Leadership as Non-Anxious Presence: An Interview with Colin Saxton

Colin Saxton has served as General Secretary of Friends United Meeting (FUM) since January, 2012, and concludes his term there this summer. Though based out of the FUM office in Richmond, Colin spends much of his time traveling among Friends. He sees his primary work as strengthening relationships within our global community, coordinating the overall work of FUM, and building partnerships to advance the ministry of Friends wherever we are called to serve.
Colin’s undergraduate work took place at Portland State University and he completed a Master’s degree at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. In 2004, he finished a Doctor of Ministry in leadership and spiritual formation at George Fox Evangelical Seminary (now Portland Seminary). Previously, Colin served as a pastor, Yearly Meeting superintendent, adjunct professor, and held various jobs ranging from floor cleaner and farm laborer to social service project manager and prison ministry coordinator. In each role, his primary sense of calling has been to help create community where Christ is known, loved, and followed.
Married for over 30 years, Colin and his wife, Janine, are parents to four grown children. They enjoy being outside, working in the soil and raising their mini-flock of chickens. Janine and Colin are members of North Valley Friends in Newberg, OR. In March 2018, Colin spoke with me about some of his thoughts on leadership.
“The capacity to listen is crucial,” says Colin when asked about what makes a good leader. “You have to have a clear understanding of your self and your own strengths and weaknesses. A sense of personal call or purpose as well as integrity. It’s also important to know the purpose and vision of the organization you serve. Of course, don’t take yourself too seriously.” 
Colin then shifted to the importance of being “a non-anxious presence.” He sees this as not getting rattled when conflicts emerge. 
“There will always be conflict,” he says as one who has had some experience. “It’s easy to get distracted by fires. It helps to be a calming presence in these situations to keep the organization focused and keep your colleagues at peace.” 
Is this something Colin has always been good at, or did he have to work at it? 
“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to realize that getting upset doesn’t work. So personality is a factor but I have also had to practice. There is a temptation to assume you can control things when often you cannot. The only thing I have control over is myself – my thoughts, feelings and actions. I am responsible for those.”
Colin shares that a couple of books have been helpful for him in this regard. Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership is mentioned first, followed by William Robinson’s Leading People from the Middle, to which he devotes significant attention. Colin shares that he does think that a dominant leader model can work, but that there are very few who can pull this off effectively. It’s also possible to push from behind, but again, it’s rarely successful. 
“To lead from the middle,” says Colin, “means your leadership is relationship-based. You have to evoke a sense of mission, listen for and call out a group’s identity. Then articulate who we are and where we are going. You do this through trust and relationship, and that way the community builds a sense of ownership.”
In this way, success can come when the group senses something is their idea, and their language, even if you brought the concept initially. 
“It is organic, not forced,” according to Colin. 
Asked if he’s ever received pushback for not being more directive, Colin mentions his time at Northwest Yearly Meeting
“There were some who said we need more of a Moses figure,” says Colin, “but that had been tried before and just didn’t work. One of the best comments I received about my time at FUM was that although I might not be charismatic, much has been accomplished. I would much rather make progress than be called charismatic.”
Colin then brought up another text – a Pendle Hill Pamphlet called “Tall Poppies,” about how among Friends there can be a tendency to cut down those in leadership. 
“Quakers will push back if there is no effort at relationship-building,” he shares. “Sometimes in leadership there is confusion between positional authority and relational authority. Just because you have the former does not mean you have the latter. People need to feel cared for. A good leader demonstrates humility and mutuality – a sense that we’re in this together.” 
Context is also important, says Colin. He gives the example of asking his board whether his relationship with them is to be “Go until we say stop,” or “Stop until we say go.” 
Can anyone be a leader? In this case, the role of call is important. 
“If you are spiritually called by God to leadership, this can transcend one’s nature and can be enabled by nurture,” Colin shares. “But it’s equally important to recognize that a specific call is not a general call to always be in charge.”
Ultimately, though, Colin’s perspective is that we’re all followers.
“In a Christian context, leaders should point to Christ. It’s not about me and my vision.” For Colin, that means that all us need to be actively engaged in discernment. That does not mean, though, that there is no such thing as a differentiation of roles.
“Quakers can get hung up here,” says Colin. “We each have a different role, but that doesn’t mean a better or worse role. All of us have a place in this community, and some of those places involve greater responsibility or authority.”
Here Colin mentions Jan Wood’s maxim that “leadership is not diminished when shared,” and says that this is the case in healthy circumstances. What about toxic or dysfunctional situations?
“Among Friends we can ignore some of these behaviors,” he notes. “That’s one reason why naming distinct roles is important. You need to have some who are responsible for the health and integrity of organizations. Whether it’s a pastor, elders, a board, or ministry and oversight, there needs to be an individual or individuals who have and exercise appropriate authority to deal with these issues when they arise. Part of the role of leadership is to remind people why this is important.”
Sometimes this can mean letting people go. Colin says this is one of the things he hates most about being in a position of leadership. “But,” he says, “there are ways to go about this that balance the needs of the organization and care of the individual. It’s never easy.”
Asked about how he goes about making decisions, Colin shares that he tries not to push or be reactive to situations. He will consult the board and the staff as appropriate and relies on prayer. 
“I try not to be a lone ranger,” he says. “Sometimes this leads to a sense that a decision needs to be tested. In the process, the idea can be reshaped and often works out better than if I had made the decision on my own.”
Colin reflects, though, that sometimes tough decisions still have to be made and not everyone will be happy. In these cases, it is important to distinguish between caring for a person who disagrees with you and taking on their anger. 
“It’s one thing to have your decision challenged, but another to have your motives called into question. That’s much harder to deflect and deal with. You need to pay attention to those concerns, but you can’t let them devastate you.”
Good leaders can help their organizations step back and get a better perspective on what they can and should try to achieve, according to Colin. The challenge is to build in some time to do so amid all the other demands. This can be done with staff, boards, congregations, or other groups through periodic retreats or conferences. 
 “When I first came to FUM there were high expectations - some reasonable, and some less so,” says Colin. “I can’t save the Religious Society of Friends on my own, for example. All I can do is what I can. I can’t solve every problem. It is useful to keep some perspective and not try to carry everything on your shoulders.”
This interview was originally posted on the Weak Leadership website: http://www.weakleadership.com/interview-with-colin-saxton 

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