Stewarding Attention (II of III): Train Stations & Cultural Leadership


I recently found myself exploring a new bookstore in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. For an airport bookstore, its selection is amazing and I could tell had been curated with an expert hand. This is no store that pushed merely the latest best-sellers. Instead, I sensed a loving, careful design behind the selections. This point hit home, particularly, when I came upon the “Classics” section. There stood several shelves full of the ancient tales that have shaped our world today. The steadfastness of those titles struck me as I received a Twitter notification on my phone. Endurance vs. ephemera.

Today’s newsletter, the second in Jason Misselt’s “Stewarding Attention” series, considers the wisdom of what we might otherwise miss—old books, familiar neighborhoods, even organizational culture.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Stewarding Attention (II of III): Train Stations & Cultural Leadership

Jason Misselt

Current conversations about multitasking (a bad idea), mindfulness, and “marshmallow tests” all have something to teach us about the stewardship of attention. But, each in their own way, they also over attend to the present and, by so doing, leave many a critical matter under attended—hidden in plain sight.

To remedy this, C.S. Lewis bracingly counsels the reading of old books (or, if they were available, future books) as leverage, a means of moving current consensus about and attending to the possibilities that it obscures.

As it happens, this contrarian take on the stewardship of attention is of particular importance for congregations and their leaders. Two illustrations and a home-safe experiment will clarify.

First, I pass along a nearly forgotten bit of wisdom for new pastors from an old seminary professor who, nearly twenty years ago now, passed along this same nearly forgotten bit of wisdom from an old seminary professor.

Here it is: “Beware the person who meets you at the train.”

If you’re puzzled or underwhelmed, bear with me. This “nugget,” offered with reverence but little context and no explanation, didn’t do much for me at the time, but it has stuck with me. In this context, it helpfully humanizes Lewis’ concern for the present and its cozy grip on our attention and, from there, our capacity to more faithfully imagine and act.

Imagine. Fresh out of seminary and fresh off the train, all is possibility. But then, greeted by (we’ll assume) a well-meaning guide, your attention begins to be directed this way and that, ultimately guiding your perceptions toward some possibilities and away from others.

True, you might be greeted by other guides and, through their direction, come again to attend to a fuller range of possibilities. But then again, you might not. If one or two became many—or multitudes—your unguarded attention might well come to accept that this is just the way things are, the way things always have been. This would be poor stewardship, a buried talent.

For a second illustration, consider Edgar Schein, the sagely scholar of organizational culture. In his schema, mature (and declining) organizations have, by definition, become “maladaptive” or “dysfunctional” relative to their surrounding contexts: they too have not stewarded their attention well.

Where they once practiced attentive curiosity, actively aligning external and internal resources and concerns, there is now inattentiveness and misalignment. And yet, preoccupied by the present (although perhaps under the guise of the past), “maladaptive” organizations confidently seek out and reward the very patterns, behaviors, loves, etc. that are killing it. Here’s how Schein puts it:

In the mature organization, if it has developed a strong unifying culture, that culture now defines even what is to be thought of as leadership, what is heroic or sinful behavior, and how authority and power are to be allocated and managed. Thus, what leadership has created now either blindly perpetuates itself or creates new definitions of leadership which may not even include the kinds of entrepreneurial assumptions that started the organization in the first place. The first problem of the mature and possibly declining organization, then, is to find a process to empower a potential leader who may have enough insight and power to overcome some of the constraining cultural assumptions
(Organizational Culture & Leadership, p. 409).

Attention matters.

To attend more deeply to your context, try this simple experiment. Sketch a 3×4 grid on a blank sheet of paper and title the page “STEWARDSHIP.” Down the left side, label the rows “WHAT is it?”, “HOW is it practiced?”, and “HOW is it supported?”. Along the top, place your name in the first column and then add some comparative groups (e.g., “insiders,” “periphery,” “outsiders”). It doesn’t really matter. The point is to practice an empathetic attentiveness, to steward curiosity behind and beyond the culture that “met you at the train.”

For More Information

Jason Misselt designs innovation strategies for institutions old and young in Minneapolis, MN. Formative partnerships include The Fisher’s Net, Centered Life, and The Vibrant Congregations Project.

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