Responding To Leadership

We are all subject to the leadership of others in one way or another: government (at national, state and local levels), law enforcement, in the workplace, schools, churches, and community organisations. Many of us also have experience in positions of leadership.

In some ways, history is as much a story of leadership as anything else. The events of history as we know them are necessarily associated in our minds with the leaders who may have played the roles of heroes and villains: Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, for example. Some tales become the stuff of legend and literature, as did William Bligh and Fletcher Christian. That’s not to ignore or downplay the unknown stories of heroism and villainy too. Those tales can be every bit as inspiring (or salutory), and they can fill in the details which the stories of the leaders paint in broader strokes. Of course, there are many tales in the Bible, too, Moses and Joshua being two of my personal favourites.

But I really want to think about leadership here and now. Have you ever thought about your response to leadership? Are there particular leaders who inspire you? Have you every been entrusted with a position of leadership? How does your experience in leadership inform how you respond to the leaders over you?

We don’t have the benefit of hindsight when we look at current leadership, in the way that we do when looking at those of the past. We may or may not have some inkling as to why they behave as they do, but we certainly can’t see the full consequences of their actions (although we might guess at them). How, then, should we judge the quality of a leader?

If we are honest, we must admit to having a difficult relationship with leadership. We are all intelligent people, with values and opinions we cherish. We tend to believe, necessarily, that those values and opinions are of benefit to ourselves as individuals, to others, and also to the communities and societies in which we live. So, we struggle to understand that others do not always share our values and opinions, and we can be incredulous that they hold to their convictions with equal or even greater tenacity than we do ourselves. So, when a leader, at any level of society, makes a statement or acts in ways that contradict our closely held beliefs, we are often outraged.

For example, my beliefs in regard to education – based upon training and experience as a teacher ranging over almost thirty years – lead me to question many of our government’s current policies and programmes which directly affect our teachers and the school children in their charge. I might say the same about the definition and meaning of marriage. No doubt you have your own. How are we to respond? There are principles to be found in the Word and the teachings of the church which

How are we to respond? There are principles to be found in the Word and the teachings of the church which will at least stimulate some thought and comment.

Firstly, though, the reader should be aware that Swedenborg’s work often refers to people who come into power by virtue of their birth, such as kings and princes, and he also talks about people born to particular “stations in life” – the aristocracy, if you will. He was intimately familiar with such people. The means by which people come into power in our own times often varies considerably from Swedenborg’s day, but that doesn’t negate the importance of what he has to say here.

Secondly, I note many principles which apply to both secular and religious leadership. Indeed, the role of “king” and “priest” belong together (Heavenly Secrets [HS], paragraph 6148), and are even bestowed upon the same person (such as Melchizedek, in Genesis chapter 14). Given that, I have made no distinction between the two here.

So, a leader looking to the teachings of the church will see that:

Leaders must themselves be subject to the laws and principles from which they govern (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine [NJHD], paragraph 322). No person can every be at the top of the hierarchy. Even our Queen and our Prime Minister are subject to law, not above it, because it is the law that gives them their positions, not the other way round. Ultimately, of course, we recognise that no person nor human institution is above the Lord, who is the Creator. The Centurion who sought out Jesus to heal his servant acknowledged this: “For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me.” (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)

A leader is not a leader by virtue of any quality innate to himself (NJHD 321). Many people who do take up leadership roles often feel overwhelmed, lacking in the necessary skills, or unworthy. While I think it is appropriate and useful to be humbled by the experience, it can be debilitating. Like anything we do, we get better with practice, and it’s useful and wise to have experienced people around us to help us find our way. We would be foolish to think of ourselves as indispensable, more intelligent, or specially “leadership material” just because we occupy such a position. In reality, no one is “born to greatness”.

If you’re a leader, you’re there to do a job, so just get on with it! It is the use that ought to be loved, not the position. The position serves only as a means by which that particular use may be fulfilled (True Christian Religion [TCR], paragraph 415). Of course, sometimes difficult and unpopular decisions have to be made, and while it is a challenge that faces any leader, we must accept that it is the nature of the task we are given. Carrying out that task is integral to the charitable exercise of leadership (NJHD 101).

Finally, we should understand that the two sides of rights and responsibilities must be held together. Honours are associated with the office, not the person (NJHD 317). Such honours exist so that a leader can fulfil his duties. So, the Prime Minister has a bigger office than any other member of his government because of the duties he must perform in that room. Nevertheless, it’s probably worth being realistic about what constitutes a useful honour as opposed to an excessive one.

It also means that once a leader steps down from his position, he can no longer expect to have the same say in decision making that once he’s been used to. I think that’s probably a difficult one to face. A number of our former Prime Ministers (and American Presidents) seem to be fond of airing their views in public! Of course, the media are fond of asking them, now that they’re no longer in power. I recently read a passage about certain people’s “sphere of authority”, which they had acquired during their earthly life and tended to distress other spirits around them (HS 1507; 1508)

Of course, the ordinary citizen, or member of the church, can glean some useful tips from the teachings regarding their response to leadership, too.

In the Word, a leader represents the nation he leads (HS 7041, 4789). So, as much as we might complain about our leaders, do we get simply the leaders we deserve?

The Lord works through leaders as his instruments, as he used the Apostles to establish the Christian Church (Divine Providence [DP], paragraph 257, section 3). That’s true of all of us, of course, but understanding this does affect the way in which we react to those who govern. It is also true that it is impossible to tell whether a particular leader loves the neighbour or not (TCR 412, section 3). Basic charity must apply in all our relationships, so it’s worthwhile monitoring our own internal chatter, and only speaking that which is genuinely useful.

On the other hand, I would not recommend rose-coloured spectacles when we look at leadership either! Evil can spread through leadership (DP 328, section 7) just as easily as good can. If democracy is to work properly, we must be individuals capable of critical thinking and wise discernment, not just obedient citizens:

“You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice.” (Exodus 23:2)

And there’s the crux of the problem: how to give appropriate honour to our leaders in fulfilling the uses of their position (TCR 415) – including the difficult decisions they must make in that role – whilst yet calling them to account for their leadership. I find it interesting that Swedenborg writes about the tyrant king and yet a people’s duty to honour their king in back-to- back paragraphs in his work the New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine (paragraphs 324; 325). And when Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, also Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) he made no reference to the worthiness of Caesar to receive such taxes.

So, how can we negotiate our difficulties with leadership?

The application of spiritual principles is certainly a good starting point. For example, the golden rule (“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” [Matthew 7:12]), in this context, will involve leaders remembering their own experience being led, and citizens remembering their experience of leadership.

We do well to remember – and examine – the expectations we have of our leaders, and of those who follow our lead. Similarly, our disappointments, because they say as much about our own failings as they do about anyone else. We should remember that our leaders (and those who are led) are human too: they have thoughts and feelings, values, ideas, insights, and experiences, which may be very different from our own. And we should each play our own part, honouring the role of the other. Participate in decision-making wherever possible. Communication in both directions is essential to the success of any form of government.

Rev David Moffat, President of The New Church in Australia

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