Wanted (urgently): Leaders

by Anthony Egan SJ

It’s the advertisement in the newspapers we don’t see. Amidst all the trivia and sometimes rubbish that is being advertised it is what we most need. We see the opposite of leadership everywhere – in government, education, organised religion, business and civil society.

What kind of leaders do we need? What characteristics do they need?

First, honest leaders. Honesty seems to be a virtue in short supply at the moment. We seem to take it for granted that behind every utterance and action of leaders there is a hidden agenda, sometimes a deliberate attempt to deceive the public. In some cases this is combined with the sense that leaders are entitled to get rich and accumulate personal power for themselves and their cronies.

Second, intelligent leaders. Intelligence in its various forms – mental, emotional, cultural and spiritual – seem to be in short supply. I am not advocating rule exclusively by philosopher-kings or pipe-smoking intellectuals drinking tea in ivory towers. The intelligence I seek is practical. It starts with knowledge, certainly, of the complex, uncertain and rapidly changing context in which we live. Information, and the ability to systematically analyse and process it, is crucial. But above all it means being able to sift through all the nonsense to get to an approximation of truth.

Beyond that it means drawing on inner resources – emotional resilience, moral character, a sense of the transcendent (including the long view of a problem,  cultural sensitivity and the recognition that culture itself is a fluid, ever-reconstructing concept) – to apply insights.

Third, innovative leaders. We live in an age where old certainties are being tested, where all classic ideologies are up for grabs. As knowledge increases in every field, the picture that emerges is one of uncertainty. This is not an invitation to relativism, an attitude that anything goes or the lame excuse that it’s all a matter of ‘culture’. As a character in the classic TV series The X Files liked to claim, the truth is out there but it is complex. Truths are often the best available answers to the best available data we have. Effective leadership must innovate, draw on best available knowledge and practices and put together the best available solution (however provisional), or be found wanting.

Finally, spiritual leaders. By this I do not mean piety or dogmatism, but a readiness to see the holy in the complex, the world itself as a mystery slowly unfolding, and to find inner peace in its midst. This inner peace must find stability in a world of clashing views, uncertain truth claims, by exercising a basic trust – often a leap of faith – that we live in a world constantly evolving towards something greater than ourselves. Life is messy, but we do our best, knowing we are not masters but stewards of its process.

Some ‘leaders’ who read this may take offence at what I have said, particularly those who assume they either have the answers or have some kind of natural right to lead.

They need not reply to this advertisement.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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