Servant leadership: washing feet and kicking ass

Servant leadership: washing feet and kicking ass


“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45)

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:14-17)

One of the models of leadership most strongly espoused by Christians is that of servant leadership. Drawing heavily on the teaching and example of Jesus quoted above, the ideal of Christian leaders as the servants of God’s people is one that is highly valued and widely advocated, even if we’re not always sure exactly what it means (other than being willing to wash the cups and put the chairs away after a meeting!). At its heart seems to be a desire for Christian leaders not to be seen as somehow ‘above’ those that they lead.

First articulated by the Quaker author Robert Greenleaf in his 1977 book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, the concept of servant leadership has developed in different ways. For some, it is primarily about humility and being willing to do the most menial tasks (the washing of feet or dirty dishes, depending on the context). But that was not what Greenleaf meant when he developed these ideas. Initially, servant leadership is about motive:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead”.[1]

Servant leadership is therefore not about power or status. It is about the desire to serve by taking on the responsibilities and duties of leadership. When considering this, it is important to neither overstate nor underestimate the influence and impact of decisions made by leaders. The concept of ‘followership’ (which we will look at in a future post) explores ways in which followers can enhance or moderate the power of a leader. But leaders do make a difference, especially over the culture, direction and strategy of their organisation or church in the medium-to-long term. Financial and staffing decisions have a profound effect, as do decisions about what will be done and what will not be done. And this is both a privilege and a burden (if you don’t feel some sense of the burden of leadership[2], you probably don’t truly understand just what a difference you make as a leader).

This desire to serve can be extended to the concept of ‘humble messiahs’. I first heard this phrase at a leadership conference run by Thames Valley Police in 2008 (I was shadowing their Chief Constable for a few days, as part of an MSc leadership programme). Through this idea, police officers of all levels were being encouraged to think of themselves as servants of a cause greater than themselves (public safety and justice). The idea of being servants of a cause has obvious relevance to the connection between Christian leadership and Christian mission, and is one that was understood by Jesus himself. Not only could he “do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:19), but we can also see his Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:12-21 and parallels) as an act of servant leadership. He knew what his Father’s purpose was, that His house would be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17), and he was willing to take whatever action necessary – even resorting to violence – to remove all obstacles to that end. All of his actions were in the service of his Father’s cause and purposes.

This allows us to see servant leadership as something more and much stronger than just clearing up the dishes[3]. As James Lawrence says in his book, Growing Leaders:
“The servant leader is called first to serve Christ. His agenda must be preeminent about all other agendas. That’s why there are times when a servant leader must stand against the flow, prepared to challenge, confront and change things, because Christ’s agenda is the priority. For example, if a congregation wants to maintain the church as an inclusive club for those who belong, the servant leader doesn’t bow to their wishes and help them do a better job of excluding others … the servant leader is a servant of God first, called to serve God’s people in leadership”.[4]

Servant leaders: washing feet and kicking ass. Go and do likewise.

Richard Tiplady

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A January 2017 application is still possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation from late February onwards, in advance of an intensive study ‘week’ on Leadership and Change in Manchester from 20th – 27th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more, or start your application now.

[1] RK Greenleaf (1977), Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Mahwah,NJ:Paulist Press, p13
[2] In a chapter entitled “The Cost of Leadership”, Eddie Gibbs lists some of these as the price tag of love, being prepared to take risks, showing patience and perseverance, facing resistance to change and new ideas, surviving criticism, enduring loneliness, dealing with competing priorities, suffering reversals, the pressure of making decisions, making do with limited resources, and physical and emotional weariness (E Gibbs (2005), Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, Nottingham:IVP, pp159-173). Anyone still interested, please form a queue.
[3] Although the addition of ‘humble’ in the phrase ‘humble messiahs’ serves to remind us that we’re never beyond such simple tasks.
[4] J Lawrence (2004), Growing Leaders: Reflections on Leadership, Life and Jesus, Abingdon:Bible Reading Fellowship, pp33-34

Transformational Leadership: an idea that refuses to go away

Transformational Leadership: an idea that refuses to go away


The recent election of Donald Trump as once and future king president of the United States of America has brought back to the fore an idea of leadership that is simultaneously popular and widely denigrated, that is, the idea of ‘transformational leadership’. Like the idea of a school ‘superhead’ or a powerful business CEO, transformational leaders are understood to be exceptional individuals who are able to ‘transform’ followers through inspirational motivation to achieve much more than they would be otherwise inclined to do. And although it is tricky to claim to speak for the motives and aspirations of millions of people that I have not met and do not know, the apparent impact of The Donald’s speeches on his supporters certainly appears to fulfil the requirements of the role.

Popularised by Bernard Bass in the 1980s (and therefore sharing some of the motifs of that decade), transformational leadership is often summarised under four headings[1]:

  1. Idealized (or charismatic) influence – leaders become role models who are admired and emulated by followers. Normally, ethical and moral integrity is taken as a prerequisite.
  2. Inspirational motivation – the work of followers is given meaning and invokes enthusiasm and optimism for a desired future state.
  3. Intellectual stimulation – followers are helped to be innovative and creative by questioning assumptions and approaching old situations in new ways. Followers are included in problem-solving, creativity is openly encouraged and mistakes are not criticised.
  4. Individualised consideration – followers receive personal attention, with mentoring and coaching being used as a means of development and growth. Tasks are delegated and monitored unobtrusively, to see if additional support or direction is needed.

As a relatively young academic discipline, leadership studies is still populated by many of the academics who coined the different models and ideas that we are exploring in this series. As such, there is ongoing competition to define the landscape and to produce the theories that others will discuss. Transformational leadership has its cheerleaders and its detractors, but the very existence of these detractors suggests that it remains one of the dominant theories (why attack something that isn’t that important?). The transformational leadership ‘bubble’ has not burst. It has not yet been discarded to the scrapheap of history as yet another outdated management fad. Reactions against the perceived individualistic / ‘heroic’ nature of transformational leadership, expressed in ideas such as servant leaders or distributed leadership, will be considered later in this series. As I have presented this model of leadership to students, reactions have tended to split down the middle, with half seeing it as troublesome and individualistic and the other half seeing it as a model and ideal to live up to.

One of the problems with this model is that only the success stories get written up, so that those leaders who took this approach but whose organisations crashed and burned remain unknown. Keith Grint criticises it as representative of the “Western fetish for heroic individuals” (ever since the ancient Greeks. I blame Hercules). One valid criticism is that it tends to focus attention on leaders at the top of organisations and it pays too little attention to leadership as a group phenomenon, whereby informal leadership is shown by those lower down the organisational hierarchy[2].

Without doubt, if transformational leadership consisted primarily of the first two aspects listed above (idealised influence and inspirational motivation), then the potential for misdirection and harm is obvious. In the case of Donald Trump, it is the impression that he embodies the first two without much thought of or care for the second two (intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration) that provides most cause for concern. But it is the second two that help to redeem and limit the harm that the first two might cause if left to their own devices. Gerald Arbuckle[3] provides a robust defence of this model for leadership for the church, especially in a chapter entitled The transformational leadership of ‘authority dissenters’.  A couple of quotations will serve to illustrate:

“For the transforming leader, the only constant in today’s economic, political, social and religious world is change and the only stability possible is stability in motion. No business firm, no organisation of any kind, including the Church, can ignore the reality of radical uncertainty at the heart of all change. Innovate or die.” (p101)

“If deep in my heart I become aware of the manipulative tendencies in my leadership, despite the rhetoric I give to others, I have self-knowledge of immense worth” (p120)

The third and fourth criteria listed above thus help to protect the best examples of transformational leadership from grandiosity, power-seeking and potential destructiveness. Rather than seeking destructive consent, they encourage constructive dissent. An example that illustrates this well is offered by Keith Grint[4]. Alfred Sloan, the powerful chairman, chief executive and president of General Motors, was meeting with his board.
“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in agreement here?”
[Consensus of nodding heads]
“Then I propose that we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is all about”.

Richard Tiplady

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A January 2017 entry is possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation in advance of an intensive study ‘week’ on Leadership and Change in Manchester from 20th – 27th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more, or start your application now.

[1] Thus making it a traits-based model, although it avoids the tendency to inflate the number of traits and manages to keep them down to a coherent and easily-remembered four.
[2] Brad Jackson and Ken Parry (2008), A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership, London:SAGE Publications, p31
[3] Gerald Arbuckle (1993), Refounding The Church: Dissent For Leadership, Maryknoll:Orbis
[4] Keith Grint (2010), Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford:OUP, p108

What do leaders do? Well, it depends …..

What do leaders do? Well, it depends …..


As I have shown in the first two posts in this series, one of the common ways in which we attempt to describe the phenomenon of leadership is by compiling a list of the attributes (or characteristics, or traits) that we expect leaders to have. It’s easy to do this (even if it’s not easy to live up to the expected traits) and it has a long pedigree.

But we have seen that there are some problems with this approach, and this has led to efforts to define leadership by focussing on what leaders do, rather than what they are. This reflects the tension between universality and conditionality that I concluded with last time and to which we will return from time to time in this series. If a trait approach to leadership aims at some form of universality of definition, a conditional approach to leadership might be termed situational. At the heart of a conditional/situational approach to the definition of leadership and of the question of what leaders are or do is the answer, “well, it depends”. It depends on the context, it depends on what is needed. It’s not about what the leader is or thinks; it’s about what the situation requires, and a leader should therefore respond accordingly.

One of the commonest and most-widely applied definitions of situational leadership comes from Professor John Adair, who might properly be regarded as the founder of leadership studies as an academic discipline in the UK. Adair described the role of the leader as one which balances the needs of the task, the team, and of each individual in the team. The leader has the job of keeping all of these in mind while focussing on completing the task. If you don’t keep the task in mind, you’re not a leader, you’re simply the manager of a country club. But if you focus only on the task at hand and neglect the people you lead, you’re not a leader, you’re a martinet. And those you lead are not simply an amorphous blob (despite what Michael Gove thinks). They are individuals with different skills, talents, ambitions, hopes, moods and problems, all of which need to be taken account of by a leader and juggled accordingly. And, on top of that, this team of skilled, passionate, committed and troublesome individuals needs to be melded together, combining their respective strengths and gifts in a way that achieves the task at hand in the most effective/efficient/productive way. Adair called this task-centred leadership, and it can be rendered diagrammatically thus.


A slightly different model of situational leadership is expounded in the book Leadership and the One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard. It’s a quick one-hour read and it’s available for buttons on Amazon. Blanchard developed a simple model of leadership that concentrates particularly on the ‘individual’ aspect of Adair’s triad, and which provides a useful framework for thinking about how to manage the development process of different team members. As he puts it in the book, it’s “Different Strokes for Different Folks”. Now this may be a little bit close to Sybil Fawlty’s specialist subject of the bleeding obvious, but it’s a helpful framework nonetheless and is summarised in the image below.

John Blanchard's situational leadership model

The value of this for those in Christian leadership is demonstrated by the homage[1] shown to this model by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram in their idea of the Leadership Square. This is part of their Lifeshapes model of discipleship, as explained in their book Building A Discipling Culture. Blanchard, followed by Breen and Cockram, makes the argument that leaders adapt their behaviour according to the needs of those whom they lead, building a culture of training and development into their team, one which enhances the performance of the individuals therein and their ability to take on more responsibility in due course. In so doing, the task is accomplished, the team and the individuals therein become more capable, and individually and together they are able to take on bigger and more ambitious tasks in future. Which is nice.

As we have seen, the common thread here is that leadership is not about the leader and who they are (unlike trait approaches, which are all about the leader). Situational approaches to leadership focus on what the leader does (not who they are), how they accomplish the task before them (whatever that is), and how they build and develop a team of people to achieve that task.

Next time, we will look at Transformational Leadership. Are they superhero leaders, or are they egotistical megalomaniacs? You decide.

Richard Tiplady

[1] Not plagiarised or ripped off. Definitely an homage.

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A New Year 2017 start is possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation in advance of an intensive study week on Leadership and Change (led by me) in Manchester from 20th – 26th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Applications must be received by early January. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more.

We get the leaders we deserve

We get the leaders we deserve


In my last blog post, I introduced the ‘trait’ theory of leadership. The core assumption of this theory is that you can define a leader by producing a list of characteristics or traits that they should have. It follows, in theory, that it becomes possible to train leaders by simply making sure that they have or acquire the said list of traits.

As we saw, one of the problems of this approach is that once you start listing all the requirements for and expectations we place on our leaders, the list rapidly grows out of hand (remember my comment about Eddie Gibbs’ 28 leadership traits). Like the list of traits that might be produced to define a perfect husband or wife, it soon becomes evident that no-one could possibly fulfil all the expectations of a trait-based approach to leadership (except Jesus, of course. You can count on someone bringing that up. Well done; have 2 spiritual Brownie points). Another problem is the reductionist nature of this approach. Is it really possible to define something as intangible and personal as leadership by producing a list of traits? Does a list of ingredients enhance the enjoyment of a meal?

Where a trait-based approach does have some value is that it helps us to identify group ideals, with leaders being seen as the embodiment of those ideals. The trait lists produced in the first century AD by Paul and Onosander are interesting in that very few of the traits they give are role-based (whether for Christian leadership or military command). They are not about skills for doing a job. They are personal characteristics. This leads us to the idea that leaders are in some way exemplary. Leaders are those who embody the ideals of a group, and in so doing are given permission by that group to lead. This suggests that in some way we follow the people who we like, who we admire, and who are the kind of person we aspire to become. This not only illustrates something of the pressure that groups can thereby place on their leaders, to live up to our aspirations; it also suggests that we get the leaders we deserve.

The clear parallels between Paul’s and Onosander’s lists raises another consideration, which is that our criteria for leadership are temporal and cultural, not fixed and universal. This would be borne out not just by these first century parallels, but also by the notable similarities between the leadership traits identified by my students and those which would have wider purchase beyond the church in contemporary Western culture. Charles Kraft explores this in his magnum opus, Christianity in Culture [1], wherein he reflects on the different church leadership requirements he observed in the Pastoral Epistles, the American church of the late 20th century, and the Higi people of northern Nigeria among whom he served as a missionary. Kraft’s point, which I agree with, is that an unenculturated Christianity is an impossibility. We are all products of our histories and our cultures, and indeed that is how we are meant to be. A great deal of contemporary missiological writing has followed this theme – see, for example, Andrew Walls’ seminal article, The Gospel as the Prisoner and Liberator of Culture [2].

One of my former postgraduate students, who works as a missionary in Spain, observed just how many Spanish church leaders seem to operate with a leadership style that doesn’t seem to be too far removed from that of General Franco (i.e. authoritarian and directive). This is a phenomenon that I have observed myself, and it both reflects and highlights some Spanish cultural assumptions and helps to explain why Franco lasted as long as he did (as the embodiment of group ideals). Of course, this provides for the possibility of deep intercultural conflict when a leader from one culture leads a person from another culture, as I experienced in a previous organisation where a Zimbabwean manager (authoritative/directive) tried to manage an Australian staff member (from one of the most egalitarian cultures on the planet). I can still hear the screams.

The contextual nature of leadership traits works against the idea that leadership can be defined by universal criteria. Even the oft-quoted leadership of Winston Churchill was highly contextual, who was a great prime minister for a certain time (the fight against Nazism) but who both beforehand and afterwards was not as capable for the leadership challenges of other times. By definition, trait approaches to leadership aim at universality, but leadership is highly situational. What works in one context is not necessarily likely to work in another. My own experience of leading in a Christian missionary organisation and a theological college confirms this – the characters and preferences of the staff in each organisation were very different and needed different approaches (one which was not easy to achieve, given that we all get set in our ways and habits). As we explore different leadership theories over the coming months, this tension between universality and contextuality will come up time and again.

The idea of leadership as something that is situational (that is, it depends on the context) came about as a reaction against trait-based theories.  We’ll begin to look at this next time.

Richard Tiplady

[1] Charles Kraft (1990), Christianity in Culture, Maryknoll:Orbis, pp323-326
[2] Andrew Walls (1996), “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture”, in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Edinburgh:T&T Clark, pp3-15

PS the contextual and historical nature of the traits listed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 inevitably led my students to ask for my view on the assumption that these texts state that church leadership is / should be male (an issue that is something of a ‘hot potato’ – understatement! – in the evangelical church in the UK). At some point, I’ll stick my head above the parapet and give my views on this (and these texts). I’ll just need to find my tin helmet first!

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A January 2017 entry is possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation in advance of an intensive study ‘week’ on Leadership and Change in Manchester from 20th – 27th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more.


Leadership. Have you got what it takes?

Leadership. Have you got what it takes?


Many people will know that I have spent the last 20 years in senior roles in Christian charities (apart from a 2-year hiatus as a consultant, when I got to travel and have fun). I’m interested in what it means to be a leader – how to do it (and do it well, if possible), what do others expect of me as a leader, what do I expect of myself, the times it has gone well (and the times it hasn’t), and how do I help to develop others as leaders? According to LinkedIn, other people rate ‘leadership development’ as my top skill, and I’m currently doing doctoral research on entrepreneurial leadership development in the church in Scotland. We have just launched a new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) through our partnership with Nazarene Theological College, and the first students have just signed up to it (which is nice).

So I’ve decided to begin a series of blog posts on leadership, to explore and share more widely some ideas I’ve been playing with and developing.

I taught the leadership courses at BA and MTh level at International Christian College for a number of years, and I started each course by asking the students to come up with a list of traits or characteristics that they would use to describe a leader. Bearing in mind that these were theological students, the results were interesting. They would always come up with a group of words that might be included under the heading of ‘visionary’ – decisive, aspirational, strategic, bold, courageous, and so on. Ethical criteria mattered, with words like trustworthy, integrity, honest and consistent all coming up regularly. Interpersonal skills also counted, with communication skills at the top of the list, followed time and again by empathy, humility, patient, listening and consultative. And then there were the outliers – terms that occurred only once, such as reflective, sober, knows themselves, and a role model.

In his excellent little book Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, Eddie Gibbs provides his own list of 28 (yes, 28!) criteria that he thinks are needed for leaders in the church today. He is realistic enough to admit that no one person is likely to display all 28 characteristics, and his solution is that they need to be displayed within a leadership team. I asked two different classes of students to read the book and to choose the top 5-6 that they considered most important from the list of 28. The results were similar to those above – courage, humility and interpersonal skills came top, with creativity, passion and vision coming just below. One group of students also placed ‘called’ at the top of the list, which was a term no-one had used before, although it seems reasonable to conclude that a sense of being ‘called’ would lead to the kind of visionary behaviours listed above.

What I found interesting about these responses is that although they came from a Christian audience (and a being-theologically-educated one at that), they don’t seem to be specifically Christian. They all seem to be the kind of criteria that most people in our wider society would expect from our leaders. When our politicians or business leaders fail to display these characteristics, we get cross (most of the time). We could explain these similarities in a number of ways – we could lament the obvious fact that Christians don’t think any differently to those around them and complain about ‘worldly’ ways of thinking; we could suggest that the wider ethical expectations on leaders reflect centuries of Christian influence on Western cultural mores; or we could conclude that good leadership is good leadership, whether it is Christian or not (I have a future blog post in mind that asks the question what makes Christian leadership ‘Christian’?, but you will have to wait for that).

In support of the latter conclusion, the leadership criteria listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are instructive. Their similarities to another list of leadership traits, one provided by a writer named Onosander in AD60, are surprising:
“We must choose a general, not because of noble birth as priests are chosen, nor because of wealth as the superintendents of the gymnasia, but because he is temperate, self-restrained, vigilant, frugal, hardened to labour, alert, free from avarice, neither too young nor too old, indeed a father of children if possible, a ready speaker, and a man with a good reputation”.
Onosander, Strategikos (The General) [1]

My students usually found up to 8 shared criteria between Paul’s and Onosander’s lists. Given that Onosander was probably writing just a few years before Paul, the parallels are remarkable. I don’t think we can conclude that Paul knew of Onosander’s list or copied it. But it does show that Paul’s list of criteria for Christian leaders is very similar to the wider expectations of Graeco-Roman society. In his commentary on 1 Timothy, Gordon Fee says that Paul’s list of leadership criteria accord to “the highest ideals of Hellenistic moral philosophy”. In itself this should not be too surprising – it matches Peter’s injunction to his readers not to draw attention to themselves, especially as social hostility was rising against Christians at that time (1 Peter 2:12-17). It also reinforces the argument that good leadership is good leadership, wherever it comes from. Which is why I feel free to plunder good ideas from leadership scholarship and put it in the service of the church. And that’s what you’ll be getting from me here in the coming months (and even more so in that lovely new MA that I mentioned earlier).

Richard Tiplady

P.S. Yes, 28 leadership traits is too many! Once I had finished asking my students for their list of things they would expect from a leader, I would then ask which of them thought they exhibited all those traits and could thereby be a leader. Complete silence! So we’ll be looking at this problem of trait-based approaches to leadership next time.

[1]  Dibelius M and H Conzelmann (1972), Hermeneia Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Philadelphia:Fortress Press, p158-160

The last thing we need right now is ‘strong leadership’

The last thing we need right now is ‘strong leadership’


“So long as the people of any country place their hopes of political salvation in leadership of any description, so long will disappointment attend them” (William Lovett, Chartist leader)

Harold Wilson is famously supposed to have said that “a week is a long time in politics”. Well, in less than a week, the UK has lost a Prime Minister, Labour have lost half their front bench, Nicola Sturgeon has fired the first shots in ScottishIndyRef Two:The ReMatch, and the leading lights of the Leave campaign have admitted that they might have been a little “economical with the actualité” during the campaign and that no extra cash can be found from under the bed for the NHS and those annoying immigrants are still going to keep on coming.

Some good, clear political leadership has been shown. Nicola Sturgeon gave an open and generous speech on Friday to reassure EU citizens that they would still be welcome in Scotland, and Angela Merkel has said that she sees no need to ‘punish’ the UK by insisting on a rapid triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Long may calmer heads prevail. [i]

Now would seem to be the time for such calm and wise leadership. I have seen WB Yeats poem The Second Coming quoted on social media in the last few days; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. And it has been quoted with good reason, for it is a common sentiment, and fear haunts our social landscape. I have also seen laments for the absence of leadership at this crucial time. But this longing for leadership is a double-edged sword. As David Sims, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, noted, “the reign of ‘leadership’ as the new alchemy continues. If there is a problem and you cannot work out what to do about it, it gets labelled a leadership problem”. All we need is the right leader to sort us out, and everything will be fine.

As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze observed, in times of political and social uncertainty, populations tend to look for strong leaders to take control and bring stability and order. Less well-known than other postmodern philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Deleuze (1925-1995) was professor of philosophy at the University of Paris (Vincennes-St Denis). Writing in the late 1960s, he noted that fascism came from a forced (and false) choice between disorder and state-imposed order. Instead, he argued, reality does not need external order to be imposed upon it, to organise and calm its supposed chaos. But the self-organising capacity of all human societies and communities carries with it a “transcendental illusion”, that is, the appearance of a transcendent organising agent who comes down from ‘on high’ to organise a chaotic situation, whereas it in fact comes from within. With Nazism, he said, it looked like Hitler swooped down to save the masses from disorder. Indeed, argued Deleuze, it is what Hitler wanted it to look like, and what he himself probably thought was the case [ii].

Instead of strong leadership, what we need right now in the UK is something that has been called distributed leadership [iii]. Strong or focussed leadership occurs when power and influence are concentrated in one person, whereas distributed leadership is a term which acknowledges that different individuals will be influential at different times. It should not be taken to imply a lack of leadership, but rather that each member of a group or community has leadership abilities that will be needed by that group from time to time. Some of these groups will be formal, whereas others will be informal or even random. In any such group, network or community, ‘leadership’ emerges as people work together in joint action.

We need this kind of leadership across the UK at this time. And I am convinced that our churches are well-placed to provide it. But to what end? One common theme among many social media posts I have seen over the past few days has been the desire expressed by Christians that we overcome our country’s disunity and seek to work together for the common good. One problem with these (perfectly reasonable) sentiments is that it is disagreement and debate about the kind of country we want to be, and what constitutes the common good, which underlies the deep divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum. But, in brief, let me suggest two areas that churches ought to be working on:

  1. Love for our neighbour. There are 3 million people from elsewhere in the EU who are living and working in the UK at the moment. In recent weeks, many of them have been made to feel deeply unwelcome in our country. That is a disgrace, and it is incumbent on us as Christians to correct this.
  2. Love for our (other) neighbour. One of the surprises that unfolded overnight on Thursday, as the referendum results rolled in, was the strong vote for Leave in the neglected communities of England and Wales, those which would have historically been thought of as the ‘Labour heartland’ and which have been bypassed by the neoliberal economic experiment of recent decades. The South Wales valleys and the deindustrialised wastelands of Scotland and northern England need a deep reengagement by our churches. Welfare is not enough; how do we help to bring dignity and purpose to the lives of people in those communities?

What we need in the UK right now is this kind of leadership. My hope and prayer is that our churches will step up and provide it at this critical time in our country’s history.

Richard Tiplady

[i] Both these calm heads are women. Just saying.
[ii] R Tiplady, Is a postmodern organisation an oxymoron?”, in R Tiplady (ed.) (2002), Postmission:World Mission by a Postmodern Generation, Carlisle:Paternoster Press
[iii] See, for example, R Bolden, Distributed Leadership, in A Marturano and J Gosling (2007), Leadership: Key Concepts, Abingdon:Routledge, or P Gronn (2008), “The future of distributed leadership”, in Journal of Educational Administration 46(2), pp141-158