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Leadership requires a range of modes

14 January 2022

The secular world has moved away from autocratic styles. Bishops would do well to taken note, says Eve Poole

WITH stories of “bullying bishops” appearing north, south, and west of the border, is there a crisis?

In the world of secular leadership, a rash of cases of this kind would be recognisable as the classic career tripwire about an inability to flex style. The problem with being stuck in “tell” mode is that it works only when you know the answer to everything; and every leader worth their salt knows that a leader’s ability to know everything decreases exponentially with seniority. The secular world has some solutions to this problem, but these have limited transfer value unless we also address the underlying problem with theology.

All Christians, both lay and ordained, are charged with spreading the gospel. In the Ordinal, clergy are called to “proclaim the word of the Lord”, and bishops are charged with being “guardians of the faith of the apostles”. A bishop making these promises, with the addition of a palace, and a seat in the cathedral that literally sets them high above all others, might be forgiven for feeling that it is, indeed, their duty to tell, and that of others to listen.

An analysis of theology shows that it is also stuck in “tell” mode, noticeably in the public square, which, in an Established Church, is a particular calling for its bishops. This gives mission a flavour of the cartoon Britisher abroad, who imagines that saying it again, a bit more loudly and a bit more clearly, will suddenly solve the language problem.

David Ford, and others, have identified this megaphone tendency as a problem of mood. If the only moods that you use to proclaim the gospel are the indicative and the imperative — I Believe and Thou Shalt — your only recourse in the face of incomprehension or recalcitrance is to try harder, which is why so much Twitter mission sounds shrill. But other moods are available.


HOW about the interrogative? For example, Bonhoeffer’s famous question, “Who is Christ for us today?”

In the 1990s, the partners of Deloitte were dismayed at the introduction of coaching as a discipline: would clients still pay if one asked them questions instead of just giving them answers? They soon learned the alchemy of questions. Asking a question automatically makes your interlocutor think; so the asking of excellent questions makes them think a lot, and this makes them decide you must be very wise, which only adds to your leadership allure, instead of detracting from it. How can I help? What else could you try? What will this problem look like when it’s been fixed?

Then there might also be mileage in playing in the subjunctive: Let us pray; lest we forget; wilt thou not turn again and quicken us, O Lord?

Like those partners at Deloitte, clergy have often shied away from the subjunctive, thinking that it looks weak and uncertain, and may even risk heresy. But, as a mood, the subjunctive does not so much introduce theological doubt as suggest theological possibility, which should be rich territory for church leaders. Might there be room for more diversity in our churches? What might happen if there is not? May I try something?

Another mood that rarely features in meetings but is all over our founding texts is the optative: the mood for longing, for hopes, and for dreams. The Psalms, the Magnificat, the Revelation of St John, and the entire narrative of our faith have taught us in the optative mood to look forward to a better world; so, if Christianity was to have a defining mood, it should certainly be the optative, not the indicative. What might our leadership look like if it were shot through with hopeful yearning?


THE secular world of leadership has largely moved on from the domineering and autocratic leadership styles caricatured in shows such as The Apprentice, and those charities that depend on volunteers have simply found that hectoring works less well than good coaching and good listening.

While, of course, there are leaders in the Church of England who do showcase the full range of leadership styles, the overall culture might benefit from more variegation. And varying leadership style is a lot like varying mood. As John Heron puts it, sometimes a leader needs to “push” followers by prescribing to, informing, and confronting them. But, sometimes, they also need to “pull” followers, through catharsis, through acting as a catalyst, and by supporting them.

Combining these well is like sequencing the steps of a dance: it’s all in the grace of the choreography, and it requires practice and the ability to be truly present in the moment.

In the same way, being a shepherd of Christ’s flock needs some fancy footwork, switching between “tell” modes and modes that are more curious or optimistic. So perhaps we don’t need bullying bishops, but we do need moodier bishops. What kind of leaders do you dream of?

Dr Eve Poole was the Third Church Estates Commissioner from 2018 to 2021. Leadersmithing: Revealing the trade secrets of leadership is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-472-94123-7.

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