The Need for Steward Leadership in Times of Disruption

Published on 7th July 2020

In my daily life as a teacher in the Christian family, I wrestle with the question, “What are the signs of the times?” Even before COVID-19 times, I was asking, what is it that is so profoundly disrupting life as we know it? What disrupts our economic and sociological certainties, and the social practices that we have long taken for granted and accepted as axiomatic? In the light of the disruptions we are experiencing in the 21st century, what are the possibilities of thinking and acting differently?

The coronavirus crisis only intensifies the questioning. The epidemiologsts have been telling us for years that this kind of pandemic was inevitable, and they continue to warn us that there will be new pandemics in future. This means that the sense we developed in the 20th century that the world was coming under our control is illusory. We have to be ready to change the way we live – knowing we will have to adapt without knowing exactly what we will have to adapt to.

On the plus side, the disruption offers space in our understanding of leadership that allows for something new to be considered. Since we don't know what we will be called to make decisions about, my focus as a Christian spiritual leader is on the principles of how we make decisions in disruptive times – principles such as approaching crises with an open mind; on the importance of holding firm to your values, but being flexible on appropriate responses; on the need to convene and listen to experts, including those of differing opinions; and on promoting a consensus response where possible.

I also find it helpful to view our challenges as if we are interacting with our families. Is what I value at family level, congruent with what I value and practise in public? In my work and public life, do I act with the same integrity as I must with the members of my family who know me well? And families are useful at bringing you down to earth, teaching you humility and forcing you to keep your sense of humour. 

I'll never forget being sent to pray with the Hani family in Dawn Park, Boksburg, after Chris was murdered in 1993. Taking myself seriously, I hesitated over how to minister to a room full of people I assumed were communists, until the Eastern Cape veteran and Rivonia trialist, Raymond Mhlaba, broke the ice by saying, “Please pray, Mfundisi, we may be communists, but we know the Lord’s Prayer!”

Most people, whether they know anything about the Christian Bible or not, do however know and use the term “good Samaritan”. I am reminded of the indigenous healer from Alexandra township, who is said to have told a patient: “Hey, I charge real money, I am not a good Samaritan!“

After recent controversy about a public figure's use of the Bible, allegedly to question Government policy towards Israel, I must be careful to get my hermeneutics – that is, my interpretation of the Bible – correct in the public domain. But the story of the Samaritan – the stranger who in Luke's Gospel goes out of his way to help a Jewish crime victim on the side of the road, despite the distrust between the two groups – is a story that speaks of a paradigm shift born of disruption. The Samaritan's journey is disrupted by the appearance of a victim who is wounded, treated badly and dehumanised by others.

The victim stands for those whom Frantz Fanon has called the wretched of the earth – the poor, the marginalised, those who have been deprived of their means of sustainability, those who have pain of whatever kind inflicted on them by others. We know who they are, and one of the realities of this pandemic is that it has blatantly exposed in a new way the injustices which ravage our world.

The context for Steward Leadership It is not only the questioning that the COVID-19 crisis intensifies. It has of course also intensified the disruption, and enjoins us to act with new urgency as steward leaders, rooting out the injustices of the past, healing divisions by creating a non-racial country, ending inequality, improving the quality of life for all citizens, freeing the potential of every South African and through God’s blessing building a democratic country.

While disruption did not begin with the coronavirus lockdown, it has opened the lid of a pot under which a cauldron was simmering, a cauldron in which the poor could barely breathe and which had the potential to boil over and blow the lid sky-high. COVID-19 is reminding us of the constitutional value of solidarity with the poor, the unseen, the abused and the powerless.

Long lines of people waiting to vote are a phenomenon of which we are proud in our country, associated as they are with holding our leaders to account. But now the long lines are of people waiting for food parcels, a consequence of the economic lockdown and the growing number of unemployed. The poor have erupted into our sight. I want to argue that steward leadership compels us to see them as a lens through which we must view everything in our post- pandemic world. As the South American philosopher and theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, posited, the poor are right there in front of us, in a million ways which we can’t easily explain away. They are in front of us in all their woundedness, bearing the scars of what others have done to them.

The Good Samaritan as model for Steward Leadership in times of disruption 

My point is that responsible leadership, steward leadership, servant leadership, attuned leadership, transactional, transformative leadership– that to be credible, any leadership must be leadership that also responds to the poor and to the victims of the world's dominant forces. And we don't need a mandate to be leaders, the Preamble of our Constitution opens with the words, “We, the people of South Africa...”, giving us all the responsibility of realising its aspiration to improve the quality of life of all our citizens and free the potential of each person.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, institutional leaders, for reasons that seem justified to them, will not take on this task, making the story one which sits uncomfortably with those of us whose leadership is born of the world’s institutions. Those leaders gave a wide berth to human suffering, to the cries of the poor. They refused to respond to disruption and so missed the opportunity to serve, or indeed to be remembered. They were like the populist autocrats of today, whether in Poland, Hungary, Brazil or the United States, focused on the interests of the ruling elite and not those of the people. Even now as the pandemic rages across all sorts of institutions, those who benefit from the old order, the old rules and privileges, seek to take our world back in a direction that re-secures their privileges once this hour of disruption has passed.
 
In contrast, the story of the Samaritan is of a man who came from a marginalised community, from outside institutions, shunned by the power structures of the time, who moved from distant sympathetic observation, who moved from the side lines to the point of making himself vulnerable enough to engage with a victim and to bind his wounds. The story makes it clear that in times of disruption the hour dawns for new leadership to emerge, leadership from the margins, from non-hereditary leadership structures. In our times, the first priority of people of goodwill should be to be attentive to the places that are producing new leaders, to listen to them and to bolster the gift they bring to our societies.

Our time calls for the Samaritan approach. We don't have to rely only on Christian precepts to support the case for a new kind of leadership. All the major religions of the world have, as Desmond Tutu has said, a high doctrine of humanity, and among Gandhi's much-cited seven deadly sins are pleasure without conscience, wealth without work, commerce without morality and politics without principle.

Traits of Samaritan (leadership) post Covid-19

Real meaningful post COVID-19 steward leadership is going to ask for more than just people who express sympathy but who remain distant from the groans of the poor and victimised. Leadership will be good only if it moves beyond comfort zones, safe spaces, disengaged charity, and actually encounters the woundedness, touches it, is dirtied by it, feels the pain and enters it. This involves more than addressing poverty; it also means, for example, addressing the scandal of gender-based violence. We need to hear the words of the great African saint, St Augustine of Hippo, that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” This should establish our benchmark for future leaders.

Moving beyond charity inevitably means addressing the economic systems which, as the global financial crisis and the continuing fragility of the global economy have shown us, need to be re-thought for the century we live in. Some years ago, I took part in an Ecumenical School on Governance, Economics and Management in Hong Kong, where theologians and economists resolved to become advocates of a new form of global governance and a new economic model, pledging to seek practical ways to transform the market economy from a self-serving mechanism for elites to one which serves our environment and all the world's people. The need for this was stated bluntly and eloquently by Pope Francis when he said, and I quote: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or for that matter, to any problems.”

The justice that leaders need to work for includes climate justice: we have to be good stewards of the whole of creation by working to mitigate the effect of climate change, not least for the sake of the poor and marginalised. This was brought home dramatically to me last year when I made two trips to northern Mozambique after Cyclone Idai, where I saw vivid evidence of how helpless the poor and marginalised were to mitigate the deleterious effects of climate change. Again, I quote Pope Francis, this time on the link between ending poverty and working for climate justice: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,” and “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.”

I have said many times that corruption of any kind is ultimately theft from the poor. The point doesn’t need elaborating: it is as obvious as how deeply embedded fraud and misappropriation of public money has become in South Africa, where only 20% of people think that business leaders can be trusted to tell the truth and only 13% trust politicians to be honest. The restoration of honesty as both a personal and public value is one of the most crying needs of our time.

Conclusion

I have spoken mostly in the language of my faith tradition, thus essentially reflecting a private position, but my and others' faiths, even on the most superficial readings of them, also offer deep and powerful public consequences.

We have great problems. But we must make the demands of the neediest the highest priority of our nation and every part of society. The solutions are neither quick nor easy. Openness, honesty, transparency and trust are necessary to ease our difficult journey forward. In other words, only the truth can set us free.

I have posited a leadership that is sensitive to new, non-traditional, non-hereditary spaces where different kinds of leadership are emerging; a leadership to be nurtured and listened to and that does not fear proximity to woundedness and the causes of woundedness. This stated, we will be relying on the generation of post COVID-19 leaders to imagine differently, think more compassionately, act more justly and lead more honestly so that future generations will look back and acknowledge that the very fact of disruption in our world also accounted for the greatest eruption in contemporary history of leadership that is pro-poor, pro-justice and pro- a better life for all.

This moment in our history calls for such leaders. To adapt the old adage, “Cometh the hour, cometh the leaders.” May it be so.  

By The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba,
Archbishop of Cape Town


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