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17 November 2017

Leaving a leadership legacy

Leaving a leadership legacy

Dave Richards is rector at St Paul's and St George's church, Edinburgh.

Leadership and power. Our news seems awash with stories of leadership and power; whether it is those who are trying in cling to power, as in Zimbabwe where the military are in negotiation with President Mugabe for control and succession, or it's the misuse of power, as recriminations and investigations in the worlds of politics, entertainment and others continue. The relationship between power, leadership and legacy appears fraught with challenges and dangers.

Leadership transitions rarely go well. Ask Manchester United fans - after decades of success and stability under Sir Alex Ferguson, three successors have struggled to bring the glory days back to the Theatre of Dreams. Political parties of different persuasions struggle to move from one leader to another as rumours abound of power struggles on the backbenches. Financial institutions bounce from one Chief Exec to another - while firms like Marks & Spencer or Tesco lurch from one CEO to the next, depending on what the market or shareholders dictate.

In the church too, leadership rarely passes well from one generation to another. In the US, several of the megachurches are facing the problem of leadership succession. Often numbering over 20,000 in membership, these churches are having to face up to the reality of their founding pastor reaching retirement age. From Chicago to San Francisco, Honolulu to Dallas, these behemoths (the churches not the pastors!) are facing up to times of transition and change. Bill Hybels' recent announcement that he would be replaced by two people not one, and that one of them would be a woman, took many people by surprise.

But what did Jesus say about leadership? And what sort of example did he, and his early followers, set? Well, the disciples are portrayed - warts and all. Towards the end of their time together, two disciples - James and John - approached Jesus with a special request. 'Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in glory.' (Mark 10:37) The other disciples' reacted - but not in a holy way! Mark tells us they were ' indignant' - probably because the brothers had said what everybody else was thinking, and wanting. Jesus' reply set a different standard for leadership.

'You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.'' (Mark 10:42)

It is quite striking that the symbol of Christian leadership is not a motorcade or heavy fist - it is a towel and a bowl. As Jesus led, and served his followers - by doing something they were too proud to do, and didn't want him to do - Jesus set the bar high, or was it low?

There is a shadow side of leadership seldom acknowledged - particularly by church leaders. Ambition, ego, status, a need for recognition - all are still there in the heart of every leader. Leaders at any level who cling onto power have forgotten why - and who - they are leading.

I love the words attributed to the current Pope when he was briefing his staff on who should be considered for senior appointments in the church. He asked that those who had been measured for the robes of Cardinals be discounted. He is reported to have set new criteria - 'Bring me shepherds who smell of the sheep'.

We follow the Good Shepherd - the best Shepherd - who laid down his life for the sheep. And set the bar high - and low - for leaders.

Photo by Ben White