Public leaders and the slow formation of character

By Mercedes McGuire 04 Jul 2019

The currency of formation in the natural world is time – little happens without it. Seedlings grow up to become strong oaks not in years, but over decades and centuries. The strength and reliability of an oak only happens through the process. There is no way to short-circuit this process, and in fact, if a tree were to do so, it would be to its own detriment.

In public leadership, a similar process is needed. Leaders who have the character and resilience to thrive in the midst of adversity are not born; they are formed by the choices they make. Often these choices are made in secret crucibles of testing, under managerial, internal or relational pressures – often facing accusation, misunderstanding, betrayal, disappointment, personal weaknesses and failures. In this period of formation, an emerging leader must have a long-term vision that is rooted in the ways of God and an understanding of the process essential to their own development. This enables them to recognise what is happening and persevere through the trials and suffering which are inescapable elements of their formation. In fact, they learn to appropriate suffering as a vehicle to perseverance, perseverance to character; and character, hope, a hope does not put them to shame, because of the pouring out of God’s love into their hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. This may sound slightly masochistic, but these are the words of Paul to the Romans (Romans 5).

As we look at leadership trends in several democratic countries, we might well feel puzzled as we try to explain or interpret how leadership has become separated from its essential foundation of character. In the UK, after a somewhat ‘wild ride’ following the Brexit referendum in 2016, we are now preparing to transition to a new Prime Minister. Rumour has it that Boris Johnson is next in line. Since Johnson is himself a classicist (he studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford), a recent article in the Economist draws on political philosophy from Plato’s Republic to evaluate Johnson’s character in a ‘Plato test’. One of Plato’s central arguments is that character matters deeply. This can include truthfulness, a love of wisdom, a studied and seasoned experience in effective governance, a developed, coherent view of the world and a diligent commitment to developing the qualities essential for your public role. And as the Economist argues, this is not well represented by figures like Johnson.

An equally good question to ask is why we, the voting people, seem not only to be attracted to, but are choosing to support and endorse leaders who fail to demonstrate not only character, but a working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of national governance? Rather than statesmen, we’ve elected a drama teacher (Canada), a reality TV show host and businessman (USA) and a comedian (Ukraine) to the highest levels of public office. They rise (as if propelled by invisible jet streams) to positions of national leadership despite having little to no proven experience or practical knowledge about how to govern a nation. Instead of statesmen, we are voting for masters of entertainment— ‘Citizens are so consumed by pleasure-seeking that they beggar the economy; so hostile to authority that they ignore the advice of experts; and so committed to liberty that they lose any common purpose[1].’ The phenomenon of leaders such as Trudeau, Trump, Johnson and Zelensky is partly explained by the climate and posture of the people.

So how do we respond to the strange political landscapes of our societies? Do we moan, resist,
protest, denounce or run away?

For a follower of Christ, the answer to this question is four-fold:

First, to pray. We can stand freely before the highest authority in heaven and on earth with our requests. Let’s intercede for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and to make, ‘petitions, prayers,
intercession and thanksgiving for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’[2] Prayer must not be taken for granted, rather, it is one of the foremost vehicles through which peace can be extended in times of crisis.

Secondly, know that our prayers for God’s kingdom to come will first be answered in us. Therefore, joyfully embrace the process of growth (including various forms of trials and sufferings) that shape in us the Christ-like character that will substantiate the weight of our prayers.

Thirdly, be salt and light in the world—and especially in the long-term. The primary call of Christ is not towards a ‘quick fix’, but it is to know the Father, to be a witness of Christ in the world and a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Embracing the mystery and paradox of this reality reconfigure our zeal for instant change into a long (and faithful) obedience in the same direction[3] (the true vehicle of change) and a trust that ultimately, God is working out his purposes in the unfolding of history.

Fourthly—and finally—remember the oak tree. Consider its significance in our personal lives, our communal lives and when we evaluate our public figures. It brings insight into the crisis of character in public leadership today. You cannot buy character, you cannot rush character, and you cannot contrive it. It is not formed while lying on the beach or scheming one’s way to the top; it is formed through perseverance, which implies facing some form of difficulty. Generally speaking, our wider culture does not embrace difficulty and suffering as vehicles of growth, but rejects them as impositions to our freedom and happiness, whether you’re an accountant, a shopkeeper or a public leader. We don’t naturally love to suffer, nor to persevere, yet, there is—in the hidden mysteries of God—a glory that comes when we yield, a hope that is produced, and a love that is poured out in our hearts. Humbly let's remember the oak tree and grow. 


[1] The Economist, June 22nd 2019, Bagehot | The Plato Test

[2] 1 Timothy 2:1-4

[3] Eugene Peterson

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