What’s Your Institutional IQ?

The problem with institutions isn't at the top.

This article originally appeared in Comment, 2 November 2017.

Do you need to be part of an institution to flourish as a person and to make a real difference in the world?

From the seemingly trivial (bowling leagues) to the most consequential (churches), institutions are shared human enterprises, bigger than any one person, that extend human culture both over space and through time. They aim to endure at least to the third generation (our children’s children), if not to the thousandth. They are, in the words of political scientist Hugh Heclo, “authoritative communities” that ask us to engage in a sustained common project, sometimes at significant cost to our own autonomy and self-determination.

And for a good half century now, the ascendant answer to the question of whether we need institutions to flourish, at least in the dominant culture of North America, has been, “No, thanks, I’m good.”

Is there a way to be truly, fully devoted to the lordship of Christ while also wholeheartedly serving institutions that will never acknowledge that lord?

We are disaffiliating from our parents’ and grandparents’ authoritative communities in droves, often with a sense of relief and even triumph. Investors reward startups who “break all the rules,” disregarding existing institutions in the process (think about Uber steamrolling over city governments and taxi unions, or Mark Zuckerberg clandestinely scraping the data of Harvard College’s “face book”). And while young adults continue to aspire to the most fundamental institution—marriage—they are deferring actual participation in it, opting for the “non-authoritative community” of cohabitation.

In place of institutions, with their seemingly inflexible expectations, their inherited duties, and their slow pace of change, we increasingly drift through a world of micro-transactions and micro-relationships freely chosen—or so it seems—to match our preferences, lubricated by the liquidity of money, the ubiquity of packet-switched data, and (someday soon, we are told) the absolute anonymity and complete reliability of the “blockchain” that powers Bitcoin, which promises to set us free from the financial and governmental institutions that made the modern world.

In this post-institutional landscape, the most celebrated preacher of my generation—who never allowed his church, with numerous paid staff, to give him the title of “senior pastor” —could rhetorically ask a packed hall of church leaders, “Do you ever feel that you became a pastor to join a revolution, and ended up running a corporation?” Months later, he left that church, moved to Long Beach, and took up surfing. He was last seen on tour with Oprah.

Gordon Smith wants all of us to reconsider, and the first chapter of his book Institutional Intelligence makes a compact, compelling case for why everyone—not just people at the pinnacle of institutional leadership—should stay invested in institutions:

If you have a dream to educate a generation, dream on, I say, if you are not willing to invest in an academic institution that will actually make the dream happen. . . . If you want to deeply affect the way that a community or a city think about and understand and embrace the arts, then it will be schools of art and art galleries and studios and artists’ guilds—institutions, each of them—that ultimately alter the social landscape. And when I am taken into the ER with a crisis, I want a dynamic, powerful, and effective institution that is able to respond to my immediate and very urgent need. At that point, I am not wanting creative and critical thinking about great medical care. Rather . . . [I am] looking for a hospital—an institution—made up of people who do not merely have good ideas and are very competent at responding to medical crises. . . .

And then also there is no great art, learning, or human achievement—commercial, religious, intellectual, or otherwise—without institutions. If you want to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in all of its power, wonder, and grandeur, the only way will be if an orchestra—an institution—mounts it.

Hence Smith’s burden and plea:

We need people who have invested in and know how to sustain effective, vital institutions made up of people, at all levels of the institution, who know how to think institutionally. . . . They know what it takes for a good idea to actually make a difference. They have institutional intelligence.

What are the components of such intelligence? The next few chapters of Smith’s book are not, I must admit, quite so compact, or quite so compelling. Smith covers matters of mission, governance, personnel, and the central place of “hopeful realism” in healthy organizational cultures. He also addresses the role of buildings and “built spaces” in creating institutional health. These are all critical topics. And Institutional Intelligence has many of the qualities you would want in an institutional leader: calm, measured, warm, and wise.

But it’s just a start.

For one thing, Smith—who has spent several decades leading some of Canada’s most well-regarded Christian institutions—generally addresses leaders only at his own senior level. This is the book that you give to your acquaintance who was just named president, or perhaps department chair, at a university; or senior pastor or board chair of a long-established church.

If you have no such acquaintances, you’re not alone, partly for the simple reason that there are fewer institutions than there used to be, and the ones that remain are larger and more centralized, from megachurches to big box stores. The writer Tanner Greer has observed that there are fewer public school districts in the United States today than there were in 1950, even though the country’s population has doubled.

The world of institutional leaders is thus shrinking and, I sense, becoming more insular and less connected with the currents of mainstream culture: a sweet but slightly odd community of people who see some strange value in reading books, poring over spreadsheets, and attending meetings where they have to listen kindly to people who aren’t as smart as them, when they could be searching for the perfect meme, angling for just the right shot for their Instagram feed, or simply feasting on the current “golden age of television” (almost all of whose stories, from The Sopranos to Mad Men to House of Cards to Game of Thrones, instruct us in the fundamental corruption of all would-be authoritative communities).

The greatest challenge our institutions face, it seems to me, is not at the top but in the middle: the alarmingly thin pipeline of younger leaders who are motivated to pursue the breadth and depth necessary to move into senior roles in established organizations. How do you maintain creativity and energy when your job comes with inescapable constraints and sometimes deals with relatively mundane functions—along with a nagging sense, at least some days, that you’re ultimately rewarded more for preserving an institution than for serving its underlying mission? How do you defer the instantaneous gratification offered at every turn by social media’s substitutes for real, thick community, instead devoting much of your waking life and emotional energy to people you would never bother to follow on Twitter? How do you envision meaningful, sustained collective action in a world where the most striking examples of collectivity are public rallies (on both the left and right) with a notable lack of structure or durability and a barely restrained oppositional violence at their core, and where 46 percent of American voters selected a presidential candidate who had built his entire career on, shall we say, a notable deficit of “institutional intelligence”? Until we can offer a meaningful answer to these questions for people in their twenties and thirties, they may never get to the point where they can benefit from Smith’s wisdom in their forties and fifties.

Readers should also be aware that the organizational scope of Institutional Intelligence is narrow. Reading this book, you would have only a faint sense that there are institutions out there other than colleges and universities on the one hand, and churches and denominations on the other. And the institutional setting envisioned is invariably Christian in character.

I have spent much of my life in such institutions, and certainly their leaders deserve guidance of the kind Smith offers. Indeed, it is a great gift to work in an organization that shares a transcendent reference point and aims to serve not just “stakeholders” but the ultimate Cross-Bearer. It really does make a difference. For all the deflating stories I could tell you (and you could tell me) about Christian institutions, the stories from non-Christian institutions are far worse.

But most Christians in Canada and the United States spend, and arguably should spend, much of their life in pluralistic or secular institutions. Think of medicine—a vast institutional complex that, at least in the United States, is troubled in countless ways even as it continues to address fundamental human needs. Or government at all levels—not least the much-overlooked level of municipalities and counties. Or established businesses and multinational corporations. Or the professions like accounting and law.

These are all contexts that require tremendous institutional intelligence. And they pose notable challenges—both the challenges that come with every institutional position and those that are compounded by distinctive Christian faith. A friend wants to be meaningfully present to his young children even as he pursues tenure at an R1 university—where all his peers are working eighty hours a week. Another, a Roman Catholic, is being urged to pursue senior medical leadership in a hospital system that actively endorses abortion for prenatally diagnosed medical conditions and quietly acquiesces to termination for “quality-of-life” reasons among the elderly. And then there are the countless settings where the conflicts are not so stark, but where Christians report to and genuinely seek to serve leaders whose values are strikingly different from their own.

Some of these friends have found creative, faithful, and indeed intelligent ways to serve the common good. Others have struggled and floundered, and in a few cases been sanctioned in ways that did permanent damage to their careers. Is there a way to be truly, fully devoted to the lordship of Christ while also wholeheartedly serving institutions that will never acknowledge that lord? What happens when two would-be “authoritative communities” clash? Ask Amy Barrett, the Catholic nominee for a federal judgeship—who had co-authored a paper, no less, arguing that Catholic judges must set aside their faith’s deepest commitments (regarding the death penalty) when interpreting the law—and yet was berated by a US senator who asserted, suspiciously, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”

And this is increasingly a challenge for Christian institutions themselves. There was a time—at times in Smith’s book, it still seems to exist—when Christian institutions could exercise a fair amount of autonomy, sheltered by the distant and almost invisible canopy of Christendom. But as that canopy evaporates, our institutions now find themselves just as unequally yoked as many Christian individuals are. Even local churches, which enjoy significant legal protection from direct interference with their inner workings, must deal with zoning boards (the most common defendant for religious freedom litigation in the United States). And any church that wants to serve its neighbours in practical ways must interact with regulators, elected and appointed officials, and other counterpart institutions in its community.

Meanwhile, thanks to a century-long trend toward the federalization of government power in the United States, including federal funding of student loans and oversight of education, as well as the growing role of non-governmental accrediting bodies, athletic leagues, and professional associations, Christian colleges and universities now must reckon with a far more complex institutional ecosystem than they did a generation ago.

This could be good news for Christian institutions—calling us away from the temptation of self-serving religious isolation into meaningful partnership with our neighbours who do not share our faith. But in an environment where Christianity is no longer taken for granted as the cultural background, the leader whose institutional intelligence is mostly directed inward toward their own members and staff, or upward toward their board and donors, may be missing the most important institutional dimension of all. We have to embrace the outward work of sustaining partnerships for the common good in an increasingly incomprehending, suspicious, and polarized world.

So we need much more institutional intelligence. It starts, I think, with humility—the serious and sustained effort to consider others better than ourselves, including the others we will never meet in future generations. It calls forth a deeper and different kind of love, the kind that is other-directed and sacrificial rather than the comforting mutuality of affirmation that is often called love but actually is just romance. It requires patience, the capacity to be present to suffering, including the suffering of the mundane work that sustains all institutions and, actually, all lasting human relationships. And it culminates in nothing less than holiness—the purification of our hearts until we truly will one thing, and thus can serve our neighbours and our institutions without any hidden agendas, without fear of man, and with confidence that somehow our labour in the Lord, which should be all our labour, is not in vain.

If we can develop such humility, love, patience, and holiness—and, I’m tempted to say, if we can do so awfully quickly, because our culture’s institutions are crumbling at an alarming rate—we may just be able to build, and rebuild, and pass on, the kinds of authoritative communities that our children’s children will so desperately need.