The Leader's Responsibility
When everything works out and goes well, she is often lauded. When disaster strikes, he is pilloried. Public reaction ebbs and flows as circumstances change. What never changes is the level of scrutiny a leader’s life is subject to.
The ongoing revelations concerning alleged parties and other social gatherings at No.10 Downing Street would make for fascinating dissection as an observation of leaders’ behaviour or the ensuing public reaction. Would, that is, were it not for the serious offence that they have caused to many.
Britain’s Premier, Boris Johnson, finds himself clinging perilously – if you believe certain media outlets – to his office. Whether he survives beyond the publication of Sue Gray’s report remains to be seen.
It’s easy to look on, tutting in judgment, shaking one’s head slowly in grave disapproval.
I’m privileged to be in a position of leadership, and recent events in and around Downing Street have prompted me to think about my role, and how I fulfil it honourably (or not!) Below are four principles that I’m taking away from this sorry series of events to mull over. Leadership gurus may identify many more (who knows, maybe I will, too) but these are at least something to be going on with.
Care what people think
At face value this may seem counter-intuitive. You’ve probably read or heard that it’s not good for leaders to be concerned with what people think about them. Stated more strongly, a people-pleasing leadership style can be dangerous. Leaders given to this struggle can lose focus on God-given vision, becoming overwhelmed by the need to avoid conflict, struggle, disagreement, etc. Good intention and visionary dreams can give way to an impasse in the absence of consensus, or the leader can lose credibility as plans are hijacked by those with alternative agendas. Surely, then, a leader ought not to be concerned with what others think and should get on with ‘leading’ regardless?
My observation from the conduct of the Prime Minister – and others before him, and doubtless others yet to come – is that the opposite end of the spectrum is equally, if not more, dangerous. It seems to me that Mr Johnson has cared not one jot what people think. His actions and decision-making portray an arrogance that disregards others’ views or their personal situations. Here’s what I’m getting at: If I find myself closed to the views of others so much so that I feel I can carry on just as I like, then something is wrong. If I feel validated in acting in any way I please, despite its impact upon others, I am failing as a leader, not succeeding.
Are there times in leadership roles when unpopular decisions are required? Sure. Are there occasions when doing the right thing is unpopular? Absolutely. But that’s different to disregarding people’s views, feelings and experiences.
The Old Testament speaks regularly about the leadership of God’s people. The responsibility of the shepherd to care for the sheep is often seen in contrast to those who have failed to do what is required of them. Take, for example, Jeremiah 23:1-4:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”
Leadership that honours God is a people-concerned, tender, caring role. It seeks the flourishing and thriving of the people of God, pursued at personal cost, even when this is greatly inconvenient.
My personal leadership shortcomings were fully known to God before I came into Church leadership, and mercifully the verses which follow those above point forward to the revealing of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who cares perfectly for his Church, his people with unfaltering consistency and inscrutable integrity. To follow his example is to continually pursue a deep concern for his people, caring what they think and how they feel whilst leading them onwards.
Aim higher than the minimum
One of the things that struck me as I have spoken to people about events in Downing Street is the absence of any discernible sense of surprise. There’s no shortage of outrage, but little shock. People carry a residual mistrust of politicians and seem predisposed to expect the worst from them. The principle transfers to leaders in other arenas. In my former employment, people expected ‘management’ (organisational leaders) to be out for their own gain, to take credit for work they hadn’t done and to step on people to advance their own cause.
Maybe the same cynicism and mistrust lingers in your own heart towards Church leaders. Maybe for entirely understandable reasons.
Against a backdrop of such mistrust and expectation of the worst, leaders can easily abandon any sense of aiming high in terms of their own investment. We can respond to others’ cynicism in a tit-for-tat way. If we’re not deliberate to the contrary, we can give minimally to people on the almost-paranoid basis that we expect them to be vying for our downfall anyway. Whether that view is accurate (and I suspect that in an overwhelming majority of cases it isn’t), leaders are called to give sacrificially to the people entrusted to their care. The challenge to all believers is to “have the same mindset as Jesus… who humbled himself, taking the nature of a servant, becoming obedient to death” (Phil 2:3-8). If this is the universal challenge, how much more pointedly ought the leader receive it?
The leader’s mandate, courtesy of the Gospel, flips the idea of giving with limits and holding back out of self-preservation on its head. We are to follow the example of Christ – to be self-emptying, servant-hearted and sacrificial in the way we pour ourselves out in service of those we lead. Whether we believe people are rooting for us or actively plotting our downfall; whether we ‘feel the love’ or feel like we’re pushing water up a hill in leading them, we are called to give our best.
Like so much of his Kingdom, God-honouring leadership is upside-down and in stark contrast with the world. The inclination to lead in a cost-free way, giving as little as we can is directly challenged by ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us...’ (Rom 8:32). We serve in leadership, bringing our best and bearing its cost because it’s our right and fitting response to the outrageous love and mercy God has shown us.
We lead as part of our worship. Leadership is not detached or removed from worship, it’s part of it. Worship involves turning up, bringing our best and not holding back. I know I’m guilty of the opposite of all three of those on occasions, but the Gospel challenge is actually an invitation to growth in all areas.
Deliberately create a culture of transparency
Integrity is not just about what goes on in public. Authenticity as a leader is more than merely ensuring a consistent public image. Integrity and authenticity – words that mean a lot to younger generations in particular – matter. What we do in private matters as much as what we do in public. Boris Johnson may ultimately be undone by timings recorded on key cards in Downing Street, but our leadership takes place before an all-mighty, all-knowing God. No amount of attempted public explanation can justify poor decision-making in private for us.
It’s important as leaders that we work hard to create an environment of transparency. An environment in which access to decision-making processes is open to others, where decisions can be explained and where there is accountability.
To work towards transparency can feel daunting. It can feel as though we can’t quite be fully trusted, so just as psychologists may hide behind a one-way screen to observe whether the child will eat the cookie, so we have to subject ourselves to ‘monitoring’ by others. Two things. First, neither you nor I can be trusted. Our hearts are deceitful. They trick us. They convince us that we’re ‘a safe pair of hands’, whilst in all honesty there is a Boris Johnson lurking within every person in a leadership position. If you think you’re above reproach, be on your guard that you don’t fall! (1 Cor 10:12) Second, part of the way we lead like Jesus is to do so in a transparent way. Much of Jesus’ ministry was in public spaces (I’m sure there were some who wish it weren’t so!), with witnesses. He performed miracles and mercy ministry with gathered crowds. He offered explanations for what was going on to the gathered throng and gave his disciples detailed insight. It was transparent. He was open to having questions asked, and where appropriate he answered. He went public with his manifesto and when the time came, he told everyone who had ears to hear the plan was to head toward his death in Jerusalem.
When we give in to the urge to hide aspects of ministry (or ourselves, come to mention it), or to conceal decisions that have been made, we breach trust. Plans formed and hatched in secret are unhealthy. We create barriers between ourselves and others. It sounds like something to be avoided but, again, it seems to be an ingrained, default mode.*
Transparency is a characteristic of a culture that is built deliberately and intentionally. We would do well to be more deliberate in pursuing it. Am I defensive when people ask me what’s going on? Am I open about the plans and dreams of my heart? Am I creating secrecy under the guise of 'privacy' when the situation doesn’t require it? Do people feel able to seek me out for explanations and insight into things? Am I willingly honest and accountable? To seek transparency requires an ongoing grapple with such questions. It is neither easy nor comfortable.
To the best of my knowledge and experience, nobody expects leaders to be perfect. We may think that’s what people think, but I’m confident that this is more in our heads than an actual reality. Most people, believe it or not, accept that we are human and, therefore, prone to make mistakes.
I’m not condoning mistakes. At times, we get it wrong and cause harm to the people we lead. That’s not okay. But here’s the liberating thing: Our acceptance and confession of things we get wrong creates opportunity for forgiveness. The worst thing we can do when we’ve got things wrong – whatever the issue, and however deliberate or otherwise – is attempt to bluster our way through as if it hadn’t happened, or if it had, it’s really not a big deal.
Some people I’ve spoken to have expressed the view that whilst Boris’ actions were wrong – reprehensible, even – the galling thing for them is the ongoing lack of responsibility subsequently taken. The fact that he has wriggled and squirmed, attempting every possible way of getting out of an undesirable situation really grates for people, myself included. Nobody likes getting things wrong, but doing things wrong knowingly, and then being found out strikes me as even worse for the one doing the wrong; their lack of responsibility is like salt to an open wound of those wronged.
I am called to something different. Both God and those I lead know well that I am not perfect. I’m grateful for that. But in my imperfection, I am called to be responsible. If I sin against another – individually or the collective, if I act in a way towards them that is wrong, I must take responsibility for it, confess it, and ask forgiveness for it. I’ve said before that we do a good line in sweeping things under the carpet in our churches. If we want things to be different, then those in positions of leadership and influence need to lead the way. To recognise my shortcomings and their hurtful impact upon you may not feel comfortable to either of us, and every self-preserving fibre in my body will seek to find ways to dodge fronting up to the inconvenient reality of my imperfection. This humility, however, can shape a community, can provoke others to do similar and can, in God’s good grace, forge deeper, more trusting relationships. It’s funny how imperfection draws people closer to you.
Church leadership is a genuine privilege. It’s the source of much joy, some challenges and a handful of frustrations. But it’s primarily a response to a calling. One day I will give account for how I have served as under-shepherd to the Good Shepherd, how I’ve served and lead the people of God. That’s a sobering thought. And that’s why I share a few thoughts I’m reflecting on, in the hope that those of you in positions of leadership and influence will do likewise.
My longing for myself and for other leaders I speak with is borrowed from the Apostle Paul and contains a hefty dose of aspiration: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
May God empower us to lead in a way that honours Him, is good for His people and encouraging for us to be a part of.
*A lot of ‘hiding’ behaviour is rooted in shame and fear; I imagine this is no different.