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The roots of good leadership

Are the right people responding to the Conservative Party leadership call? asks Danny Webster

Theresa May’s announcement that she will resign as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday, 7 June led to many prospective candidates setting out their stall to succeed her both as leader of the party and as the UK’s next Prime Minister.

With nominations closing on Monday, 10 June, 11 candidates have already announced that they will definitely run and at least half a dozen are thought to be considering entering the contest. 

It is likely the field will thin out by the time of the first votes of the parliamentary party in mid-June, which will vote in successive rounds with the losing candidate removed after each ballot until only two remain. The final two will then be voted on by the entire Conservative Party membership. 

It is, of course, likely that during this process some of the candidates fairing least well will fold their campaigns and throw support behind another. In a race such as this the timing and direction of these moves could be crucial as to who makes the final pairing. 

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Due to the nature of the British parliamentary system this means that approximately 120,000 people will decide who will be the next Prime Minister, but it is a decision that will affect us all. 

The early stages of the campaign have already been dominated by Brexit, with some candidates seeking to establish the purity of their Brexit credentials and others trying to differentiate themselves from Theresa May’s strategy, while not actually saying they would do anything different. 

The Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, takes a cautious approach to political authority. There is clearly a role for it, and order and government are the outworking of our creation mandates; but the dangers of it are set out clearly. 

In 1 Samuel 8 Israel asks for a king: Now appoint a king to lead us, such as the other nations have.” God relents and gives them a king but warns of the trials such a king will put them through and reminds Samuel that it is Him they have rejected as King in their desire for an earthly ruler like the other nations. 

To go to a, perhaps, less well-known part of scripture, can the prospective leaders of the Conservative Party learn anything from the parable of the trees in Judges 9? In Judges 9:7 – 15 a tale is told in which each of the olive and fig trees as well as the vine turn down the request to be king of the trees, instead declaring the goodness of their fruitfulness as why they should not take up the role. 

The trees then turn to the thornbush which says: If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!”

The traditional interpretation is that the wise trees turn down the request to hold this authority, whereas the thornbush, not really a tree, accepts the offer and asks the trees to prove their loyalty by doing the impossible – a thornbush provides no shade for trees – with the unveiled threat of destruction if they don’t.

The cautious and sometimes ambiguous relationship Christians should have with power and authority is most apparent in Jesus’ words: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” There is a place for earthly rulers, but their authority comes under God’s ultimate rule. 

Part of the problem of hard leadership is that those who are best suited to it don’t want it, so we are left with those who do, and often for the wrong reasons. As Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The question for members of the Conservative Party to discern, and especially Conservative MPs, in the coming weeks is whether the crowded field is a rejection of this trend or an indication that there are plenty of people unsuited to leadership who want it. 

I’ve been involved in running the Evangelical Alliance’s Public Leadership programme for the past five years, encouraging Christians to step up and take on responsibility and leadership and have an influence on our society. 

We seek to equip Christians to live out their faith in public for the good of all. It’s almost exactly 10 years since I gave my first talk at a church encouraging engagement in politics – that came in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal when we thought trust in politics had plummeted to an all-time low. 

I’m as passionate as ever about the need for Christians to lead in society. I’m more convinced than ever that if we want to have an influence we need to be in the game and not cheering or jeering from the side lines. But it is difficult. 

To suggest that what we are asking people to do is easy is to miss-sell the manifold challenges of leadership in our society, so we have to commit to supporting and discipling Christians for leadership. 

I don’t know who will win the Conservative leadership election, nor do I know who I want to win, but here are a few questions to pose to the candidates if you get a chance, and if you are a member of the Conservative Party, to bear in mind when you cast your vote:

  • Who are they leading for?
  • What is their vision for society?
  • What is their vision based on?
  • Do they have the character for leadership and how have they demonstrated this?
  • Will their policies lead to a flourishing society and will they be able to deliver them?

Are you an emerging Christian public leader looking for support and guidance? If so, our year-long Public Leader course may be for you. The next course starts in autumn 2019 and applications close on Monday, 24 June. Find out more here.

Photo by Ugur Akdemir

About the author

Danny joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2008 and has held a range of roles in the advocacy team. He currently looks after media relations and oversees advocacy programmes and projects including public leadership. Before working for the Evangelical Alliance, Danny, who has degrees in politics and political philosophy, worked in parliament for an MP. Danny is passionate about encouraging Christians to integrate their faith with all areas of their life, especially when it comes to helping them take on leadership outside the church. He frequently provides comment on current political issues, both in Evangelical Alliance publications and to the press.

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