From the Chapel: Leadership

Posted 10 November 2023

A key character strength of leadership, some of you here may be somewhat surprised to learn, is the capacity to love and to be loved. It’s not necessarily something we automatically associate with leaders, yet the best leaders, the sort of leaders we actually want in our society, who contribute meaningfully and helpfully and who inspire others to do the same, are those who love and are loved in return. Jesus tells his disciples to model their style of leadership on serving others, on remembering that there are others, really, and then serving them. In Christianity, love and service are linked very closely. They are, in turn, shaped by humility and respect of others.

It’s interesting, in that respect, to observe the different models of leadership that are regularly presented on T.V. shows and in movies. Sometimes models of leadership can be found in surprising places.

For example, I wonder if you have ever gone back and watched Toy Story as an adult? The original film is a movie about friendship, mainly, but it can also teach us about leadership. The main character, Woody, is a natural leader. He loves his fellow toys and his natural charm and easy leadership style means that he is in turn loved by them. This all goes to pieces when a rival leader arrives: Buzz Lightyear, who oozes self-confidence and innate authority. But what undoes Woody, what destroys his leadership for a time is not actually Buzz, but Woody’s own jealousy. He cannot comprehend sharing leadership, let alone taking a step back to allow someone else to shine. He loses his leadership because his jealously of his position and his fear of being replaced causes him to do stupid things. He loses the affection of his team as a direct result. They see through him. It’s only when he sees past his own jealously that his true leadership qualities re-emerge, stronger than ever. In his weakness, when he’s defeated, he rediscovers his true leadership qualities.

The reformed Woody reminds me of the leadership style displayed by St Paul, actually. Bear with me for a moment, because they’re very similar as leaders: St Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an extraordinary letter and an example of good leadership. St Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Philippi, which was a city in northern Greece. Philippi was a famous city actually: it was here on the plains of Philippi, not far from the city, that the Roman leaders Mark Antony and Octavius defeated Brutus and Cassius: Julius Caesar’s assassins. It was a city that controlled the trade route for the Roman Empire between East and West along the top part of what’s now part of Greece: part of Macedonia in those days. St Paul, as he travelled North and then West in his journeys from the Holy Land, had founded the first Church there. It was the first Christian community to be founded in Europe, in about 50 A.D. It’s important to remember that Christianity came to Europe from the Middle East.

The really interesting thing about this letter, though, is that Paul wrote it when he was actually in prison at the time – not for any real crime, but rather because he had been spreading Christianity in the Roman Empire. So, literally from his prison cell, he writes a letter of encouragement to the Church in Philippi. Talk about rising above your own problems to help someone else. In his weakness, in prison, he shows true leadership. He hears that the Church he founded in the city of Philippi is going through a tough time. It was doing it tough, partly because being a Christian was pretty difficult in the Roman Empire at that stage, and partly because there had been some disagreements among the Christians themselves.

How does St Paul suggest those pioneering Christians address the conflict? Through modelling their behaviour on Christ. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4: 5). How does he encourage them more generally? By writing one of the most helpful verses in the Bible: “Do not worry about anything” (Philippians 4: 6).

If you just take those verses in isolation, you might get the impression that St Paul is saying, just be kind and gentle, don’t worry about anything, just relax and everything will be fine! But he’s not saying that at all: St Paul knew, from his own experience of being imprisoned for his faith, that life wasn’t quite that simple. Yet he also knew that the way to sort out problems in life was to pray about them, to spend time quietly thinking about them, to meditate on them, and then to do something. Spend time in prayer, and then take action, in that order.

If you’re a leader, you can’t make someone love you. But they’re certainly much more likely to, if you show them that you love and respect them: servant leadership, gentleness, prayer and meditation followed by action, these are some of the marks of leadership. This is the challenge for all of us, as we welcome Mr Nolan as our new Deputy Headmaster and Head of Senior School.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain