by the Ven Elizabeth Adekunle, Archdeacon of Hackney
Our leadership matters now more than ever, as we look to our leaders to steer us through these choppy and unpredictable waters. The world has been faced with grave uncertainty because of Covid-19 and there are questions around how leaders manage the effects of a pandemic they cannot control. We have seen first-hand the legislative decisions that leaders across the world have made in response to the spread of the virus, and this has led to comparisons about effective leadership.
In addition to this uncertainty, the world watched on their screens the murder of George Floyd during lockdown and the subsequent protests and stories of injustice and discrimination that emerged. Despite lockdown many felt empowered by ‘Black Lives Matter’ to protest and to ask leaders to confront and address the racial discrimination within our structures and institutions.
If this was not enough uncertainty, add to the list the future leadership of the United States. The turnout of voters this year has vastly surpassed the number who voted in the 2016 election. One reason for the increase is likely, in part, to the gradual expansion of voting rights but another more important reason, relates to the desperate desire for good judgement and wise leadership in an environment that seems overwhelmingly divided. The likelihood is that we will know the results later today and the outcome of this contested presidential election may well lead to anger, frustration and violence.
How our leaders lead and implement change in this moment in time, affects us in ways that leadership has not dealt with in recent history. It seems crucial therefore that our leaders have the right tools to take on this immense level of power and responsibility.
The bible offers key teachings, not only about the dangers of the allure of leadership, but about wise affective leadership. The Hebrew scriptures aptly refer to these books as Wisdom Literature. These five books deal precisely with our human struggles and real-life experiences. Armed with prayer and quiet reflection, within these pages we see nuggets and insights in to how to be wise. For example, Proverbs 8:12 says “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion.”
In the New testament we see the practical application of such leadership in the mission and service of Jesus; in his trial and death. Jesus exhibits a counter-culture style of leadership that is not based on ego and progression but rather on humility and integrity. A list of qualities and characteristics can be found in the nine Fruits of the Spirit; all of which help to develop wise judgement.
Biblical teachings are ongoing tools in an unpredictable world, in which God’s reflective wisdom is needed during times of trial and times of temptation, so that leaders do not pretend. The 1662 book of Common prayer offers these wise words:
“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain the same by his infinite goodness and mercy”.
Wisdom can and should be nurtured, for wisdom brings good judgement, altruism, a perspective beyond the individual and an understanding of the power that leadership can wield, both positive and negative. Leadership can bring out the best and the worst in those who step up to the challenge. Therefore, recognising this and holding in tension these extremes is crucial for good clear judgement.
In a world that demands immediacy and is often unreasonable and unwilling to see the opinion of others, or indeed the bigger picture, or the longer view it takes wise leadership not be to seduced by those that shout the loudest, or miss the voices of the ‘least of these’ and the crucial discernment process that comes from listening to others and learning from others.
Nelson Mandela in his biography Long Walk to Freedom equated a great leader with a Shepherd, Mandela said, “He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.
To lead wisely means to recognise that one does not have all the answers and cannot and will not know everything. Wise leadership involves a collective group of people with different gifts and skills in which different people at different times, depending on their strengths, or ‘nimbleness’ come forward to steer the group in the best direction. Mandela’s metaphor also hints at the strength and agility of a group that does not have to wait for and then respond to a command from (the front), the one in charge. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of his/her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting the direction that all should follow.
Wise leadership can be counter-cultural, in fact a leader may represent traits that are the opposite of what the world has been trained to see its leaders do and say. There are times when great leadership means letting go of what others, including one’s seniors, perceive one’s actions ought to be as a leader. Jesus is a good example of this. Wise leadership will inevitably involve God’s commandment to love and an understanding of the long view.
The wise leader understands that purposeful work is essential to human dignity and human flourishing and the immediacy of the short-term solution often does not create lasting impact.
Let us pray therefore that we will have the courage to recognise and appoint wise leaders that can contemplate the long view and hold them to account in order to make the world a fairer more just place
Archdeacon Liz will be in discussion with Cardinal Tagle on November 2nd 2020 for the first of the Autumn Westminster Abbey lecture series on ‘Wise Leadership’. The talk will be available on YouTube shortly.