THE NEW LANDSCAPE OF LEADERSHIP
An ability to see what others cannot see and the skill to deal with it is the unenviable person spec for today's public leaders
It feels like the story of the two women who claimed maternity over the one child in front of King Solomon (1 Kings 3: 16 – 28) should belong to a particularly bad freak show of Jeremy Kyle, with a split screen between the warring mothers, a whooping audience in the background and an information bar at the bottom stating ‘he’s my baby son!’ for anyone tuning in late.
Solomon’s conflict resolution, in the absence of the rather simple modern recourse of DNA tests, involves the threat of chopping the baby in two – a pretty drastic solution which nevertheless produced the desired result. Many are perplexed at the apparent cruelty of his answer – and how one of the women was prepared to let it happen – but perhaps we need more imagination. People’s momentary expressions often reveal their deepest feelings and while the natural mother was instantly horrified, the other woman probably wasn’t assured enough an actor to improvise the same maternal terror. Problem solved.
The wisdom of Solomon is axiomatic and this story is often cited to prove it. On his accession to the throne, Solomon had been approached by God in a dream, who promised to give him any one thing he wanted as he assumed office. Rather than ask for long life, wealth or the death of his enemies – the wish list of the world’s tyrants from the dawn of history to the present – Solomon sees his prior responsibility to care for the people and asks for wisdom.
It was a telling choice. Solomon was faced with a monumental task: to fill the boots of his father David, a larger than life character whose rule would be known as the greatest in Israel’s history. When we are faced with a job where the general consensus is that we will succeed someone but not replace them, it is a good idea not to be distracted by their particular strengths or to try and mimic them. In a way, Solomon was defining himself against David, whose rule was marked by several profound mistakes, one of which was the existence of Solomon himself.
Wisdom is a gift we should actively seek from God. It is not constrained by human status: God does not withhold it from anyone who asks in faith. Yet there is no doubt some need it more than others. Anyone who has assumed public office, with a measure of care for others, knows how challenging leadership proves. Sometimes there are no precedents to cling to in making a decision; frequently the information is incomplete or mediated by those who have a stake in the answer. Occasionally there is no time in which to reflect on a case and people must make their best guess and hope they don’t have to justify it one day.
Modern political leadership is especially fraught. In a democracy, leaders must know where the balance lies between doing what they think a majority of people might want them to do and stepping forward to offer the kind of leadership which others might resent because it is not in their immediate interests. A maternity case was brought to the king to adjudicate in ancient Israel; today the range of issues on which some people must deliberate and the amount of information they have with which to do this is vastly more complex and interwoven. There are multiple possible outcomes and it is often not clear which, if any, may unfold. In a globalised world, the ways in which people interact to produce such outcomes are so dense and random as to make decision-making routinely a case of the best guess. And yet we do not act as if this were the case.
Part of the infancy of democracy is the sullen trust which is invested in public leaders. They are expected to make all things well, but it is not possible to do this and so resentment builds against those who wield authority. The story of Solomon shows this need not be a counsel of despair. In 1 Timothy 2: 1-2 it says that prayers and intercessions should be made for those who are in high positions because God has resources to dispose of which, like Solomon, we can only dream of. The landscape has altered beyond recognition since this was written.
The kind of wisdom public leaders need now is almost prophetic: an ability to see what others cannot see and the skill to deal with it. This is unenviable terrain which sleep-deprived, over-stimulated public leaders must inhabit. It is time to re-imagine the story of Solomon for our generation.
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