The Characteristics of a Leader: Early America and Ancient Rome

Leadership is in the moment. Building the momentum and trust of a followership depends on everything else going on in the lives of followers. It is influenced by the culture around them. The leader’s characteristics must fit local expectations of leaders, but exceptional leaders rewrite these expectations.


I’m moving to Boston next month and in preparation I have been learning about the American Revolution. George Washington was a leader for his time, but he changed the rules of leadership.


The natural attributes of a good leader came easily to Washington. He was tall and a gifted horseman. He affected a mysterious air and boasted that “his countenance had never yet betrayed his emotions”. In many ways Washington behaved like a king, making him somebody who could fill the King-shaped hole in the American heart after the Revolution.


The standards of 18th Century leadership were no barrier to Washington’s ability to lead the Continental Army.


But his ability to lead the American people after the war derived from his visible willingness to let go of power. After the war ended Washington was the general of a victorious army, indeed the only army on the continent. It seemed to many observers that he would inevitably install himself as leader. Instead, he stepped down as general and returned to his home in Virginia. This ability to control himself when absolute power was seemingly within his grasp was what Washington was most famous for during his lifetime. Ultimately the willingness to give up power and allow due process to take its course was the characteristic that the Americans needed to see in a potential president. 


The way charisma and leadership characteristics influence the distribution of power depends on the context. I recently visited a medium sized Baptist church in central Falkirk, a (post)-industrial area in what used to be Stirlingshire. The pastor preached on 1 Timothy chapter 3, a passage ostensibly about leadership, but often quoted by advocates of male-only church leadership.


The author (who seems to be using St Paul’s name as a pseudonym) highlights some characteristics of leaders.


“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”


These lines carves out a leadership style fitting the social structures of the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries.


Managing the family the wider community based at the house effectively would be a key marker of respectability. Hospitality, too, would mark out a well-run household.


But the author of this passage supersedes the traditional duties of the household leader. Practically, pedagogical talent would be more important within a movement based on a shared theology. Gentleness would also represent a countercultural ideal in an empire built on male physical power. The idea of faithfulness to a wife even challenged the state religion: prostitution is likely to have been part of the dominant religion, for example at the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth.


But the pastor argued that this passage should be interpreted as faithfulness to a wife or a husband. He showed that the assumption that men would be church leaders was a cultural artefact of a time and place where women lacked education: it simply doesn’t stand up in the modern world. He explained that his church would henceforth include women at all levels of leadership.


In doing so, the pastor demonstrated his own leadership characteristics.


He was compassionate towards people who could be upset by this message and towards those who had been hurt before by hardliners. He was clear about the message and gave the congregation a clear reason for the change. I was struck by the bravery of taking to the pulpit to challenge centuries of church teaching and say, for the first time at Falkirk Baptist Church, that the realities of the modern world rendered this interpretation inappropriate.


Over Sunday lunch I reflected on my ongoing project incorporating the meaningful involvement of patients by experience into the running of the social media at a medical journal. Performing leadership that accords with contemporary expectations is a good place to start; this might mean extraversion and creative networking. But at a time where some people have moral objections to ostentatious leadership by people of my sex and skin colour, leadership for my time means allowing other people to do the talking. This might mean that the most radical option for servant leadership now is the effective management of editorial platforms to amplify quiet voices.


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