Theology of Leadership

By April 13, 2007Theology

I am a Trustee of the Foundation for Church Leadership and I wrote this theology for them.

The Trinity
My starting point is the Trinity. For me, the Trinity suggests the fundamental relationality of leadership, and its ability to move smoothly between ‘modes’ as circumstances dictate. This flexibility is God’s gift to his recalcitrant creation, the giving of his only Son and the Holy Spirit for our benefit. This gesture from relationship offers an orientation for Christian leaders which is about becoming worthy of this gift, as well as about modelling it, with the first orientation being primary where there might be a conflict, for example between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ (that said, Bonhoeffer’s correction about the selfishness of our conscience is also pertinent – if we must sin to be God-like, that may be a price worth paying).

Being worthy
If the destination of man is to find his way back to God, variously through unveiling the image of God in himself and others and by seeking reunification through spiritual practice, I am assuming that for most leaders the second option is unusual. I will therefore focus on the unveiling in this context. Before any leader might ‘model’ a Trinitarian mode of leading, therefore, one must work hard at becoming worthy through alignment with God, probably in tandem with, but never subsequent to, the work of leading. Prayer, contemplation and discernment are therefore at the heart of leading, and are a necessary pre-cursor and companion to it. This also suggests that the perfection of the self is also a key component, as is the ability to serve others in their own journeyings towards perfection (serving others trumps the self where there is a conflict, provided this is not done cynically nor exclusively). In this context the gift of leadership is both an invitation towards modelling to practise improvement, and also an invitation to assist others in their spiritual quests. The Christian leader will acknowledge and accept this symbiotic vocation, and remain jealous of its development and perfection over time.

The goals of leading on earth, in the Interim, may fall short of the mystical, but must be held in that context. As a community who are already saved, our challenge is to embody the Kingdom in so far as is possible here on earth. So leaders will always have as a primary goal the perfection of man (the unveiling), and thus a natural bias towards potential, quality, improvement and learning. Given that man has been made in a glorious array, the Christian leader will discern how best to lead the individuals in their care by careful study and dialogue about and between persons of difference. The optimising of difference or otherness is the supreme co-creative challenge and requires great humility. The model of the Trinity offers a way of thinking about leadership style flexibility – in the context of relational integrity – which is a rich resource for Christian leaders. As well as the primary model of the Trinity, there are those throughout the Bible who offer valuable lessons in leadership, as well as the Saints and great Christians through and beyond time. Because the transmission of history is susceptible to bias, and God is not just concerned with the believers, there are also abundant role models who have been extraordinary in their own spheres and whose example we would do well to consider. But ‘copying’ – even the Trinity – can only ever be second best to an identification of God in us, and the perfection of our own vocation within God’s creation, so the modelling returns to the unveiling for perpetual refreshment.

Because I also believe that God has not only spoken to the ‘believer,’ I would want to check this account with what is currently best in secular leadership theory. My take on leadership theory is that it initially favoured a ‘great man’ approach, which assumed a competitive landscape and favoured genetic perfection either through membership of a specific class, race, gender or physical appearance. This fairly quickly evolved from a largely physical model into one that combined ‘brawn’ with ‘brains,’ adding the need for strategic thinking to outwit the competition, and drawing on such authors as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Machiavelli. In the UK this was evident in the Oxbridge mafia and old school tie networks, and the rise of the modern MBA culture. While these models still flourish, current thinking has moved away from these largely male and competitive paradigms, to look more inclusively at emotional intelligence and how leaders might earn followership, in a society that can no longer rely on the old models of deference to guarantee compliance. What I notice about the best thinking in modern leadership theory is that it is already starting to move on to the spiritual dimension, with a ‘perfect’ leader being regarded as one who has higher than average IQ, EQ and SQ. The ‘leader as learner’ is also a key theme, as a way of future-proofing in an accelerating marketplace.

Modern leadership thinking coheres with the notion of unveiling being the starting point, although this is more commonly understood as the seeking for enhance self-awareness through the tools of psychology. Psychology itself has moved towards the transpersonal, and so is meeting us in the middle. The ‘leader as learner’ concept also encourages perpetual improvement, which is directionally consistent. The evolution of models of leadership suggests a more integrated and flexible understanding which is increasingly follower-led, and so resonates with a Trinitarian blueprint. Organisations themselves are now understood less as ‘machines’ and more as ecologies, and the rise of the disciplines of complexity and dialogue honour the relationality of work and our fundamental agnosticism pending the parousia. Christians will want to honour what is best in secular leadership thinking, while at the same time probing its theology in order to improve it, and, in conversation, working to unveil God more perfectly in both spheres.

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