This is hardly a new topic. Many have written about the shortcomings of the progressive lines. They advance members poorly suited for leadership. They advance members who lack the skills to address the specific needs at that moment in time. They almost always advance members who are too new to the world of Masonry. I tend to agree with these criticisms (though I also see some advantages to the progressive line). However, these shortcomings do not address the main problem with the progressive line which is they place complete emphasis on the end goal. Servant leadership should be much less about reaching the top position than it is about the journey to that top position.
I recently laid out the timeline of the years I would reach various presiding chairs barring any abrupt shifts. I want to make sure that I am around to watch my kids grow up and participate in the quintessential experiences of their childhood. But I recognize that each organization has events that are essential for the leaders to appear at and support. There are some organizations that would be so demanding of my time that I would need to miss key events if they overlap. You might say, “family first,” but that would be detrimental to many organizations and that is the commitment to short-term sacrifice officers make upfront.
As I looked at my timeline, the time to reach the ultimate position in many bodies is significant. For example, the Rose Croix line in the Valley of Chicago has 7 progressive officers under the Most Wise Master. Two years at each chair means that a typical commitment is 14 years until one reaches the presiding seat (even longer for our Lodge of Research). Much more than the ~6 years the average Mason in my state takes to reach the East. My first thought was “that’s a lot of time to wait in the wings.” Consider how often we hear from an outgoing leader, “I wish I had more time. I was just getting started.” Perhaps, the time to be building your organization is now. Now is the time to work with each of the officers and craft a cohesive vision for the future. What is stopping you? The concept that the Master has the final say? In essence, this is ‘my way or the highway.’
It’s precisely this attitude that I posit is the larger problem with progressive lines. That is, the assumption that I won’t offer any value until I am the top leader. You might say, "sure you offer plenty of value; you should be volunteering and supporting the Master's plan." This is derivative of the same problem of focusing only on your chance to "run the show." In my experience, this often means ‘silently follow along, so you don't get removed.’ This is certainly not productive and may not be Masonic. Imagine if businesses believed that only the C-Suite executives (CEO, CFO, CMO, etc) were positioned to speak up and affect change. In the progressive system, neither the superiors nor inferiors are encouraged to learn and grow. The organization fails to establish recognizable continuity.
When the progressive line encourages one to sit on the sidelines, it doesn’t encourage anyone to learn much about the needs or potential of the organization. One’s early years working in any organization are spent learning how to function, where to find answers, and how to recognize problems (you are, ahem…an apprentice). You build rapport with colleagues who are going to move up with you. You learn to ask for help, pitch ideas, and build a common vision of what your organization could become.
The leaders in a progressive line commonly chart their own course without soliciting any feedback. Where in history, has a single idea been presented and taken as the best path forward? A community of diverse thinkers is much more likely to drive positive improvements. In our professions, many of us work on teams, challenging each other’s assessment and solutions. Then we present those to our leaders who repeat the process and prioritize projects for the goals of the organization. I’ll admit that I am beginning to see more inclusion from our top leaders, but given our unfamiliarity with such inclusion, we often don’t know how to respond. A tangential result of this solo leadership is individuals expect everyone to fall in line simply because they hold the gavel. I’m certain we have all seen this. The progressive line has taught that only he with the microphone gets to speak. It has failed to reinforce that it’s more often the rhetoric a leader pushes through his microphone which excites members into falling in line. In Illinois, our installation reminds us that “it is not by the strong arm or iron will that obedience and order are secured but by holding the key to the hearts of men.”
Over years of watching new officers move into the top seat, I have developed an even more significant concern: giving full latitude to a single person fails to establish continuity. There's no consistent strategy or vision, just a series of abrupt course corrections year after year. Oddly enough, this should be the strength of the progressive line and a glaring weakness of every other approach. It isn’t. One should learn to conform to the collective vision and strategy as you climb while seizing opportunities to modify and craft that vision along the way. You learn to employ tools such as rhetoric and empathy to establish a strong reputation that offers you opportunities to inform policy and modify tactics to strengthen the organization.
We need to be evolving the way we approach Masonic leadership. We have important gifts to offer to humanity that require all hands on deck to build. As leaders, we should be looking for ways to prepare future leaders to build the vision we presently hold. And as subordinate officers, we should be engaging our leaders more.
As I think about the next phase of my service to Masonry, I want to spend my time fully engaged. I recognize that I have something of value (just as each of you) to offer over an extended period, not just a year or two as head honcho. Quite frankly, if I wait to craft the future of our fraternity, it will be too late. I will not affect ANY change in those final years. And once I’m in the Past position, it is no longer my ship to steer.