Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization by Gordon T. Smith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. 224 pp)

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta, where he also serves as professor of systematic and spiritual theology. He is an ordained minister with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and a teaching fellow at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of many books, including Courage and Calling, Called to Be Saints, Spiritual Direction, and The Voice of Jesus.

Where Have You Gone, Institutional?

As the 2017 roller coaster comes to a complete stop, a variety of circumstances fight for the label of a year’s defining moment. The world feels miles different from what it was merely a few years ago. Of the many elements out of the norm, the diminishment of institutions seems to be a clear front runner. If I had to define 2017, I would argue that society has decided that institutions have become too powerful and too big to fail. In fact, it appears one of the main reasons the current Commander-In-Chief holds his positions links closely to his promises to break the institutions of which he governs. And he has, to a certain extent, kept his promises. I find it fascinating that almost every appointment appears to be someone intent on breaking apart the very organization they manage.

Given this existential threat to institutions, I wanted to read more about institutions. Are they something worth saving?

An Institutional Manifesto

For Gordon T. Smith, institutions represent the ways in which a community works together to benefit society in ways much larger than someone can do singularly. Institutional Intelligence represents his manifesto on the importance of institutions.

Echoing Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, Smith argues for the importance of institutions in society. The book spends half its time making the case for institutions, and the other half outlining how leaders can build effective organizations behind the principles of institutional intelligence.

Ultimately, Smith’s argument rests on the notion of purpose. Institutions exist, ultimately, as a vehicle of fulfilling a given purpose.

“There is no such thing as a generic institution. Each organization has a unique identity, calling, and purpose—a reason for being. Institutional vitality depends on finding and living with clarity precisely at this point: Who are we, and what is our purpose, our mission, our calling” (19)?

Institutions, therefore, function as the embodying of a clear purpose that drives people to work together toward a common goal. Smith argues, metaphorically, that the institution is the body that acts out the intentions of its people.

“Just as a soul cannot exist except as embodied, there is no community, no vision, no mission without institutions. The idea, the vision, will not happen, will not make a difference until and unless it is housed in an institution” (4).

Institutional Leadership

From this premise, Smith builds a pragmatic toolkit for executives to use to lead with institutional intelligence. In shorthand, Smith suggests the institutionally intelligent leader will develop mission clarity, build appropriate governance structures, hire well, develop a vision of hopeful realism, balance a budget with financial resilience, place the organization within an optimal physical space, and form value-adding strategic partnerships.

The strength of Institutional Intelligence lies in Smith’s theological framework that defends the value of institutions. The first half of the book builds on Smith’s background as a theologian and a leader of an educational institution.

The back half, however, falters as it extends generalized examples of effective leadership seemingly as an attempt to extend a scholarly article into full-book format.

Nevertheless, Institutional Intelligence makes a compelling case for the value of institutions. In a society where institutions in all forms appear under attack, Gordon T. Smith’s Institutional Intelligence reminds us of how institutions leverage the collective to meet the needs of our communities. Recommended for people in leadership positions.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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