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