09 November 2012
Every now and then you open a newspaper and find something truly surprising. The revelations about the alleged conduct of Jimmy Savile are one such example.
The most disturbing thing of all is the sheer breadth of the corruption. What began with accusations against one man has raised a seemingly never-ending series of concerns about other celebrities, care homes, ex-government ministers and long-standing British institutions. At every level there are difficult questions to be asked. How did one man gain such a celebrated status that he got away with so many atrocities? How did people not notice? How many turned a blind eye? What safeguards were in place within the institutions with which he worked, and how did they fail? What else will come to light, and how many more will be implicated in the coming weeks and months?
It's so easy, when faced with such awful stories, to dig our heels in and become cynical about leadership. Before we know it, the slow creep of scepticism has taken over and we find ourselves struggling to trust any one in a leadership position… even opting out of the concept of leadership entirely.
But it's at times like this that leadership matters most. We need to resist cynicism and remember that this is only one side of the story. For every example of leadership failure, dozens more could be told of leaders who gave themselves sacrificially for the benefit of society. Leaders like Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce or Lord Shaftesbury. Courageous women like Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to help hundreds of slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. People like Thomas Barnardo and George Müller who cared for thousands of orphans, or Octavia Hill, the Booths, and Elizabeth Fry, who worked tirelessly for social reform. Not to mention the countless others who've worked diligently as doctors, teachers, parents, school governors, and whose names are known to nobody.
Throughout history, God has regularly put people in leadership positions who have made an enormous difference. We need to celebrate their stories and draw strength from them. For those of us who have opportunities to lead, in whatever section of society, we must not allow the negative stories to embed seeds of doubt and fear in our minds and rob us of the courage we need in order to lead effectively.
We need to take injustice seriously. We need to admit our own weaknesses – after all, the church is led by imperfect people and has its fair share of examples of moral failings – and we need to strive to limit them through good practices and accountability. We need to provide care for victims and an offer of hope. And we need to preach about the one who supremely modelled perfect servant leadership.
Our ultimate example is Christ, who lived with such impeccable integrity. He cared for the poorest and the least, lived among his disciples with transparency and openness, and even at his trial Pilate declared "I can find no guilt in him" (John 18:38).
This world needs people who lead with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other; who refuse to get cynical; who won't allow the failings of others to rob them of their calling to make a contribution; and who commit to serving their communities, towns, cities and broader society. If we are able to model this kind of leadership, the Church can remain a source of hope that engenders trust, contributes to the flourishing of society and draws people closer into meaningful relationship with God.
David Stroud leads ChristChurch London and is the host of the Everything Conference.