Looking for leaders - then and now -

“What were we doing before we discovered 'Leadership'?”

The question surfaced as I drove away from a clergy leadership conference where I had been speaking. The subject has moved so firmly to centre place of attention, budgets and programs it is hard to remember.

Every age faces distinct challenges and tasks. Each must be open to the need for new approaches and initiatives. Every generation must be its own fresh expression. And the context and the questions today feel very new.  These are thoroughly testing times.

But who decided that what we needed now is 'Leadership'? Why was it thought that  'Leader' best describes the task to be addressed?  

But for the moment the word is everywhere. No serious diocese or Regional Training Partnership  is without its own 'Clergy Leadership Course'. Cutting edge theological training establishments will have their 'Leadership studies department'. And lest all this sounds cynical let me declare that I have benefited from such courses myself and now regularly contribute to their programs. I write in gratitude.

The momentum for the present church fascination with 'Leadership' dates back nearly 20 years.  It followed revolutions in leadership theory in the business world. Not for the first time the church was thinking the world's thoughts after it.  British business had long been structured around families or run on military, hierarchical lines. Both operated forms of patronage that rewarded loyalty and long service without always a due regard to ability. There are obvious parallels with the institutional church – the church 'family' governed under the benevolent patronage of a formal, patriarchal hierarchy. Changes came in the early 1990's. 'CEOs' were suddenly the 'big' idea - larger than life characters who could take, shake up and turn around organizations and businesses by sheer force of personality. Some gained cult status and they were undoubtedly a means for rapid transformation in uncertain economic climates. But lest we be tempted to think this is what our Bishops should become we should note that the average life span of these men (as most still are) is around two years (1). In the church the attraction to 'leadership' also coincided with the decision to ordain women as priests. So, whatever the intention, at the very moment women began to minister in full, priestly partnership with men in the church the task was renamed and redefined by a noun borrowed from organizational worlds habitually dominated by men.

Leadership - putting a face to a name

A defining period of Israel's history was preoccupied by the same search. 'Set over us a king to rule over us'. (1Sam 8.4-5).  Trying to find fresh ways in to reflecting on Bible and leadership I have been revisiting the Samuel narratives. Robert Alter describes them as 'one of the most astounding pieces of narrative that has come down to us from the ancient world' (1999 pix).

Throughout this long and very subtle piece of story telling I have been struck by parallels to our present context and at the risk of generalising I offer just a few to invite discussion.

The request for a king happens in history.

This corner of scripture well mined by writers and speakers on 'Christian leadership' but the focus is to easily over-personalised and lifted from the complex hinterland that is its context. Samuel = good; Saul = bad; David = really great (but flawed).

The unfolding story of Samuel, Saul and David is told against the background of an uncertain nation, competing power groups, issues of Yahweh, faith and theology.

For the traditionalists the request for a king was a rejection of Yahweh's leadership. It usurped the place of Torah and undermined the vocation and freedom of God's people by the near irresistible drift towards the despotism. Across the scriptures generally, 'leadership' is an idea that sits in tension between the Kingship of Yahweh, His Word and His people's story.

And so it must today.

The request for leadership comes from within the community.

It did not start with a proposal from a strategic review group in the way that it might today. It is an idea is already embedded in and emerging out of the story and hopes of a community. Then, as now, 'leadership' does not exist as a pure theory that comes with a universal adaptor for plugging into any organization or business in 'need'.

Perhaps leadership is not created or organized so much as detected. It must take flesh.

I often introduce discussions on leadership and ministry with a game.

In fairly rapid succession the faces of a number of well-known leaders are projected onto the screen. People are asked to call out the first words that come to mind when they see the faces. The gut response is what is important. It does not have to be polite!

Whoever appears the response is always immediate and strong. We already know whom we like and who we don't like. We have strong expectations and requirements of those who lead us and are blunt in our assessment of those who don't match up.

A community reveals its own face in the image its projects, for good or ill, onto those it asks to lead them.

Anyone long in leadership knows this all to well. Part of the cost of leadership is that it is lived out in the shadow of a people's unmet needs, unexpressed anxieties, idealized hopes and ambitions. One parish priest described the experience as like being required to live 'by a script I had not written'.  John Updike defined a leader as one who  'out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take on the woes of a people … few are so foolish – and hence the erratic quality of leadership in this world.'

The task of developing leadership will never be effective unless it sits within the task of  developing community.

It is not a theological request - 'give us a king like they have got'.

So we should not be surprised if the story struggles to find a theological outcome - which it does throughout. For 'King' read - 'CEOs', Appraisal Schemes, HR, ' best practice', middle managers – 'like they have got'?

And who are they? A significant number of clergy on these leadership courses have had previous careers in business or industry. They know very well that what 'The Church' is drawing on from outside as examples of 'best practice' is actually very mixed in practice.  Alongside a serious commitment to developing in leadership skills there is a right unease with an institution that feels in thrall to and intimidated by secular business theory and language. There is a discernible lack of theological confidence in this engagement and little conviction that the Christian practice and theology might actually inform this process – both secular and religious – or even transform it. One of the honourable qualities in the Anglican tradition is its willingness to draw widely for its learning. But this does presuppose a confident theological framework within which to test, critique and respond to what we are hearing.  That is not always apparent in the present context.

And in any case wasn't Israel supposed to be a sign of a different way among the nations?

And isn't the Church too is called to model a different way of doing things?

It is not a rational or emotionally literate request

The trigger for the request is abusive leadership. But if you are already suffering under bad leaders why ask for even more of the same? Leadership 'like other nations', as Samuel pointed out (1Sam810ff), was routinely despotic. There is something oddly self punishing here. Is this a collective version of tendency of the abused to marry an abuser?

There is much talk of a 'crisis of leadership' in our times. What may be more critical is the crisis of community. This is characterised by a collective abdication from shared responsibility, a culture of blame, fragile relationships and a perversely ambivalent subservience to 'the powers' while projecting messianic expectations onto those it chooses to 'rule over them'.  

I have sat on interview panels appointing to a variety of Diocesan posts in recent years. I reflect how often, after the last candidate has come through, there can be a lingering sense of disappointment in the air that someone we hoped for and needed has not turned up. (regardless of the competence of candidates for the task). It is a symptom of the longings and needs of an institution facing enormous pressures and working anxiously but bravely with dwindling resources. These are our 'what if' dreams that communities find very hard to let go of - our idealized king/leader/parent figures who will walk through the door and take over the Task/'the Problem'/the Diocese/the World and make it 'all right'.

We too want 'a king who will 'rule over us and fight our battles for us'. (1Sam8.20).

Send in the Heroes?

Leadership theorists have long noted how Western approaches to leadership are essentially 'Heroic' in mode  – great men (and just occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crisis. They inspire, solve the 'problem' and achieve goals on behalf of everyone else. It is our secular and spiritual leadership default mode.

But notice that by definition 'Heroic Leadership' actually requires everyone else to be helpless.  'At its heart the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people's powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders.' (2) Leader and led here exist in a thoroughly unhealthy co-dependent relationship.

The film industry thrives on our attraction to these semi-mythical figures. Hollywood heroes are messianic enforcers, deliverers and rescuers. There is an underlying violence in the script. In the face of a crisis, The Hero is allowed to suspend all norms of moral behaviour to overcome the problem. They are generally loners, non-consultative and relationally dysfunctional – and of course ruggedly and irresistibly handsome.

More recent studies on leadership, including those exploring gender and leadership, have been asking what post-heroic leadership might look like and how it is expressed.

Here the conviction is that leadership is not something imported from outside but is found within, and is an expression of, the whole community.  So the language is of 'shared leadership', 'leadership in community', 'servant leadership'. It is collective, participative, dispersed. Such communities are called 'leader-full'. The style is relational, communal, non-directive, collaborative, negotiated.  'It is not leadership from any one person that is required, it is an aspect of leadership each of us summons from within. Leadership thus becomes a rather fluid concept focusing on those behaviours which propel the work of the group forward. ' (3)

These insights feature in the more reflective approaches to clergy leadership training around the country.  But the widespread frustration expressed on these courses is that diocesan leadership styles have yet to embrace the same insights and all too often remain entrenched in more hierarchy and patronage. It may be that an institution that chooses its senior leadership through the archaic and secretive system of 'preferment' will always struggle with the consultative, collaborative transparency that post-heroic leadership aspires to.

It is interesting to note that the only passage in the Torah to mention Kingship in Israel addresses the same concerns and teaches a very similar vision for community based leadership. Deuteronomy 17.14-20 anticipates a time when the people will ask for a King on almost identical terms as the Samuel narrative. Yahweh is already disposed to allow the request. The passage warns against the temptation to identify leadership by outward signs of status (property, wealth, possessions etc). Nor is the king above the Law. A special copy of the Law must 'remain with him all the days of his life'. The vision for leadership here is of non-heroic, and non-hierarchical exercised among and within the community, without  'exalting himself above other members of the community' (vs14-20).

Power, providence and personality

Brueggemann suggests that reading the Bible for insights into leadership and ministry involves a continual reflection on the complex and uneven relationship between power, providence and personality (2000) and he uses the Samuel narrative to illustrate this.

So when the focus is excessively managerial and organizational an institution/community will tend to be seeking to secure power for itself and will tend to bypass theology and prayer. Its strategies will be insufficiently rooted, he says, in the 'providential presence and absence of Yahweh'. We resist mystery. We seek control. We try to 'solve the problem'. We assume a vocation to be fixers (possibly the most corrosive temptation facing Bishop staff meetings)

The Samuel narrative warns us that 'Leadership' that pursued for pragmatic outcomes – growth, results, significance - rather than rooted deeply in the utter priority of Yahweh and his ways, is dangerous. Biblical vocation to leadership and the exercising of power starts from a very different place.

Providence is 'the hidden, patient, sovereign enactment of God's overriding purpose beyond the will and choice of human agents' (1990 p15). By contrast we are impatient and anxious. We tend to overvalue the interventionist, the visible and the charismatic. We have to gloss over those large parts of the Samuel narrative where Yahweh is effectively absent and silent. Providence is not trust in a certain preferred outcome so much as a faith that a greater purpose and story is being continually woven into our narrative – often unseen and despite all appearances on the surface.

But Bible alone is also insufficient. We 'do God' in the midst of raw and complex human dilemmas, in real and costly engagement within actual history.  Without that context theology becomes a detached piety, a pseudo-innocence feeding on idealized assumptions about God and ourselves. 'All theology, properly so called, is written in blood'. (Harry Williams)

Personality and appearance is a recurrent distraction in the Samuel narratives when it comes to choosing leaders. And in our media driven age, and in declining institutions, 'personality' and appearance are criteria harder than ever to resist.  When leadership is seduced by the search for reputation, status, ambition, or its own needs we will be missing the tough realities of the seductiveness of power and the hidden theology that shapes us and our story.

Learning to read the story

Popular Christian approaches to leadership find 'The Heroic' as hard to resist as the rest. Our reading of the Bible can be heroic too – a text that takes us over, telling us what to do and think. But beware of coming to narratives such as 1&2 Samuel expecting an unambiguous teaching, with unambiguous characters and unmistakable meaning. What we have here is a very different kind of story telling – one that invites us to a different way of reading scripture.

The Old Testament way of storytelling is to 'show' rather than 'tell'. It presents a story rather than expounds or declares it. (Goldingay p132)  The experience is more like watching a film. Events happen, people (or God) do things, but the narrative is very sparing about telling you their motives and feelings. You have to work out their words and deeds. Length of an episode is not necessarily a clue to its importance. Unnamed characters and brief appearances may be highly significant.

What if the Samuel narratives offer an ancient example of post-heroic story telling? Instead of telling us what to believe or how to act, it seeks our participation. It requires some kind of communal reading and discerning – like open theatre.

We find ourselves drawn into a reflective narrative that invites us to circle around what we read, to come to the drama from different angles, to question the text itself - both what it implies or hints at and what it claims.

The style is contemplative rather than didactic, reflective rather than prescriptive, participative rather than directive.

And what if the narrative itself is modelling a leadership style to us?


1. I am grateful to Paul Barrett, friend and former director of SmithKline Beecham for his perspectives on this period of business history.

2 & 3. John Nirenberg quoted in A framework for 21st Century Leadership  Michigan State University  


Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, W W Norton, 1999.

Walter Brueggemann Power, Providence and Personality -  Biblical insights into life and ministry, Westminster John Knox, 1990b.

John Goldingay, Men behaving badly  Paternoster. 2000.