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Leopards, spots and good leadership

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

During 2022, a well-known, and rightly respected, evangelical leader and teacher contacted my wife and I, fearing he had wronged us at a public, and recorded, event.

We knew nothing of the incident until we listened back to the recording. As it happens, we weren’t particularly concerned about what had been said, although we could understand why others in a similar situation to us might have been.

Reflecting back at the end of the year, the real significance of this episode for us is not what occurred but how it serves as a model for how a leader should address their potentially poor behaviour.

This man had engaged sufficiently in self-examination (perhaps after comments from others - we don’t know) to recognise that he might have caused harm or offence.

As we had no reason to know what he had done he could have thought he’d “get away with it", as, indeed, it transpires, to date, would indeed have happened. But he didn’t hope for the best - he took the initiative to come to us and confess what he had done.

And he apologised. Not one of those faux apologies - “if we had been upset” or “for any offence caused” but a proper apology that recognised specifically what he had done, why he shouldn’t have done it and the damage that might have been caused to us or to our relationship with him and others.

In short, he did what he did not have to do to put things right, entirely out of concern for us and whatever the cost to him.

What had the potential to become a wider, more prolonged and more painful issue was nipped in the bud by his approach.

This is leadership after the way of the cross and yet how often in recent years have we seen the opposite - leaders who simply will not own doing wrong, who immediately become self-justifying, who blame everything and everyone but themselves, not only speaking out but lashing out in their own defence.

Problems that could have been addressed early, by humble acknowledgement of a misstep, become a lengthy path of growing offence and conflict which starts to call the entire character, rather than just the occasional conduct, of the leader into question.

There can be something of a paradox in all this.

Sometimes, leaders react like this because they are too thick-skinned - they simply don’t care what people think of them and see, even welcome, criticism as primarily an opportunity to prove, by their power and the virility of their leadership, just how untouchable they are. Other people fall into line, mainly out of fear of the consequences of getting on the wrong side of them, and thereby a small loyal coterie is formed around them.

Others react so badly because they are so thin-skinned - as if they are constantly wearing a protective overcoat that they fear might be torn open, or torn off, only to reveal that there is nothing really there at all. Constantly fearful of being found out as the empty vessels that they actually are, as opposed to the all-competent leader they present themselves to be, they protect their identity at all costs. Surrounding themselves with people committed to guarding their protective shield, these leaders aim at invulnerability.

The similarities in practice of the too thin and too thick-skinned are obvious and alliances are formed combining elements of both, and of both their entourages. The outcome of that is accusations that complainants have “grievances” and “agendas”, that they are ill-informed, unforgiving, “want to burn the house down”, are “weaponizing”, “chippy”, “inverted snobs”, “privilege-shaming” and all the other intimidating DARVO techniques of those perpetually outraged at the merest challenge.

But as we experienced, it does not have to be this way. However, for a leader to behave in a creditable way requires soundness of character - someone who is all too aware of their weaknesses and therefore a lover of grace. They are people who live out justification by faith because they know it is their only hope. Without personal ambition, conceit and any need to lead, if they draw people too them it is only because of their kindness. In short, they are Christians comfortable in their own skin because they live in Christ.

We have told this story because, somewhat counter-intuitively it is a “good news” story with which to end the year. We also hope to encourage fellow Anglicans to resolve that those with the influential positions, pulpits, platforms and publishing deals of 2023 should be those most attuned to the inability of the leopard to change its own spots, or the leper to heal themselves.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?

Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil

(Jeremiah 13:23 ESV).

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