What makes a good leader?
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
3 May 2009, 10:30 (Easter 4)
Liturgical Year B: Acts 4.5-12; 1 John 3.16-end; John 10.11-18
What makes a good leader? In a world which is being jostled by so many problems from finance to health the pressure is on our political leaders to try to counter both the credit crunch as well as now a possible pandemic which could spread flu around the world with startlingly rapid speed. But politicians are not the only ones under pressure as leaders. Our servicemen and women are just returning from Basra. In a moving ceremony we heard the names of those who had died during their tour of duty. Leadership in that context must have been extremely demanding in keeping morale high and making decisions which would not put the troops in unnecessary danger.
In a totally different context which will still make headline news but (frankly) of lesser importance is the role of the football manager, who as the season rises to a climax are also having their credentials challenged and their choices of teams analysed as they either reach for the silverware of success or promotion or on the other hand avoid the dreaded relegation to a lesser league. (Will it be Arsenal for the Champions League Cup; or Gillingham to go up......? we have to wait and see!).
The church itself is not outside this as we face enormous challenges: from financial constraints to questions about faith and order. The leadership in all these areas and many more will be critical to what happens next and whether we survive healthily.
I wondered therefore what might happen if we put alongside the question of leadership the saying today which we heard from John’s Gospel where Jesus said ‘I am the good shepherd’. What do these words attributed to Jesus by John have to say about the way leadership is to give strength and direction to any organisation with which we might be involved or in which we are interested?
‘I am the good shepherd’. Now the imagery of shepherd and sheep we all know is not one which is the most obvious pictures we would use today. But in Jesus’ day and indeed until fairly recent times all over the world it would have been a regular feature of life. Even if you lived in a town the sheep would have been brought to market at some stage. Shepherds would have travelled with their sheep through thick and thin, often staying out overnight through all weathers.
So first of all I think we need to note closeness. The point about a shepherd is the closeness to the sheep which is essential to being a shepherd. That’s why Jesus could talk about how well the shepherd knew his sheep and sheep knew the shepherd. Another picture about shepherd and sheep in an English picture is the role of the sheepdog – which itself is born of closeness as the understanding between shepherd and dog has to be one of trust and obedience. I recall a lovely story told by Evelyn Underhill, the great anglican spiritual writer, who observed that at the end of a day shepherd and sheepdog ‘when the time comes for rest they are generally to be found together’.1 She then put that into a spiritual context of prayer.....
For me the mark of a leader is how well he or she knows those whom they are leading. Without that sense of togetherness trust is always a little wary. So closeness is part of shepherding and leadership. The further the leadership is away from those who are under his or her charge the less is the effect of the leader.
The third part of the saying follows on from the saying. ‘I am the good shepherd’ is added ‘who lays down his life for the sheep’. It is the understanding of service, of willingness to give to those he or she is leading time, attention and if needs be an act of sacrifice. In the context of the gospel the previous ‘I am’ saying is about Jesus being the door. You may not think this ties up with the being the good shepherd, but of course if the shepherd is travelling round the countryside with his sheep he will, when evening comes, drive them into a pen through a gap which he himself then lies down in to keep the sheep in and the marauders out! The very act of lying down is an act of protection and watchfulness. And the gospels use the same word for Jesus laying down his life for us on the cross.
So: leadership cannot avoid another word which is at present counter culture: self-sacrifice.
Lastly, Jesus has an eye for those outside the group. Clearly in the ministry and life of Jesus and the witness of the early church this is a reference to the gentile community. But if one exercises leadership in an isolated way, not taking into account the other things going on around but outside the organisation, one is not seeing the way things are linked. That’s probably a reason for such a financial debacle we are facing at present. But equally this can be seen in other contexts too.
It is interesting in John’s gospel that this amongst one of a number of ‘I am’ sayings’ is the actually repeated as if for emphasis as well as development. But it obviously left its mark because in the church our bishops carry their pastoral staffs, the shepherds crook, denoting their following of Jesus the good shepherd and the one who is their model of leadership.
The only thing I haven’t mentioned are the opening words of the saying ‘I am’. John’s way of using these words with descriptions of Jesus are deliberate, indeed provocative. For this is the name by which God in the OT says he is to be known – ‘I am’. In many ways we have been looking at the way God leads his people: by closeness, by goodness, by his sacrificial love, and by his inclusive will. All perfectly pictured in that great Psalm ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want, who leads us to still waters’.
He presents the challenge to all who would be leaders.
2 John’s Gospel by Andrew Lincoln p 296
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