Endurance, Character and Vision: Core Leadership Qualities and The Case of Theresa May

Scripture emphasises the need for endurance and character (Rom 5:3-4) and Theresa May has those qualities in spades. It also stresses the need for vision (Prov 29:18), which she manifests far less, if at all. Both are key dimensions of leadership in general and ideally you’d want both, yet most specific individual leaders in fact exhibit one over the other, and the extent to which that’s a boon or a problem typically depends on the circumstances at hand.

John F. Kennedy was a visionary par excellence, but didn’t actually get much through Congress before his assassination, and had undoubted flaws of character. The elder George Bush – just deceased – famously said he didn’t do or get ‘the vision thing’, yet he was clearly a man of significant character and dedication who did much to help usher in the post-Communist world order. Bill Clinton actually often quoted Prov 29:18 in his campaign for President, and was certainly a visionary, but fell down on character. Obama had vision galore and character to admire greatly, yet was legislatively stymied for six of his eight years in office, partly because he thought vision and character would see him through, when the boring, endurance-based stuff of day-to-day politics – getting folk on side, winning floor votes etc. – was less a feature of his leadership than, say, of Lyndon Johnson’s, who got masses done re: civil rights, despite the blind alley of Vietnam – and was a pretty coarse and unpleasant man in various ways.

Margaret Thatcher had vision and grit, but many would say they were misplaced, and that in terms of character she didn’t seem to care enough for vast swaths of the country. At a greater extreme, one could say that Trump has plenty of vision, but of a decidedly sinister sort, and that its sinister aspects are only reinforced by his deeply problematic character. Indeed, looking further rightwards, Mussolini had lots of vision, as did Hitler – but that vision was a nightmare vision. On the left, vision was likewise abundant in Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, but millions paid for such vision with their lives.

So vision in and of itself doesn’t cut it; ethical coherence and integrity are also required, along with perseverance and dedication. May is displaying bucket-loads of perseverance and dedication in the current complex and almost intractable context of Brexit, and despite her tactical about-face on the Meaningful Vote, she’s exhibiting quite remarkable perseverance and fortitude. It’s true, as one of her colleagues said yesterday, that ‘resilience is not a policy’, but the policy in this case has largely been determined by the British people in the 2016 referendum, and by what the EU 27 will accept, as well as by what she and countless expert, diligent, unsung civil servants have been able to broker over the past two and a half years.

Maybe Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg have more ‘vision’ for Brexit, but as above, vision alone can be insufficient, meretricious, and even misleading. Jeremy Corbyn has a vision for Socialism in One Country beyond Brexit, but is deeply – and wilfully – opaque on the mechanics of Brexit itself, which, for me, lacks a degree of integrity, and character.

Personally, I think that May is playing the hand she’s been dealt pretty admirably, and that she deserved the (albeit qualified) vote of confidence she got from her MPs last night. Do I wish she had more vision for what her deal will deliver in the medium-long term? Yes. Do I wish she wasn’t so deeply robotic and uncharismatic? Yes. But if ever there was a time for substance over style, deliverability over rhetoric, that time is surely now, and I’m genuinely struggling to think of who might do a better job AND have any better chance of carrying Parliament and the country through the coming months.

We live in a fallen world – a world in which the visionary, charismatic Macron and the dogged, unspectacular but historically effective Merkel alike are now crisis-ridden elsewhere on the European stage. It seems that vision, character and endurance are rarely – if ever – in perfect balance in any leader, and that for now at least, with all her deficit of vision, May’s character and endurance could be more the sort of thing that’s needed. And it might just be worth noting that Rom 5:3-4 goes on to say that endurance and character can ultimately, eventually foster hope…

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