. But the parts of a complex body — a family, a team, an office, a bureau, a department or an entire global organization — have to deal with many egos.

That’s why leadership is such a challenge.

Ironically, in the face of a group of competing egos — all doing their parts in pride and fear to diminish organizational performance — a leader’s first and biggest challenge is an internal one. A leader’s success or failure in controlling his or her ego filters down through the whole organization. If a leader can learn to temper his or her own ego, he or she holds the key to getting his or her own organization to behave as a truly healthy and effective organism.

That’s why leadership is so important.

After years of research, author Jim Collins has developed a framework with five levels of leadership. Leaders at the very highest level of effectiveness are distinguished by their humility and selfless focus on mission. Another way of putting this is that long term, servant leaders are the best leaders.

We know of no better model for this highest level of leadership than Jesus — and we never tire of sharing his leadership perspective and example, as outlined in the Gospels. His life holds the key to how to be the most effective leader possible, and it helps explain why the organization he founded has lasted for 2,000 years, has grown to include billions, and is still growing today.

Copyright © 2008 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: