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