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Forget big egos: look for potential

22 July 2016

Angela Tilby longs for a dash of humility among those seeking high office

IT IS depressing how many can­didates for political leadership in recent weeks have included in their pitch a sentence beginning “I am the only one who. . .” followed by a tedious list of their finest hours, passionately held values, and what they would do to achieve party unity, a good Brexit, hope, etc.

An attempt to sell yourself as uniquely qualified by your past experience to do the job you are angling for has become normal throughout the job market, and I suppose we should not expect any­thing better from those com­peting for public office.

Yet it tells us almost nothing of importance, except that the can­­didates are either inflated ego-boors, or believe that they have to pretend to be. Humility and modesty won’t get you anywhere. And the same is becoming true in the Church.

I have looked at quite a few applications for clergy posts in re­­­cent years when I have been asked to be a referee, or, occasionally, when friends have applied for posts, and have asked me to look at what they have said about themselves.

When you go for a church ap­­point­­ment, you get guidance notes these days, pitched to prevent your ever attempting to hide your light under a bushel. Modesty does not wash, although a few pious clichés about the guidance of the Holy Spirit don’t do any harm.

But what you are really meant to do is to rehearse your past history in the most glorious light you can conjure up, tailoring your story to match the job description and people spec. as precisely as possible. (So, you write eloquently about how your conflict-management skills over the Mothers’ Union deanery bien­nial theatre trip have equipped you uniquely to serve as archdeacon in the vibrantly infectious diocese of X, and hope that this is not trumped by another candidate who has tri­umphed in even more adverse cir­cum­stances).

Together with modesty and hum­ility, what is missing from the dismal process of making appoint­ments is any recognition of the importance of potential. I was taken on by the BBC as a very recent gradu­ate with almost no relevant exper­ience. I am sure I was a disaster in some ways, but I also brought some­thing new, and it was humbl­ing to be trusted to have a go. It said a lot for the confidence of my mentors that they were prepared to take the risk.

But today we are all risk-averse. And the result is that all too often we get the rather tired and defensive leadership, both in Church and State, that we have asked for — and perhaps richly deserve.


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

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