7 Essential Components of Conversational Leadership

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
~~Mary Oliver, Blue Horses, p. 63.

We are sufficient for the day,
to love, to adventure
to go on the grand tour,
into another
~~W. Craig Gilliam, Where Wild Things Grow, p. 97.

For the past year, I have been working with a group exploring the components of leadership and conversation (cohorts led by David Whyte). Truth is, good leadership is about courageous conversation with self, others and God; thus, we call it conversational leadership.

At least 7 components are part of a map on conversational leadership. While there are some similarities to other lenses for leadership, a conversational leadership map has subtleties and nuances of difference. In this article, we will identify 7 components of conversational leadership and offer some reflections. The components are:

      1. Stopping the conversation you, the congregation or the organization are having now. What is the conversation you are having and the narrative you are repeating about other, self or God that keeps you and the community/congregation stuck where you and the organization or community are? What is the conversation we need to stop having? What does it look like to become aware of that narrative/conversation and to change it, to find an alternative narrative or conversation that has greater possibilities and open options?


    1. The disciplines of asking Beautiful Questions: Cultivating a relationship with the unknown. What is a beautiful question? Beautiful questions shape our identity as much by asking them as by answering them. Beautiful questions open space, options and possibilities for people and often shift a conversation. The beautiful question(s) invite people to see, think and be differently.

      Please note, it is not about the Beautiful Question, although I have seen those moments when it is about one question. Often our multitude of beautiful questions lead us like breadcrumbs down the path to the place where the Beautiful Question can be heard and spoken, but it is often a journey or process to that place that touches at the level of emotional process or at what we call the soul level. Caution: Do not let the search for the beautiful question paralyze you from asking the 100 smaller beautiful questions that help take us there internally and externally.


      The source of the Beautiful Questions—I have found the questions can come from different faces and places. Sometimes the facilitator might offer the question(s), sometimes someone else in the group speaks it/them, and sometimes the group speaks that beautiful question(s) that changes the thinking and way of being. The beautiful question(s) can emerge from many different sources. Through this question(s), I believe, “God whose middle name is Surprise!” happens.


      I have found the driving attitudes for this type leadership is curiosity and the desire to understand. Strong leaders are curious and compassionate, while holding integrity nearby.


    2. Making contact with the courageous conversation. What is the courageous conversation? It is the conversation you do not want to have, but seems to keep calling for your attentiveness. It is the stranger who keeps knocking on your door at midnight.
      One of our greatest challenges is to know the next conversation that needs to happen. This means getting in touch with the real, next conversation that people might be avoiding and to have the conversation in a constructive way that does not take the roof off the place. We are asking for a kind of conversational identity, and you do it in a heartfelt, robustly vulnerable way. There is no way to have a courageous conversation without some vulnerability, a vulnerability that might break your own heart.


      I hear in congregations and other organizations about our ability to talk around a topic rather about the deep, important issue(s) in the topic.


      The challenge is how to have the courageous conversation in a way that cultivates the greatest possibility for positive outcomes and deep engagement of understanding and connection. Jesus was a master at this conversational art. How do we have such a conversation that accepts and values differences while honoring the dignity and integrity of each person at the table? How do we remember ourselves and help remind others that each are individuals made in the image of God; that each person’s reality is important, whether we agree with it or not?


    3. Cultivating a culture of vulnerability and revelation: Asking for visible and invisible help. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, said that we are to live close to tears. By that, he did not mean that we are to live in a kind of mortal sentimentality. By vulnerability, he meant an invitation to a constant vulnerability that is not a weakness, but actually a robust form of incarnation in the world, so you can risk yourself; you can risk your story. You can hazard yourself in the world and give yourself away again and again and again to see what comes back to you.A student of the late Dr. James A. Knight, M.D., a friend, renowned psychiatrist and medical educator at Tulane Medical School, said, “…probably the most important thing he taught us was that while a tough exterior is necessary to deal with the tragedies of our profession, we should always leave a part of us vulnerable, so as to know the gravity of our work and the ethical responsibility of our profession.”How do we maintain an I-Thou way in the midst of those in an I-It way toward us? Vulnerability and I-Thou go hand-in-hand. 

      In fully embodying our vulnerabilities we become more physically present, not only to the sources of our fears and our defenses, but to establish a more proper relationship with reality in understanding how much we need to ask for help. Visible help has to do with the tangible, transactional help we need. The invisible is the help that we do not see or do not realize as of yet we need, and the many sources from which this invisible help comes. The Psalmist, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, M. Gandhi and many of our models for life, both collective and individuals, were aware of this invisible source, thus, were able to embody vulnerability.


      To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature; the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and more especially, to shut off the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse to ask for the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.


      Robust vulnerability is a form of incarnation. I have found the most influential leaders I know are those who can be vulnerable. They are not above it all, nor are they beyond making mistakes and showing compassion for others and themselves when they do. They have an ability to own their mistakes and say, “I blew it,” and to say, “I apologize.” Genuine vulnerability is strength, not weakness. It demonstrates one’s ability to accept his or her humanness and accept the humanness of others as well. Strong people pick others up; they do not push others down.

    4. Cultivating and bringing into our work/ministry our own form of art and artistry. A question in the January, 2015 Leadership Resource was, “What is the artistry that you bring to your work/ministry?”

      “I see art, and in my case specifically, poetry, as an incarnation. Art gives our creative spirits form and body. It gives outer expression to the deep source or well- spring within us. At its best, art invites us to a deep place of under-neathness, a sacred non-space from which creativity flows. Humankind has had a thousand names for this inner place. I refer to it as soul, a ghost-like, far horizon from which our deepest Self makes appearances, shows its face(s) and calls us deeper into the world.”
      (from Where Wild Things Grow by W. Craig Gilliam, 2015, p. 15, available through Amazon)

      I am especially interested in:

      1. What is your art?
      2. How do you bring your art and artistry into your ministry/work?

    5. Making the invitation: The crucial marker of good leadership. Making the invitation is a crucial marker of a good leader. How do we make invitations that create responsiveness and appeal to peoples’ creative, courageous self – not the part of them and us that is resistance, reactive or fear-driven? How do we hear the invitation in the given context in which we serve? How do we frame and help others to hear (discover) an invitation forward or deeper as well?When walking with individuals, organizations and congregations, I often find myself asking, “What is the invitation this situation is offering or that the leader is making or that my inner life is inviting me to hear? What is the invitation God might be extending me in and through this situation?” 

      If vulnerability makes us understand just how much help we need, then practicing this constant need to ask is the practice of making invitations, to others, to ourselves, to God, and even to what lies over the horizon of our present life. One of the beautiful and disturbing questions we can ask ourselves is the central question around how invitational we are as individuals. What do others think my invitation is to them? How do I invite myself to frontiers of courage and trepidation? Is my invitation something people would want to follow?

    6. Harvest the Presence: The ability to bring to a culmination all of the hard work we put into our preparation through the first six components. What are we going to do to build on our previous hard work? Human beings are very good at working hard, preparing, planning, sowing and tending – not so good at bringing in the harvest of all our labors; often refusing to have the patience that a true ripening calls for, or moving onto new initiatives before the one we have worked so hard for has had time to flower. There is also the difficulty that lies in the hidden unspoken almost invisible harvests connected with our shadows, our relationships and our difficulties.

      This is one of the most common resistances I hear from groups when we talk about conversational practices or leadership. Their comments are something like, “Are we just going to talk and nothing gets done?” We don’t need to talk, we need action,” etc. We do need action, but first, we need intentional, courageous conversation that leads to clarity and discernment for the next step. We need to carry through and make a plan from our work and conversations to move to action. So harvesting is critical.In the past, I have used the language, Harvest the Learning, at the end of important conversations. Now I have come to use the phrase Harvest the Presence, as the group with whom I was exploring this concept made me aware of it.

      Harvest the Learning is about head learning and ideas, which are important. Harvest the Presence is something deeper, something more soulful, more whole, something more lasting. It includes our ideas, but it is more—it is who we are and who we are becoming. Harvest the Presence includes not only the head, but the heart and body of the person and people.


      Harvest the Presence suggests our being as well as our learning/ideas/concepts. Harvest the Presence is about who we have become and are becoming through the process of the learning. Thus, I am asking, “How has what we have discussed and done impacted who we are, our way of being as a person and people? How have we become different as a result of these conversations and this work together? How does that influence our map for moving forward or deeper into the invitation that waits?”


      Another lens might frame Harvest the Presence as monitoring the impacts of process on the people as well as the content/information.A friend who taught at MIT said that their deep discovery was, “No container, no dialogue.” This process of conversational leadership is a way of growing, deepening and broadening the container, so the deeper, more important, courageous conversations can happen. The container has to do with its quality, paying attention to the group field; the clarity and interaction of intention and attentiveness, each of which help establish context; to monitor if it is too palpable. As the leader, influencing the quality of the container is our first job and very closely, it is inviting others to share that responsibility with us.


We will expand on each of these components over time. For now, I simply want you to hear these components and live with them.

Be well, be inspired and by all means, keep the conversation alive!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

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