In 2013, Trinity College Bristol were looking for a new Principal, and for some reason several people drew this to my attention. So I looked at the ad, and this is what I found they were looking for:
- a person of integrity, humility and wisdom
- a leader of leaders, who thrives on the sharing and multiplying of leadership
- likely to be a gifted speaker and teacher with a recognised public ministry
- a team player, who is confident and able to lead amidst the complexity of academic structures
- a theologian and practitioner, able to engage in theological debate
- a person of informed evangelical faith with confidence in the Scriptures
- able to relate to and support charismatic spirituality
- passionate for God’s mission to society
- a networked Anglican who can command respect amongst the wider Church
- in touch with the culture of younger emerging Christian leaders
In many ways this is an exciting and challenging profile, though it is not untypical of other recent ads for similar posts. If I showed you the list, and asked you which college this was for, I suspect you could not narrow it down to fewer than five or six.
But two things struck me about it. Firstly, it is asking for a very wide mix of qualities, characteristics and experience. But more significant than that, a number of the qualities are pretty much diametrically opposed. A strong, dynamic leader…but a team player. Someone who is well embedded in the networks in the C of E…but who is also in touch with yoof. Someone who is an academic…but is also engaged in pastoral ministry. When I put this to someone close to the process, the person replied:
Ah, the multi-coloured magical unicorn brief.
This is what all colleges look for in a new principal!
When I worked at St John’s, I used to enjoy walking past the portrait of T W Gilbert who was principal of the college between the First and Second World War. In the portrait Gilbert looks serious, though friendly. Under the picture is a pen portrait of what he achieved during his term of office, and it includes this:
He implemented regular chapel services at 7.30 am and 9 pm (with the exception of Thursdays when evening prayer was said at 5.30 pm), tightened college discipline, and installed electric lighting.
I loved that as a statement of the range of responsibilities: liturgy; pastoral care; and electric lighting! But in those days, that was possible. Nowadays the world is a lot more complex, so this stretching across all the variety of roles is hardly feasible. To lead an institution now it seems that you need to be sensitive pastor, fearless pioneer, profound theologian, experienced minister, efficient administrator and visionary financier. Look around you carefully: such a person does not exist!
This sense of over-specification can be found in other leadership positions in the Church. I understand that the specification to be a bishop now includes a long list of boxes to be ticked. Why does this arise? In part it comes from a sense of institutional anxiety. Dioceses are facing serious financial challenges, and although a number have turned a corner in terms of church attendance, nationally the Church still faces serious numerical decline. The obvious way to address this is to appoint an omni-competent leader. But within that there is also a strong sense of risk aversion. Think of all the things that could go wrong under new leadership! How can we avoid this? By appointing someone who could avert every kind of disaster. This is why, in committees, it is very difficult to agree on a smaller number of essential attributes that are really needed. I recently heard of a post where the agreed list ran to 78 bullet points—seriously! The really odd thing here is that, compared with secular roles that many hold in the congregation I am in, these are not ‘big’ jobs in terms of personnel or financial responsibility. Are we succumbing to the contemporary fondness for celebrity leadership? The right person can make a huge difference, but we seem to be putting too much faith in the individual—though of course the person must be collaborative, which in practice seems to mean being able to do everything themselves, but without offending anyone!
I think this leads to two dangers in such processes. Either you cannot find someone who fulfils the brief. This happened the last time Wycliffe Hall tried to appoint a principal, and the previous time wasn’t much better—I understand that the final shortlist was only two, and the outcome was in the end less than happy. But the other danger is that you appoint someone who can do a bit of all of these things, but none of them well. In a context where we need leaders to make bold decisions, to innovate and to take risks, this doesn’t sound like a good appointment strategy.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this tendency is to note a historic contrast. Great leaders of the past have not been able to do all the different things that are demanded of contemporary leadership. Instead, they have been highly gifted in one or two areas, but the best have been sufficiently self aware that they know what they are not good at, and so have built a supportive team around them who has filled in for the weaknesses. The best of leaders are those who have not only known growth and flourishing, but who have also known pruning, so that the canopy of their leadership allows in light for others to grow and flourish, rather than leave those around them in the shade.
I continue to believe that excellence in theological education is of vital importance, so I am glad that Trinity appear to have found the right person for this. But any institution will, in the end, need to settle on someone who can do only some of these things listed, but who has the awareness to build a great team around them to work with.
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