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.