This weekend, in the national political scene, a struggle is going on within the federal parliamentary opposition. A new leadership team will be elected on Monday, and conceivably the leader could be our next Prime Minister.
When announcing a challenge, against the incumbent (Kim Beazley), Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard declared that they are offering a new style of leadership. Quite rightly, in my view, they said that Australians are seeking a new alternative, a different approach to our political life.
There is I believe a deep longing for a genuine change, not just another party hack.
Kevin Rudd has recently published some significant articles about faith and politics. He has taken the stage to speak publicly about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as one of his role models. He has challenged the influence of the ‘Religious Right’ as the only way in which Christians can have a role in politics. Instead, he has argued for a social justice perspective, and he embodies that alternative—both to the religious right, and to the atheist left.
But I find myself wondering what is meant by ‘leadership’, when these people suggest that our nation is looking for fresh leadership.
First, I have to say that I don’t think we are very good judges of what might be ‘good’ leadership.
Much of my life, I think we have been confused in the western world about what we mean by ‘strong leadership’. Usually the people we call strong leaders are in fact more authoritarian that leaders.
It’s like when people say someone believes strongly, or expresses their views strongly. That usually means they are vehement. They do not accept any alternative approach. They reject any other way of seeing things. Is that really strong?
This leads me to ask what we might actually want from a ‘strong’ leader.
I would suggest that a strong leader is not one who controls the outcome of every issue and process. One political leader some decades ago declared that you should never set up an enquiry unless you already knew what it would conclude. This image of leadership and strength is all about control.
The genuinely strong leader opens up possibilities. The leader will articulate issues which need to be named, faced, understood or processed. The leader will hear what is being said: in complaints, in worries, in dreams and hopes. The leader will invite the community to address these matters, but will also resource this process: inviting contributions from skilled experts, and drawing broad lines of debate, suggesting issues for people to think about.
In due course, however, the leader will also ‘read’ the situation and make a declaration. This is not to announce the definitive ‘answer’. Rather, the leader offers a reading of what has emerged and on that basis a proposal: this is what we should now do. In offering this direction, the leader is thus finally asking the community to come to a decision. Then, the leader will act upon the community’s mandate.
At every stage, then, the leader is facilitating the community’s own life and empowering it, ensuring its ownership of the processes and outcomes. This is real power. It is the power of service.
This is the leadership alternative we need.
I stress that this kind of leadership does more than read the current trends, the prevailing opinions. This leadership arises from a vision, a fundamental vision of the worth of the people, a vision of how life could be lived and how society might be. This vision is not derived from opinion polls or party platforms. Rather, it comes from the person, the formation of the person who would be leader. (That’s why it is such an honourable thing to teach young people, who one day might be leaders!)
This visionary leadership derives from the faith of the person, whether that faith be a religious conviction or from the faith people place in the neo-liberal market economy, for example. If we have a dearth of imaginative, visionary leaders, it is because our leaders have such impoverished faith: they beleive in nothing other than ‘the economy’ and in their own party processes.
I still believe this kind of visionary, empowering leadership might be possible, in our nation, despite all the machinations of political parties and the media: if only someone would give it a try. It is what the people want.
I hope and pray that Kevin Rudd will have the chance, and will do this.