A question of leadership?



Why is it all going wrong for Theresa May? I'm sure this is a question being asked within Downing Street but, even if you are an opponent, it is worth considering how someone seems to have fallen from grace so quickly and publicly. What is it the song says: 'Riding high in April, Shot down in May .... That's life!' Tory party election plans sung by Frank Sinatra.

What kind of leadership is being called for? The election, Brexit, the terror attacks and now Grenfell Tower have all led to demands for leadership, with the Conservatives in particular making it a focus of their election campaign. I wonder though, whether there is a way to cut through the rhetoric to look for the characteristics of a leader that the current circumstances require and perhaps learn some lessons for the future.

It seems to me that there are three characteristics worthy of attention: compassion, connectedness and collaboration.

Compassion is not an easy thing to manufacture but it manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Traditionally, English culture baulks at the idea of physical contact, especially in public, and prefers practical assistance and a firm handshake. In recent weeks, however, what I think has been needed (and lacking in some) is the willingness to listen to the pain and anguish of those who are suffering. In this, there is a vulnerability - including a potential physical one - to being in close proximity to the anger and pain of others.

Connectedness is a characteristic that, once lost, it hard to recover. The media like to ask the question about the price of a pint of milk to test how far a political leader has moved away from 'ordinary life'. Of course, for a politician to lose connection with the electorate is fatal. It is their job afterall to represent the public mood, even if they don't agree with it. One of the arguments made for the constituency system in the UK is that even the Prime Minister has to represent a particular group of people in Parliament and so that keeps them grounded. We have seen recently that the constituency link is no guarantee of such connectedness because it is a question of character not process.

What about collaboration? Aany leader needs to be very aware of their own limitations and therefore of their need of others. Good and effective leadership can only happen in the context of a team where relationships of trust are strong. Politics is full of ambition and rivalry where friends quickly become enemies and vice versa. Such things are not absent from other spheres of life, including the Church, though of course, in ecclesiastical circles, we pretend we are above such things. Crises reveal whether teams are strong enough and how willing leaders are to share power; it seems that some have been found wanting.

Since I started writing this, yet another terrorist attack has happened and it seems that our leaders are learning about how to respond better. So perhaps there is room for hope because the greatest characteristic of any leader is surely the willingness to learn and change.


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