Leadership by Path or Road?

In his essay entitled “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry writes about the difference between a path and a road. “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity” he explains. Paths are an adaption to the landscape. Instead of going through the mountain, you go around it. They are a result of the interaction between a community’s habitual motion, familiarity with its location, and the passage of time.  As a rule, paths are not forged, they evolve. They are formed not so much by consensus as by congregation. A path represents the collective habit of a community as it moves in response to its environment. It often represents a community’s collective wisdom imprinted upon the landscape about the best route to take.

A road is something else. According to Berry, a road is a kind of resistance to the landscape. “Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement but haste” he explains. “Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort.”

Berry is talking about the ways we relate to our environment but he could just as easily have been writing about styles of leadership. Those who lead by path begin with a sense of place. They want to understand the cultural landscape and the habit of those they lead. They may sometimes feel a sense of urgency but they are not in a rush. Those whose leadership style is more like the road are simply trying to get from point A to point B. They want to achieve their objectives in the most direct and quickest way possible. This is especially true in a leadership environment which quantifies success. Calculation lends itself to impatience. Such leaders want to see improvement and they want to see it now.

Today’s church leaders seem to be more interested in building roads than following paths. They tend to focus on goals more than on people. More often than not, the habit of the congregation is regarded as an obstacle to be removed rather than an environment which must be understood. Because they are not interested in the congregational landscape, this sort of church leader reduces place to mere space. Their leadership is based on a list of objectives which they carry from one church to another.  The location does not seem to matter. They are not interested in the culture of the congregation. Because they are in a hurry, they do not take the time to adapt to the landscape. As a result, the changes they implement often turn out to be superficial.

A road is convenient but it makes its way in the world by enacting a kind of violence on the landscape. Berry explains, “The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; the modern road by the destruction of topography.” It is probably not an accident that the Interstate Highway System in the United States was essentially a military precaution, designed to facilitate the movement of troops from one end of the country to another.

The allure of the road is speed. The challenge of the path is its leisure. In more than thirty years of leadership, I have spent most of my effort building roads. In my sixty-five years as a person, I have spent most of my time following paths. All things considered, I think the path is probably better.

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