Park the ego, lead a nation

Leadership is a subject that recurs everywhere—in churches, in business, sports, and of course politics. But what is leadership?

The recent movie Lincoln focus on the man who is generally considered to be the greatest American president. But if you've seen the movie, you know that while Abraham Lincoln is noted for some famous speeches, much of Lincoln's leadership was through old-fashioned bargaining and cajoling in the back rooms. Indeed, most movies about leadership give the wrong idea—that it is all about one inspiring speech, or one bold action. In fact, leadership is almost always ongoing, complex, and rarely neatly packaged.

In churches, pastors are leaders. But whatever their exact traditions and structures, pastors know they must exercise their leadership with due care. Churches are complex organizations with long traditions, guided by the spiritual discernment of all their members and heavily dependent on their volunteer labour. Pastors give spiritual and temporal leadership, but they also must know how to listen, coax and revisit their own assumptions.

Similarly in politics, leadership is rarely neatly packaged. Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn't particularly known as an orator or charismatic personality, like the leaders we see in movies. But the prime minister is clearly a leader who unified his party and brought it to three successful elections. A decade ago, not many people would have predicted such success for Stephen Harper as a leader, but he met and surpassed expectations. Successful leadership comes in many forms.

In Christianity, we often talk about the model of a servant-leader, guided by Philippians 2 and Jesus as a leader who humbled Himself, ultimately to his death. In politics it is hard to be a servant-leader. A politician may have ideas or a vision, but it's his or her name that appears on the ballot—they're really selling themselves. Campaigns are designed around their personalities, putting their smiling face on television screens across the nation. But since politics always has clear winners and losers, it takes a healthy ego to withstand the rejection of voters. Sometimes that ego is not very compatible with servant leadership!

The best political leaders (or leaders anywhere) are able to combine healthy self-confidence with self-sacrifice, acting ultimately as servant-leaders who put the good of the nation before themselves. Indeed, many politicians do this, helping constituents and working on projects that will not get them votes, but are the right things to do.

Similarly, in business, sports or other pursuits, the best leaders realize that it's not all about them. Unfortunately, politics is probably the hardest place to learn this, and politicians must struggle to find that balance.

Being a servant-leader doesn't mean being a pushover. Jesus wasn't. But, a bit like Lincoln, it does mean swallowing your pride and listening to others, using persuasion and negotiation rather than bullying and domineering. A servant-leader humbles himself or herself, to achieve a greater good. (Does that describe Stephen Harper? I'll leave that for you to answer.)

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.