People don’t want to be part of an anxious organisation. And too much of our Church is ridden with anxiety. And this sense of perpetual crisis encourages us to imagine that what we need is order out of chaos, a strong, clear direction. Even if it is backwards! And then all will be well. But it won’t.
There is a regular refrain running through the Gospels. People want Jesus to be the hero of the hour, the swashbuckling conqueror, the sort of Messiah who will lead from the front, take on the Romans and throw them out of Palestine.
The crowds want it. The disciples want it. And even some of the religious leaders want it. Jesus, however, consistently resists it. His way of living – his way of leading – turns the prevailing wisdom upside down.
Whilst we know this, we frequently continue to hark after a model of leadership that Jesus so clearly resisted.
Meg Wheatley, one of the world’s deep thinkers on leadership, has suggested that it is time that we binned this ‘heroic’ model of leadership and replaced it instead with an understanding of the ‘leader as host.’
It is this image which more adequately epitomises Jesus’ way of leading. As, for example, he organised for the feeding of the crowds, spent time with his closest friends, and shared bread and wine at the Passover Meal.
The art of hosting is a vital leadership skill.
I think of my dear Mum who planned meals and gatherings so carefully. Whether it was a family party or a meeting of the Guild. Not just what people would like to eat but where people would sit to make sure that the conversation was as good as it could be. Who would do what to make sure that everyone felt welcome and could take part.
She would never have thought of herself as a leader. “I’m always happier in the sink, washing the dishes,” she would say. However, much of what I have learnt about leadership I learnt from her. That careful listening. That concern for the details. (Perhaps I didn’t learn that bit as well as I should have!) The delight in seeing other people flourish. The creating of the opportunities and then the willingness to get out of the way.
I remember several years ago being asked to take on a leadership role within a bit of an organisation that had gone through a turbulent and unsettling time. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but these things happen, particularly when people are anxious.
I sat down with the team around a table where we had good coffee and nice biscuits and told them that, from what I could see, they were doing a brilliant job. And that my task was primarily to support them in their work. And to have their back.
It worked. You could almost see the burden lift. It doesn’t always work for we need to be flexible in leadership, like a good host knowing when to shape and direct, and when to get out of the way. But it works far more than we imagine.
Meg Wheatley is on to something when she says. “Sane leadership is the unshakeable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind. It is the commitment to create the conditions for these capacities to blossom, protected from the external environment. It is the deep knowing that, even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their way forward.”
This article first appeared in the January 2023 Issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. You can subscribe at https://www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe.