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A pooling of talents

12 December 2014

IN THE current series of Reith Lectures, Dr Atul Gawande describes his development of a checklist for hospital procedures. Many conditions require care from a multi-disciplinary team. The introduction of a simple checklist, often managed by a junior member of a surgical team, has been shown in pilots to reduce complications by 35 per cent, and deaths by 47 per cent. A key factor in the success of the checklist is humility: a team has to recognise that even the most expert can fail.

A key paradox in the Green report, which introduces the Church of England to "talent management" and is reviewed here by the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, is that, under the new system, 150 individuals will be picked out to be taught about collaborative ministry. Better than its not being taught, of course, but hardly inviting the students to model the teaching. The basic premise of the Green report is sound and necessary: a training system that is more robust ought to give the Church the confidence to promote those whose lives hitherto have not provided them with management experience. Historically, this is truer of women and those from certain minority-ethnic backgrounds, but also, although the report avoids saying so, those with a less privileged upbringing. There are two concerns. One is that the criteria listed for inclusion in the talent pool - evidence-based documentation of outstanding performance, an "agility and capacity for intense and rapid change" - seem to be both demanding and conventional, so that we doubt that those who do not "fit in" will make it out of the changing room. The other concern is that, even if those who plunge into the pool do turn out to be more varied than before, when they emerge they will all look the same.

As Dr Gawande demonstrates, there are other models of management and leadership: ones that require a humility that is unlikely to be engendered by an invitation to join an elite leadership pool. Had Lord Green's steering group looked at the Church's systems rather than its individuals, they might have concluded that a pool of talent exists already in the Church, and that it is not necessary to train individual leaders to hold every skill. When diocesan bishops, say, function as part of a diocesan team, they will draw on any expertise that they lack: finance, human resources, and so on. In such a system, the concept of leadership runs counter to the alpha-male model depicted in the Green report. Here the bishop is an enabler, challenger, or encourager. It is probably notable that, while the word "leader" occurs 171 times in the report, the word "pastor" or "pastoral" does not appear once.

There is clear value in a checklist for ministerial training. It is wise stewardship to ensure that the right skills are nurtured, and that people are encouraged to apply for the right posts. The present ad hoc system, which relies too heavily on being noticed or finding favour, is inadequate. It is wise, too, to borrow best practice from secular institutions; but it needs to be applicable to an institution that, uniquely, follows a founder whose evidence-based record of leadership involved abandonment and death.

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