Shaping debate on religion in public life.

To Become a Leader of Character, You Must Be Ready to Be Uncomfortable

26 Oct 2016

On my last trip to London, I ended up quite by chance staying in the Farmers Club, overlooking the Thames in London. As I tucked myself up and reached into the bedside drawer for my Gideon bible, instead I found a book of poems about farming and the countryside. Being in an Autumn mood, I read it, stopping in particular to re-read Philip Larkin’s poem called The Trees. Here are the first two stanzas:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

I spent last Friday at Sarum College, in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury. The leaves are turning, and there was a nip in the air. The event was an ESRC seminar on developing ethical leaders. My suspicion is that when we are not ethical, it is either because we lack strength, or because we lack courage. The former is very real for leaders, who are too perennially tired to over-ride a habit, or to fight for time to think things through properly. The latter is about choosing the path of least resistance. So if we want more ethical leaders, we need to address this very precise point of failure.

The session I was there to deliver was about character, which I think is part of the answer. So, with Larkin on my mind, we talked about the knots in the wood that create character. Have you heard this before?

‘We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ Romans 5:3-5.

Developing leaders with character is not likely to win you any votes, given that character is so hard won. But do we just need to sit there, suffering, to gain character? Well, yes and no.

I’ve just finished writing a book called Leadersmithing. It’s about the craft of leading, and what templates or apprentice pieces you need to have off pat before you achieve mastery. It sets out an approach to development that is proactive, and is about seeking out the experiences that you need to collect to feel job-ready. I think the acquisition of character is similar. You can start small. In the tradition, apprentice pieces were used to show skill perfectly in miniature, to demonstrate readiness for the big stuff. I look out of my window and I see an old man, my neighbour, bent double with his stick. Every day he is out there, picking up litter. Of course ‘it’s the council’s job’. But it is also ours. Is there something small and virtuous you could start today, that would start inching you towards a more virtuous character?

But acquiring character may also require you to put yourself in the way of uncomfortable experiences. You may have to hone your bravery standing up to people who will not thank you for it. You may need to exercise love towards someone unlovely. And you may need to forgive someone who has caused you great pain. Apart from St Paul, my other authority on character is the movie The Princess Diaries, in which the Crown Prince tells his daughter that: ‘courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear.’ There seem to be too many things around at present that are more important than fear. We have a lot of work to do, but it does require leaders to – excuse the phrase – man up. Why don’t they? Because it hurts.

Those knots in the wood are like the grit in the oyster. We marvel in the beauty of our coffee tables and the lustre of our pearls, scarcely stopping to think of the pain which birthed them. The wisdom traditions, and Christianity in particular, have rich resources to help us offer up our sacrifices as a sacrament. In the secular sphere, Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson have written beautifully in Harvard Business Review about Toxic Handlers – those brave souls who bear pain for their organisations. Leaders need to learn how to take hurtful and destructive feedback, because it is the leader’s job to absorb it, and to earth it like a lightning conductor, so that it cannot do any more harm to your organisation. But learning to welcome opportunities to bear pain for your colleagues while protecting yourself from taking it too personally requires both strength and wisdom.

Perhaps we are starting to rediscover the importance of this. In his recent book The Road to Character, David Brooks contrasts the pursuit of ‘resume virtues’ with the pursuit of ‘eulogy virtues.’ He argues that we have been duped into burnishing our CVs when in the final analysis we will be most proud if we have burnished our souls. This may be why it is now so trendy to start MBA programmes by asking participants to write their own eulogy, because inevitably we yearn for a legacy that is to do with generosity or kindness or love, not just career success and material wealth.

The hard fact is that you gain character through hard work. But if you do have a strong character, with supple virtues that are well-honed, you are less likely to cave under pressure and make the wrong decision. This in and of itself is worthwhile. But by seeking out opportunities for virtuous practice, you will also be able to withstand more and greater challenges in the future. This will equip you to overcome your fears, and take your place as one of the very leaders we need to rescue, restore and renew our broken world.

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

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Adrian Wait

26/10/2016 12:55

If Christ had called us to be leaders, then I could agree with the premise: “To Become a Leader of Character, You Must Be Ready to Be Uncomfortable”. The Church has developed a whole franchise in Conferences, Seminars, and Training courses and booklets, over the past twenty-fives years, has this not produced the “Leaders” in seeks? For example there were more ‘Mission-Shaped’ books and themes than a parish could shake a stick at one time! Apart from being a source of revenue what evidence is there that this imitative reduced the declining numbers? Or, produced the team of “leaders” such project could be expected to produce?
Perhaps, just perhaps what the Church and our wider communities required are people who are anointed with the gift of service, people who are so spiritually mature that they are immune to the comment ‘traps’ of ‘Career’ over ‘Vocation’, and more importantly ‘career development’ over ‘becoming the ‘salt of the earth’? Have you heard this?

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot…” – Matthew 5:13.

Perhaps there should be a lot less emphasis upon “Leadership”, and more nurturing of ‘Servant hood’’. The hard fact is that we are called to lose our lives, in order to find them. I believe, this is several ‘stops’ past the ‘uncomfortable stage’, – I think you may agree? The Church establishment has grown weak and pale by restricting itself to tried and tested Management techniques, conforming to the world rather than renewing its Mind. Leaning towards its own wisdom has not halted the steady decline over the past twenty-five years.

We are NOT called to be “Leaders” – even “Leaders with Character” No rather we are called to be ‘Servants’, and no Servant is Greater than their Master… Was Christ a Leader? (Isaiah 53?)
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
A Servant is a role beyond uncomfortable, beyond our own sense of ‘career’ or even ‘vocation’. Is this too demanding, too ‘unworldly?’

Pause for thought….
John 13:12-17 (NIV) When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 12:25-26 (NIV) “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.”
Matthew 20:27-28 (NIV)
27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In offering this I do not seek to be wise in my own eyes, nor do I seek belittle, but I do challenge our conformity to techniques, and the concept of creating something the world has more than enough of, right now – and that is ‘Leaders’. What the world needs now are Servants of Christ.

Romans 12.2


Adrian Wait

26/10/2016 12:55

Not “in” but: it…
Not “comment” – but rather: common.

Eve Poole

26/10/2016 12:55

Adrian – if anyone is following you, for any reason, in any walk of life, you are leading, whether you like it or not. I too share your scepticism about the cult of leadership – it is not a birthright or an accolade, but a vocation: an opportunity for service, and an awesome responsibility. And often an unwelcome one. You are right, uncomfortable doesn’t even start to define what this really means when it is done well, for the right cause and with the right people.

Adrian Wait

26/10/2016 12:55

The problem with the following statement is: (“if anyone is following you, for any reason, in any walk of life, you are leading, whether you like it or not”) That function sounds like a ‘role-model’, which is a projected role by those who seek to watch and learn from the conjunction of our words and deeds. In such cases the ‘Leadership role’ is projected, not chosen. In my role has a community development worker the last thing I wanted to foster is the ‘role of leader’. My role was to enable and encourage wider community participation, both within the Community Project, and the wider community. It is a fundamental mistake to take on the role subscribed to you by others. Perception and roles can be very restrictive to genuine development. By adopting the role of ‘professional’ amongst a core group of volunteers is to disable personal growth in personal expectations – people ‘prefer’ the role of ‘follower’ – it can have a lot to do with perception/expectation. To put this within the Church context the congregation will often refer to a ‘role’ has being “the vicars job”. Both the vicar and the CDWorker may feel comfortable with this distinction, even being flattered by it. However within this exchange there are the seeds of many problems that beset Community Projects and Churches. It will lead to a lack of growth and development, and when the worker/vicar is away everything is impacted by their absence. Without ‘their’ leader, the whole system becomes over-reliant upon worker/vicar. This is not satisfactory. It may stroke our ego to believe we are so indispensable! Leadership, within this context is extremely problematic. For it disables rather than enables, it discourages rather than encourages. The working out of roles and responsibilities needs patience, courage and the ability to literally work yourself out of a job. My role was to encourage, enable and be with people on their developmental journey. It is not a developmental role for those who only feel ‘safe’ playing by the ‘rules/expectations. Part of the volunteer’s management role is to learn what it is to manage; they will not learn if I stand in their way, and take away all the difficulties. Gently, but firmly I had to remind them that they interviewed me for the post, they are the managers (‘the leaders’). For many individuals this took at least two years, some never could grasp their role, and responsibility. It was a very steep learning curve away from having the ‘Helper and the Helped’. Thus, challenging the status, perceptions, and differences between ‘being a service’ and ‘serving the communities’ where the barriers of professionalism and volunteers are challenged. Where the concept of ‘Leader’ was not my aim, nor my role. I was an enabler, I encouraged, I worked with them. Building up their self-esteem, their confidence, and their awareness of their skills and gifts. I was not the ‘leader’ – which too often can become a cork in the bottle of development. A worker or vicar who has to be ‘in-charge’ ‘indispensable’ will end up being a disabler, what have the community or congregation learned when you move on? Can they function with out you, have they moved on from the simple ‘milk’ to being able to cope with out you?
Just think how many Churches and communities find themselves back at square one, because the leader hogged leadership.
“Scepticism”… I understand your choice of this particular term, however I hope the above brief explanation informs this a little more, for I was far from cynical about ‘Leadership’ within the context of CDWork. I was seeking to explain that it can be a negative and a disabler to genuine and sustainable development.
I hope I am not splitting hairs here, it is not my aim. My aim is simply to realise the profound impact ‘servant hood’ can have when working within community settings. And the importance of being ‘Christ-lead’ in serving others, the profound importance of ‘enabling and encouraging’ – not adopting the role of ‘leader’ who is perceived to be their to take away all of the problems and obstacles. It is the gradual development of understanding, growing confidence and ownership that I witnessed with the core group of volunteers – this, and this alone was the fruit. Not the additional paragraphs upon my CV.

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