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Where’d all the good leaders go?

Where’d all the good leaders go?

With elections looming, Madeleine Pennington examines the Western vision of leadership. Can leaders go beyond individuality and be part of a wider story? 03/07/2024

They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, it certainly must feel like it for many of the West’s most prominent political leaders this week – whether it’s Rishi Sunak (presumably) waiting to find out the scale of his defeat on Thursday, Keir Starmer preparing to enter Number 10, Emmanuel Macron facing the National Rally’s robust lead in the first round of French elections, or (perhaps most excruciating of all) Joe Biden trying to persuade even his own party that he still has the capacity to lead them to victory in November. 

In the case of Biden especially, the pressure he’s under is difficult for most of us to imagine. Americans themselves might be forgiven for focusing on the domestic picture, when both sides of the political divide frame November’s election as the last opportunity to save American democracy itself. But the President of the United States is still called (albeit perhaps with increasing irony) the Leader of the Free World. Who they are matters not just for Americans, but for everybody. This is not just another vote: it is a fight for the soul of a country, and one which will potentially reshape the entire geopolitical landscape far beyond the USA. 

As the world becomes increasingly unstable, good leadership matters more than ever – yet far too often, it feels like our politics is defined more by the lack of it. Bets placed on political outcomes. Posturing over who’d win a round of golf. Deliberate misdirection in political campaigning. And quite apart from how vibrantly (or not) the 46th President performed in a TV debate last Friday, a convicted felon as his opponent. 

But perhaps we’re also placing too much faith in individuals when we think about what good leadership looks like. Ultimately, it’s not one 81–year–old’s responsibility to ‘save’ a whole democracy, and if a country has arrived 5 months before its most important election (and after the formal democratic process to select the presidential candidates) only to decide that the choice before it is untenable, the blame must be cast more widely than one man or his inner circle. In a population of 333 million, why is that choice so narrow? Where are the next generation of candidates? And if they are not yet deemed strong enough for the political fight, how has the pool of leadership become so depleted? 

Part of the problem is an excessive – almost mythic – focus on personality in our political discourse. From that stems the comforting idea that one limited and fallible person might be capable of solving all our problems – and God help them at the ballot box when they can’t. Against this backdrop, realistically, how easy would it have been at any point (or is it now) for Biden to accept his own depleting energies and step aside?  

This is a systemic issue, and not just in America. Less dramatically, I was struck by our own party leaders’ answers to one (particularly undignified) question in the final BBC leader’s debate last week: “Are you two really the best we’ve got?” Both Sunak and Starmer launched into passionate defences of their own record, and neither mentioned the teams around them. They could have done; we don’t live under a presidential system, and in a healthy democracy a Prime Minister should be surrounded by other talented colleagues of whom they are proud. Yet time and again, the political choice is presented in terms of personalities rather than programmes. Leaders are forced to stand as icons. The same is reflected in criticism of Starmer for his intention to ringfence Friday evenings as family time (albeit subject to urgent business). Starmer’s wife and children are Jewish, and he has spoken before about the importance of their family Shabbat dinners. Nonetheless, the suggestion was quickly framed as unseriousness (“You deserve better than a part–time Prime Minister”), as if sole and unrelenting focus on the job, to the exclusion of all else, is the only acceptable level of commitment. After all, how will the country still function on a Friday night if The Leader is seeing his children?   

We need to think differently about political leadership – not in terms of heroic personalities, but as the broad responsibility of many people, institutions, and processes. Yes, a leader brings vision, clarity, and coordination – but they can’t do everything, and certainly can’t do it forever. Nor should they try.  

To draw an analogy with a very different kind of leader – though as it happens, one also tasked with the deliverance of a nation from existential threat – the prophet Moses is usually remembered today as the man uniquely charged with leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Yet by God’s own demand, Moses himself never entered the Promised Land. Instead, he died on the edge of the breakthrough moment; it was then that Joshua took the task forward and guided the Israelites to their new home. Certainly, Moses was extremely important – indeed, he had a God–given role – but he was not required to take forward all parts of God’s plan alone. Rather (and in fact, directly because of his own failings) he had to come to terms with his place in a far wider whole: a vision of true deliverance stretching not only over years, but generations and even millennia.  

In fact, this is a model of leadership we see throughout the Bible. Most individuals are chosen for particular tasks; many of the most significant biblical characters are important for the gifts they recognise in others rather than themselves; only a few take on a lifelong role that never changes. Perhaps for this reason, biblical leaders often struggled to embrace their role in a bigger picture. Moses himself questioned his calling at first. The prophet Jonah famously had to be swallowed by a whale (and spat up again) before he was ready to lead as God intended. 

What would politics look like if we had more of this kind of leader? How different might our common life feel if those in charge saw themselves less as the main event, and more as humble servants in a wider story? 

It would surely foster a more sustainable politics, with deeper pools of talent and experience across the political spectrum. It would be more resilient to cope with the dizzying complexity of many of the decisions our leaders are required to make. More importantly, it would encourage a longer imagination than short–term election cycles currently incentivise. So many of the challenges facing us today – most of all, the climate crisis – demand that we think long–term, placing the interests even of citizens yet unborn ahead of our own. And yet here we are. The challenges we face demand a kind of politics we don’t yet have. 

So if a week really is a long time in politics, it shouldn’t be. I hope for the sake of all our leaders (and all of us who are led by them) that after the dust has settled on the drama of long–awaited elections, there is space to reflect on the kind of politics that got us here in the first place, and how it can be improved for the future. 

On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

The fifth briefing paper: What do the religious think about key election issues? which breaks down how religious people in Britain feel about the most important issues facing the UK.

The sixth briefing paper: National Identity and Scottish Independence explores what religious people think about national identity.

The seventh briefing paper: Where do the religious stand on climate change? assesses attitudes to the environment by religious affiliation and practice.

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?

 Image by RandomUserGuy1738 on Wikimedia Commons

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 3 July 2024

Politics, Religion Counts


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