BBC Radio 4:Rhidian Brook - 13/07/17


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Good Morning,

Years ago, a work colleague of mine was promoted and, almost overnight, they became my boss. Their new position had a peculiar effect on them. They could no longer be friends with colleagues, they lost their sense of humour, they started to talk in a subtly condescending manner and shout when they didn’t get their way. Some of this could be put down to inexperience; but the change in behaviour probably had more to do with false notions of leadership. In order to be taken seriously they felt they had to be tough and separate. But by doing so they lost the support of their team.

Team sport has produced some great leaders and the recent epic series between the British and Irish Lions and the All Blacks offered a fine example in Sam Warburton. In the final moments of the final test the Lions captain, who had been uncomplainingly dropped for the first match, was praised, not just for his exemplary play, but for the quietly persuasive way he asked the referee to look again at a penalty decision; an interjection that saved the series. Afterwards a columnist suggested Warburton might consider a career in diplomacy where his gracious, ego-free approach might come in useful. When once asked about his style of leadership, Warburton said his first rules were not to become someone he wasn’t, and to remain friends with his teammates.

The question of what makes a good leader is as urgent as ever. But different cultures and countries have differing views on it. The line-up of leaders at the G20 summit illustrates this: the gathering included the unsmiling, authoritarian type (usually men) Putin, Erdogan; the assured, personable type, Abe and Macron; and the reliable and unflashy type like Merkel who, standing at the centre of this male dominated group, looks like the captain of an unlikely sports team. Her presence reminds us of the Groucho Marx joke: ‘only one man in a thousand is a leader of men; the other 999 follow women’.

Perhaps we need to wean ourselves off the deceptive concept of the strong leader - where, too often, appearance trumps substance - and look instead for subtler role models. An unusual example of what constitutes good leadership is found in the gospels. Back in 30 A.D Judea, expectations of leaders were not so different from our own. The people wanted them to be strong and powerful, even fierce as lions. And yet, when Jesus started his mission he kept going out of his way to subvert this thinking. He often put himself into embarrassing situations to show his followers what he meant. Including, most famously, a culturally shocking and authority flipping offer to wash their feet. St Augustine once said that if you want to rise you begin by descending. And in this moment Jesus lays down a new definition of leadership for all would-be leaders: You’re only a leader if you serve. There’s no lording it here.

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