How to identify character in leaders

Fans of legendary comic-book illustrator Stan Lee will be familiar with the adage ‘with great power, comes great responsibility.’ For the third time in six years, I now find myself contemplating the responsibility to use my vote well to choose our next Prime Minister.

Photo by Jackie Olivier on Unsplash

Granted, my lone vote is highly unlikely to be the decisive single vote that swings the contest (even the ultra-close Liberal Democrat leadership election of 2007 was decided by a margin of 511 votes). Conservative party members nevertheless bear responsibility to use our votes well, given the power the new Prime Minister will hold, and the grave challenges facing our nation and the wider world. 

Given the circumstances under which Mr Johnson has resigned, character is likely to be front and centre to an even greater extent than usual. Conservatives will not only be concerned with the policies and values that candidates put forward, but also their integrity. 

When it comes to character, Christians consider Jesus Christ as the example everyone should aspire to replicate.i Those who follow him bear the name ‘Christian’ gladly, despite its derogatory origins (‘little Christs’), for not only do Christians worship Jesus as God, they also model the way they live on how he lived; in the early church the Apostle Paul would write: ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 11:1) 

Being Christ-like isn’t an obscure, ethereal concept – it is to love your neighbour as yourself, as Jesus taught in the gospels (see Mark 12:21; Matthew 22:39; Luke 22), and therefore much bigger than politics. When my youngest child was unwell, I wanted the GP examining her to show Christ-like compassion, and excellence in providing healing. As my eldest finished school in July, I rejoiced that his teachers were Christ-like in providing instruction, discipline, and encouragement in the classroom. 

The reality of human imperfection is that no person perfectly reflects the goodness of a perfect God. However, the joy of the Gospel and of common grace is that all humanity reflects God’s image, is capable of governing and leading well, and can receive the grace of God – nobody is excluded by virtue of their political creed. Any political leader, from almost any political creed, is capable of leading in a Christ-like way, despite being imperfect themselves, freeing us from the despair that no leader can ever fully match the perfection we desire. 

Choosing a Christ-like Prime Minister is a worthy aspiration, but somewhat more difficult to apply. It is too easy to default to certain ‘tells’ for how Christ-like a politician is; whether on ethical debates such as abortion, to whether their views on welfare correspond to your understanding of compassion for the poor. There is also the danger that your understanding of what it looks like to be Christ-like means conforming to your own views on (to list a few) Brexit, education or the NHS. 

I have also experienced heart-rending sorrow in recent years watching people of God (especially in the public square) fail to live up to the standards they professed. It is easy to talk the good talk and give the surface level impression that you are the real deal. What then is the evidence of deep-rooted character that one can bank upon? 

My reflections led me to a vignette from John’s Gospel. Jesus is about to be betrayed and brutally executed, but beforehand he gathers his disciples for a meal popularly described as the Last Supper. Prior to the meal, Jesus humbles himself by undressing and washing his disciples’ feet; a shameful task typically given to the lowliest servant. After this, Jesus tells his disciples that just as he washed their feet, so they should follow his example and wash each other’s feet. 

It is at this dramatic moment that Judas Iscariot leaves the supper, purposing to betray Jesus. Earlier in the narrative we learned that Judas managed the disciples’ money and had been secretly taking funds for himself. In Judas we have the contrast to Jesus; Judas looked like he had everything sorted on the surface, as evidenced by being entrusted with the money bag. But his deception could not stand the moment he realised following Jesus demanded humility. The moment he saw this leader kneeling in the dirt, cleaning filth from others, Judas despised him and decided he was through. 

I don’t think it is necessary to ask each candidate to wash people’s feet (though it would be fascinating to see who would be willing to do so!). The act of foot washing however points to character. It was unseen, uncelebrated, and completely other regarding. We are about to have weeks of candidates extolling how great they are. Jesus in contrast said, ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant […] for even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.’ (Matthew 20: 26-28) 

In certain respects, many elected politicians in the United Kingdom reflect this Christ-like attitude; they work hard for those who elected them and see their duties as public service. It is also true however that much of their service is seen and celebrated. Granted this is slightly unavoidable; to win elections you must be seen to be doing some good. What then does it look like to live out what Jesus modelled – genuine humility and submission to others? 

Fortunately, there are some clues from Scripture that are also borne out in real life. After instructing the disciples to wash each other’s feet, he tells them ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (emphasis added) The first clue then, is whether this humility is lived out in an obvious way. 

When thinking of feet-washing in my own life, I reflected on a senior director who takes the time to talk with and befriend the administrative staff; an Operations Manager who quietly washed dirty teacups at the tea point; a church leader who turned up early to set out chairs for the Sunday meeting; a school principal who helped a teacher to set up their classroom. 

There are two crucial tells for the above; the first is ‘do they show evidence of self-sacrificing service for others?’ and the second is ‘are they known for this?’ – or to put it another way, when others speak of them, do they speak about their servant-heartedness? As we think about prospective leaders, the question we therefore ask is ‘How do others speak of them?’ 

To be Christ-like, in practical terms, looks like living out the command ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ This provides our second clue, for in Luke’s gospel a religious leader tries to wriggle out of this command by asking the infamous question ‘who is my neighbour?’ – suggesting that kindness can be conditional! Jesus responds with a parable that has become popular beyond a Christian audience – the good Samaritan. 

The good Samaritan is extremely helpful when considering leaders acting in a Christ-like way. In the narrative the people you would expect to get it right (the religious teacher and the one who served in the temple) did not stop help a wounded man whereas the Samaritan, one considered hostile to the Jews, lives out the most shocking of Jesus’ teachings – to love your enemy. Much like feet washing, the mark of being Christ-like is to serve even those who hate you. Although this sacrificial care is supposed to mark out followers of Jesus, the parable of the good Samaritan shows that anyone is capable of acting in this Christ-like way. 

It is reasonable to summarise Christ-like leadership by virtue of three indicators: 

  1. To “love your neighbour” 
  1. To “love your enemy” 
  1. To serve, not be served 

These are not three indicators you are likely to see promoted or encouraged in leadership handbooks, current or historic, a reminder that Jesus and his teachings are strikingly counter-cultural. It is also not everything one should consider when choosing a Prime Minister; just as when choosing a dentist, electrician, or heart surgeon, it is good to also consider their skill to do the job. In much the same way, a person may have excellent Christ-like character, but not the talent stack required for the challenging task of leading a Parliamentary party and governing the nation. 

That said, there is a desperate need for leaders with vision and character to match the challenges we face today. Elected politicians must necessarily present themselves as public servants, which makes genuine servant-heartedness more difficult to discern. For Jesus Christ, the mark of his character was how others spoke of him, so that even the Roman soldiers who executed him recognised his astonishing and remarkable character. Jesus commanded his followers to wash feet, just as he did, because such extraordinary self-sacrificing preference of others would be so shockingly unusual, that others would not help but speak of it. 

I still have not decided how I will cast my vote. But when I do, I will be as much interested in what others say of our prospective Prime Minister, as what they say about themselves. 

i So that I do not interrupt the flow of my argument, I recognise some readers will dispute the historicity of Jesus, or that the gospels are a reliable account of his life. If either are stumbling blocks when reading this article, you may find these resources helpful for the historicity of Jesus, and these helpful for the reliability of the gospels. For those readers who agree Jesus existed and that the gospel accounts are reliable, I don’t believe you need to believe what Jesus or his followers claim about his divinity to find some utility in my subsequent thoughts. 

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