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What type of leader does the Church need now?

05 April 2013

THE Most Revd Justin Welby's first Easter sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the question of leadership. He warned against a culture that expects too much of individuals.

The best leaders are not always the most interesting, original, or even energetic individuals. They are those who manage to make other people work together by creating an atmosphere where it feels good to contribute. How they do this varies enormously. But the kinds of people who can do it are not necessarily remarkable as individuals. Their gifts are the soft talents: empathy, humour, and modesty, combined with a clear political nous about what R. A. Butler once called "the art of the possible".

Our trouble is that we prefer to follow the exceptional person with the big dream. Think of the huge expectations that were loaded on Barack Obama when he first became President of the United States, or on Dr Williams when he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Those two different men have surprisingly similar gifts. Their leadership was and is marked by intellectual flair and a magnificent ability with words. They are attentive to individuals, and excellent with mass audiences.

Yet neither has a taste for the kind of schmoozing that creates fellowship among rivals. President Obama is famously hopeless at the wheeler-dealing that is necessary to achieve fiscal consensus with his Republican opponents.

Archbishop Williams, at the Lambeth Conference and at General Synod, offered profound reflections on the sin of division. He was brilliant, and made everyone feel a bit guilty. But the public analysis of disagreement cannot easily break new ground. A speech full of acceptable platitudes, at the end of a long process of massaging bruised and bruising egos, might have achieved more.

The culture of the Church tends to favour the hero leader, even though it is often the last thing that the Church needs, as any perceptive new incumbent may realise as he or she faces the PCC for the first time.

The Jesuit Constitutions encourage exceptional priests to take a vow that releases them to go on one-off missions in which their particular gifts can flourish; but the charge of communities is given to the genial plodders. We wait to see which kind of leader Archbishop Welby turns out to be, but the signs are promising.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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