Throughout the Gospels, one of the marks of Jesus’ leadership style is to deflect all credit from himself. He comes proclaiming not himself but God and God’s reign. He teaches in the manner of a Jewish rabbi, drawing upon the religious tradition and giving his interpretation of it. And like any truly great teacher, Jesus does not expect of his disciples blind obedience but rather a critical appropriation and even extension of his teaching in their lives.
We might say that Jesus empowers his followers. This empowerment, however, has nothing to do with self-empowerment, but its aim is that they – and we – empower others in turn. Knowledge, insight, wealth, political influence, all forms of empowerment in fact, are useless unless they are passed on to others. Not doing this is not only selfish and a waste, but a sin. It is a sin against love, against the very point of empowerment, and it is also dangerous.
It is dangerous and sinful because it not only makes one too powerful and filled with the unhealthy spirit of pride and self-importance, but is disempowering of others, creating in them a sense of dependence and a culture of patronage in society. It creates a ‘Master-Servant’ mentality. In a society where great gaps exist between rich and poor, it breeds corruption at every level.
A common feature of many countries that have low levels of corruption is an absence of such a mentality. If we consider states like Denmark, Sweden or New Zealand, they have a narrow gap between rich and poor and an absence of a culture of patronage. Beyond more equal opportunities, there is a culture of respect that transcends the gaps between leaders and led. Politicians generally do not treat citizens as ‘vote fodder’ but see themselves as public servants, genuinely interested in their constituents and ready to listen to them. (Those who don’t, find they have very short careers in politics).
One of the many things we can say about the leadership style of Nelson Mandela is that, though he could be abrupt and even fairly authoritarian at times, he seemed genuinely interested in ordinary people and truly desired their empowerment. Many recall how, when he spoke with them, it was as if they were the very centre of his attention, no matter their political affiliations, age, race, gender or social position. The story is told how in a telephone conversation he addressed Britain’s Queen as ‘Elizabeth’ not out of a deliberate attempt to violate protocol, but ‘because’ he replied, ‘she calls me Nelson’. In his public speeches he frequently deflected his considerable achievements to others, emphasizing always that governance was a collective effort. He initiated a much greater transparency in policy making, inviting ordinary citizens to comment on proposed new laws, a practice that continues (even if most citizens don’t avail themselves of the opportunity). He was, in short, a generous leader.
How many of us, I wonder, continue to trap ourselves in a patronage culture? How many of us will consider whether candidates are empowering or disempowering us when we go out to vote this year?