Today I rode in a cab past the Palace of Westminster just as Tony Blair was closing his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, and bidding farewell to ten years as premier of Britain.
A few minutes earlier we had passed Buckingham Palace, where news crews were already setting up to cover the arrival of Mr. Blair for his final audience with the Queen; just before Gordon Brown would arrive to be asked to head the government.
The British media have been talking about this day for a long while. Of course, as you’d expect in a vibrant democracy, many people have been hoping for an end to the Blair era for years. Despite the misgivings of many, though, he had still managed to win three terms in government, a feat never before achieved by a Labour leader.
Later in the day, I arrived in Paris, where the French have recently seen a change of personnel at the top, with President Sarokozy commencing his term in office.
As these leadership changes take place, I’m reminded that leadership at any level is a temporary thing; that leaders have only so much time in which they can bring change.
With all these changes, I find myself reflecting on what makes a good leader.
It may involve many practical tasks, but the essence of really effective leadership is the ability to re-shape cultures: be it in business, politics, community service or the church. Leadership is largely about realigning people’s collective sense of what is good and right, so that they behave in more constructive and mutually beneficial ways.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that leadership is about doing what pleases most of the people most of the time. Often, the effort to realign a culture in the long-term will mean painful and unpopular decisions in the short-term.
If, during a person’s tenure at the top of any organisation, he or she can say, ‘I’ve changed for the better the collective culture; I’ve moved it forward in a righteous direction’, then they’ve succeeded as a leader.
I believe there are ten important facts relating to cultures within any organisation or people group.
I wrote about them in The Church of 2020, relating them to churches in particular; but they apply equally in business, politics and community service.
Each one has a direct bearing on the success or failure of leadership. Here they are:
- The group that has the strongest culture will become the leading voice in a society. Why do small lobby groups often exercise a level of influence in society that is way out of proportion to their size? Because they have developed a strong sense of identity and purpose based around their values and culture.
- Whoever defines the culture rules the group. If someone other than the leader is shaping the culture, cues for the group will be coming from all the wrong places.
- The strongest convictions will shape the culture. Leaders must have deeply felt convictions and proven values which are born out of personal revelation and practical experience.
- Cultures tend to attract people of their own kind. If leaders want people of character, purpose, vision and excellence in their teams, and in the wider organisation or community, they need to create a culture where these things are promoted and celebrated. A negative culture will always produce small-minded, non-creative, risk-averse people.
- Cultures must be maintained. Having set the culture – which can take two to three years in a new church or organisation – a leader must work to keep it alive. Leaders maintain the momentum by exposing their teams to like-minded, successful people from outside your organisation.
- People, left to their own devices, will often return to their old cultures. Leaders must provide incentives and demonstrate results so that people will not give in to the pressures of entropy.
- Culture brings people together around common ideals, not just common tasks. A strong culture can never be built around simply performing a task or meeting a goal. It must go deeper than that, to fulfil a common cause and meet a shared aspiration within people’s hearts.
- The mix of weak organisation/strong culture can grow. The mix of weak culture/strong organisation won’t survive! In a church, for example, even if there are relatively ‘weak’ services one Sunday, it may still grow if the culture is strong.
- Healthy culture builds access ramps not stairways to heaven. Good leaders know how to make access it easier for people from outside to their group to gain access, or to sample the resources on offer – without compromising their integrity in a vain attempt to become ‘all things to all men.’
- Culture is a good servant and a poor master. Culture becomes a problem only when people – and especially leaders – forget that they have one; when they expect everyone outside to automatically understand why they behave and believe as they do.
As I drove past Westminster today, listening to the applause of politicians for a man departing the stage of national leadership, I thought through these ten facts again and started to evaluate where I can improve as a leader.
How Tony Blair has fared with his leadership will, I suppose, be a matter for history to decide. I’m sure that, given some distance in time, his highs and lows will even out to some degree.
For those of us in leadership at a lesser level, whether in business, politics, community work or church life, we might take this opportunity to evaluate our own work – and seek to serve with ever greater diligence, creating cultures of compassion, hope and faith.