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Leadership issues

Published on April 3rd, 2013 | by Jonathan Gifford

Archbishop Welby is wrong about leadership

In his Easter sermon, Archbishop Welby warned against the ‘hero leader culture’ and told his congregation that they should not trust in frail and fallible human leaders, for fear of disappointment.  The Archbishop is dangerously misguided about the function of leadership.


‘No quick easy and gratifying solutions.’ So what’s new?

We must not expect ‘quick, easy and gratifying solutions to even the most intractable solutions’, said Welby. Have you ever heard a leader of any stature offer ‘quick easy and gratifying solutions to even the most intractable solutions’?

Leaders (or systems or organisations) ‘will to some degree fail’, Welby said. Of course they will. Does that mean that they should not try to find solutions to our problems?

Welby seems to be saying this: ‘Don’t expect me, as some sort of hero leader, or the church as an institution, to be able to solve the difficult problems that the church faces.’ He makes an allusion to a couple of interesting problems that the church does, in fact, face: female bishops and same-sex marriage.  You know, those problems; the elephants in the pulpit.

Leaders are not, and never have been, meant to offer quick, easy and gratifying solutions. Great leaders do not, in fact, offer solutions at all. They offer a vision: they tell us about the place or, more accurately, a way of being, that we might be able to get to; a way of being that we recognise as good and desirable. Then we – not the leader – try our hardest to work with the leader to get to that place. Nobody ever said that the leader can on this on their own; of course they can’t. Nor can they give us the exact route to get to our destination. We have to work that out for ourselves, almost certainly finding some unexpected solutions along the way that no one had predicted or even thought of.

There are plenty of examples  from great leaders as to how this works; here’s one. Nelson Mandela told black and white citizens of a new, fully democratic Republic of South Africa that they should put the past behind them and work towards creating a new and better South Africa. The citizens of South Africa  are still trying to do that, even though Mandela is now frail and even though they themselves suffer from human weaknesses. It’s the vision that matters, not the frailties and the weaknesses.

Archbishop Welby urgently needs to proclaim his vision for the Church. Where, in a meaningful but general sense, does he want the church to be by the time he steps down? What are his goals? What is his vision?

No-one expects him to resolve the  profound differences that exist between different members of the church. Those personal differences may never be resolved. But Welby must tell the church what it is working towards.

If Welby does not provide real leadership, and soon, by setting out his vision, then his church will have no direction. What happens to any organisation without a vision is that it starts to fall apart. Little factions emerge and – because there is a titular leader but no strong leadership – they cause massive but not quite fatal damage, like successful viruses and parasites.

A church that does not know in which direction it is heading is a rudderless ship.  That’s what leadership is for – to steer the ship.


I took part in short debate on yesterday’s Today programme about the archbishop’s sermon, which you can hear here. It’s the last item in the programme, at 2’53’’30’’’






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About the Author

I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history. Please do leave a comment if anything occurs. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter, highlighting some recent blogs. I live in Oxfordshire, England.

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