Talking of leadership and governance

Is it just me that suffers from a real sense of leadership fatigue?

Of course, at one level, I know that I am a ‘leader,’ but I am beginning to wonder whether the preoccupation with leadership (and leaders) is, in some way, unhealthy. I also wonder whether such a strong  focus on leadership, in the church, contributes to a form of collective ecclesial myopia? Could it also be that obsessively, slavishly, focusing on leadership as a good in its own right perversely ends up in undermining leadership, growth and maturity? Just some thoughts drifting through my mind.

Leadership is in some ways is sexy and fun. Developing a ‘compelling vision’ supported by a vision, mission statement and strap-line is exciting, perhaps even intoxicating, but are such activities in and of themselves a little bit hollow and, maybe even vacuous? Can corporate visions, mission statements and strap-lines become the very things capable of hoisting ‘leaders’ on their own petard?

I ask because living up to the vision and embodying the values is always a hard ask and any divergence away from the values expressed through the vision, mission and strap-line can easily become rich pickings for those looking to levy charges of hypocrisy and pastoral insensitivity. Is the very notion of leadership in some ways divisive through its ability to categorize and maybe even discriminate? Does the very notion of leadership promote the heroic at the expense of the ordinary? Does leadership, badly exercised, create in groups and out groups, group think and the requirement to be loyal to the club? So many questions!

But my real worry is the growth of leadership undermines the importance of the hard, maybe even tedious work, of governance. Leadership is after all ‘visionary’ (even if people are fatigued by the constant focus on vision and efforts to reinforce it).  If the vision becomes the thing that is beyond question then it becomes, in some ways, extremely difficult to hold leaders to account. If our leaders are not to be held to account we need to hope and pray that they are benign rather than tyrannical in their approach to others; their subjects.

In many ways the financial crisis represents the triumph of leadership over governance. The risk managers in the finance sector were roundly marginalized and ignored. Risk managers, with their difficult and challenging questions, were seen as irritants. Anything that called into question the never-ending desire for success and growth was regarded as heretical. The cult of the leader, some of whom were publicly esteemed for their achievements, reigned supreme. The subliminal message running unchecked through some of the financial institutions was simply this: be loyal to the leader, be a member of their gang. Any notions of loyalty and obedience being defined solely through reference to ‘all things legal and honest,’ was jettisoned on the altar of growth and success, at which the corporate leader presided.

I think, in the Church of England, we need to recapture the art of governance. In fact I would go further and suggest that it is the only way that leadership can, in the long-run, be sustained. Bishops and other senior ‘leaders’ perhaps first and foremost need to regard themselves as governors, rather than leaders; after all the head of the Church of England, the monarch, is described as the ‘supreme governor.’ Surely, it therefore follows, her Archbishops and Bishops are the day-to-day governors?

Being a good and effective governor demands a high level of objectivity and, an absolute determination to ensure that the Church of England at ‘all times and in all places,’ manifestly places the virtues of legality and honesty at the centre of its decision-making processes, operations and, I would argue, strategy. Being a good and effective governor requires rigor and courage.  Good governors are never slaves to a vision and refuse to be taken in by mission statements and strap-lines. Good governors are prepared to court contempt and ridicule by those addicted to the intoxicating spirits of vision, mission and strap-lines. Good governance requires an attention to that most boring of things: detail. Good governors understand that sustainability and long-term success is dependent on the nitty-gritty. Good governors get their heads out of the clouds and operate with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Good governance is, above all things, an exercise in virtue.

Good governance is about raising the right (good and moral) questions and demanding that they are answered. It is about shining light into the potential darkness. Without good governance we, the Church of England, will collapse. Leadership, vision, mission statements and strap-lines can only take you so far and they risk taking you in entirely the wrong direction. Leadership, by itself, is poor cartography.

It is perhaps a statement of the obvious to suggest that over the last few weeks a failure in governance has been laid before the Church of England in all its gory details. I am of course referring to the IICSA hearings. It will be up to the governance experts (I am assuming we have some) to respond appropriately, but my fear is we (the C of E) won’t go far enough.

I would like to see the House of Bishops and every diocese appointing a Chief Risk Officer, or a Director of Risk. When I worked in the city the board of the company on which I was privileged to serve had a director of risk. His job, broadly speaking, covered three spheres of activity: Corporate Governance (and as he constantly reminded us we were all governors), the management of relationships with regulators and, crucially risk (financial, operational and reputational.)

His job was to ask, and to encourage us to learn to ask for ourselves, the ‘what if questions.’ His job, in a nutshell, was to keep us ‘legal and honest,’ to look for the downside in our strategic decision-making and operational processes and, to ensure that the charge of hypocrisy couldn’t be levied and, that us ‘leaders’ didn’t leave ourselves vulnerable to being hoisted on our own petard. He always reminded us that our reputations were dependent on doing the right things, in the right way. We didn’t, of course, get everything right but he made sure we avoided getting a lot of things horribly wrong. He didn’t do the sexy ‘leadership’ stuff but his value was incalculable for the straightforward reason that he kept us ‘legal and honest.’ 

If the Church of England truly desires to sustain, flourish and grow then maybe we need to spend less time focusing on ‘leadership’ and more on governance? 





3 thoughts on “Talking of leadership and governance

  1. Andrew: thank you for this and for the way in which you keep this question alive. You ask if we are suffering leadership fatigue. I’d tend to say that what we have is a leadership fetish. The obsession with ‘leadership’ in so many spheres (church, public services, business, charities) is a wonder to behold and will, I’m sure, be seen to be a largely egocentric preoccupation. As to governance, you don’t offer a definition and part of what you associate with it is what I’d call competent management. ‘Management’ is currently out of favour (managerialism should be out of favour, but competent management is what makes things work and work well). I have seen it said that in etymological terms, the origin of the word ‘‘governance’’ comes from the ancient Greek verb that meant steering, guiding, or manoeuvring a ship. I reckon what is needed (a general and sweeping claim, I agree) is competent management and wise governance. And I rather think we can do without the leadership fetish. Leaders require the led, and I don’t read the gospels as saying we need either; rather that we are to be a community keen to develop some collective wisdom, at turns each leading and following in a way that forms the best response to changing circumstances. I was talking to an ordinand last week. He said he was called by God to be a Christian leader. My heart sank a little. Keep up the good work.

  2. Perhaps we need to take our leadership examples from Our Lord and his disciples as ‘servants of the servants of God?’ If the church is anything, it is a team-based organisation (whether from the flower arranging team, the bell-ringers, or the choir in a local church all the way up to Deanery and General Synods to the Archbishops Council and House of Bishops). The notion of charismatic or transformational leadership which the Church continues to espouse as the only model of leadership it truly values can be disastrous in such cases. We need more network and servant leadership which is, of course, uniquely relational. Perhaps that is the only way that the Church’s governance can be grounded in the reality of peoples’ lives and experience rather than grandiose schema or abstract policies which reify (and I use the word advisedly) strategies and structures over and above the very people they should be serving?

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