Review: Institutional Intelligence

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Believing that institutions are essential to human flourishing, unpacks the intelligence necessary to work effectively within organizations, and the different elements of organizational life that must be navigated wisely.

Institutional intelligence. On first hearing, some would think this is an oxymoron. Institutions have gotten a bad name. One thinks of words like bloated, hidebound, unfeeling, and corrupt. Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University, thinks differently:

“But is there another way to think about institutions? Can we perhaps actually recognize that institutions are essential to human flourishing? Rather than see them as a problem or as a necessary evil, can we appreciate instead that institutions are the very means by which communities thrive, individual vocations are fulfilled, and society is changed for the good? Can we consider that we are all enriched and we all flourish when we invest in sustainable institutions? And more, could it not be that we can view this capacity as a good thing–as vital part of our personal development? Could it be that institutional intelligence–the wisdom of working effectively within an organization–is an essential vocational capacity for each of us?”

Gordon T. Smith, p.3.

Gordon T. Smith would answer all these questions in the affirmative, and after his apologetic for the importance of institutions, he addresses how we might work effectively within them, exercising institutional intelligence.

He does this by addressing the key elements of institutions we must learn to navigate intelligently:

  • Missional clarity and understanding how our role in the organization relates to its mission.
  • Governance processes and how to engage these constructively
  • Recruiting, hiring and developing top notch talent, and managing transitions out of the organization constructively and gracefully.
  • An institutional culture of hopeful realism fostered by all connected with the institution.
  • Financial health and resilience to which all are committed.
  • Built spaces that enhance the flourishing of those who work within them.
  • Strategic partnerships and collaborations consistent with the organization’s mission

Smith delineates in great detail the intelligence needed with each of these elements with examples drawn particularly from churches, non-profits, and educational institutions, but also relevant to for-profit enterprises.

This is a surprising book from an author whose other publications focus around one’s spiritual formation. Yet on further consideration, this makes sense for someone who cares for such matters but also leads significant organizations, like a Christian university. While one finds many of the same issues addressed here that one would find in many business texts, the attention throughout is on the formation of an institutional character, as well as of the persons working within it or served by it.

One of the places, early in the book, where this stood out was his discussion of institutional charisms. He admits that this is much like discussions of “brand” but distinguishes it as the distinctive gift God is giving the world through a particular organization, that extends through the organizational history to the present. Understanding this charism and stewarding it under God is critical for those who work in institutions and it elevates an organization’s vision. I appreciated the attention to governance structures and the recognition that organizations cannot be leaderless in some “we are all servants” ideal. Likewise, the cultivation of an organizational culture of hopeful realism recognizes both the flawed nature of all human efforts and the redemptive element of hope that fosters joy, laughter, and esprit de corps among people in an organization.

Most fascinating to me was the attention given to built spaces. Implicit in his discussion is a theology of built spaces reflecting how physical space reflects identity, is hospitable to people, enabling them to flourish, and aesthetically and environmentally is sustainable in its physical setting. In so doing, he invites us to look beyond building construction and maintenance to who and what is served by our built spaces, considerations at once both noble and practical.

Don’t skip the appendices. The first contains valuable wisdom about the relation of boards and presidents and their executive leadership and the tasks of each and avoiding confusion. The second more specifically addresses the spiritual dynamics of organizations. The last is a bibliography of essential works on the matters covered here.

Lack of trust in our institutions and the people who lead them is endemic in our time. Perhaps one of the reasons people so question truth is that its purveyors are perceived to front for toxic organizations, and perhaps embody hypocrisy themselves. Might part of fostering a culture of truth amid a world of lies consist of building institutions like those described in this book, where an institution’s messaging is simply reflective of its mission, and its truth is reflected in the flourishing of both the employees and clients of the organization? This book serves as an excellent primer for this good and godly work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: Institutional Intelligence

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2021 | Bob on Books

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