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Book Review: Letting in the Light, Reflections on Leadership, Ethics and Human Services, by Michael Kendrick

April 30, 2012

This is an excellent, singular book for people in positions of power and influence in the field of disability supports.   It would also be a great book for college and university students, and it’s superb reading for those who find themselves advocates by choice or chance or desire for change.

Dr Michael Kendrick walks a fine and singular line between theory and practice, spirit and action.   He augmented his academic training with long term work with Wolf Wolfensberger in Social Role Valorisation, then a career in government sector social services followed by the formation of his consultancy through which he’s evaluated and done training all around the world in many disciplines, but very often focused on those with disabilities.   While his essays, often published in journals, have been long been in circulation and shared by advocates, families and service providers, this collection of works gives a sense of the breadth of his knowledge and passions.

The epigram to the book is by Christopher Koch: “If a thing is true it will stand the daylight.”   The simplicity of this statement is at the very heart and soul of Kendrick’s work – let us examine what is, carefully and articulately, and then “imagine better” (the byline of his consulting practice is “where imagining better gets very practical”) and work towards goals we can agree on.   That in the book’s subtitle the word “ethics” is sandwiched between leadership and human services is telling and one of Kendrick’s gifts is to make this a focus for our daily work, rather than something that only exists in theory and books:

In the end, we do not get far with just knowledge alone, as its ideal companion for bearing fruit is wisdom.   It is wisdom that is at the heart of the selection of the values the are most likely to lead to authentic service.   The search for wisdom is not in vain, as there is a certainly eternal wisdom to be found by the sincere seeker and actor who seeks out and honours the wellbeing of themselves and others.

In short, things can change, and the reader might well become part of that vision.   Kendrick writes about “Public and Personal Leadership Challenges” as the first essay in the book, examining how changes since the 70s have conflated systems, individual and societal change needs in ways that are often confusing and entwined, and yet, with an optimism that runs throughout, he writes, “fortunately, such a broad continuum permits may people to rise to the challenge.”

In an essay I like, “The Contributions of Personal Leadership,” Kendrick writes,

In the smallness of everyday life, some forms of leadership can be almost invisible because their benefits take place at the edges of the lives of people who may be deemed to be of little importance in society.  The deep significance of acts of leadership on behalf of others lies in the morality of asserting the inherent human worth of all people, especially the lowly and devalued.  It is not the scale of action that defines the leadership, but rather, the leadership is located in the fact that someone freely chose to stand up for others and in the course of events, it determined to bring about a particular beneficial outcome in the lives of those people.  Without any guarantee of such an outcome, and often without the legitimizing approval of those in authority, the person decides to act, knowing full well the fragility of the contribution as well as the immensity of what is needed.   Rarely is such leadership the act of saintly figures, but rather, leadership of this kind is located in a life that is lived with a sense of obligation towards others and can only be understood by granting to it the deep complexity of its personal origins.   

“If a thing is true it will stand the light of day.”  In a field where there is often a great deal of warranted criticism, Kendrick is pointing out what needs remembering: we are surrounded and enriched by leaders of all kinds working selflessly in small and large ways and a moment of reflection on this might be what’s needed if we are to continue.

This is a hopeful book.   And given how much he has seen of challenging individuals, families, governments around the world, and entrenched systems, it feels rather like someone who has walked on coals and come across to the other side looking to the horizon with even more passion: what might happen next?

Chapters such as “Some Broad Strategies for Shielding People against Invasive Bureaucracy,” and “Authentically Responding to the Individual Person” are full of useful ideas that would make for great team discussions or class projects and which, read of an evening by someone determined to “imagine better” provide some great tools and ideas that can be implemented right away.   In the latter essay Kendrick looks at the need to “consider the precise nature of person-centered practices” and acquire a “clarity about these terms” so that even the best intentions will not be “nullified.”   My particular favourite is the essay, “The Importance of Live-Giving Values,” to which I return frequently because of how it takes some of our assumptions and breaks them down and allows us to see things in new, revitalizing ways.

Each essay ends with a “reflection” and that of the last chapter, “The Influence of One Person: Citizen as Change-Agent,” is particularly notable:

The transformative power of even a single citizen should never be underestimated because there have been too many instances where that power has prevailed against improbable odds.   The starting point for the many is always the few, and the gathering of the few is always begun by the small, significant actions of one.

To order copies, either email cru@cru.org.au  or order through their bookstore under “books and publications” at www.cru.org.au  Canadian orders will be processed and shipped from the Canadian distributor.

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