7 min read

Leaders wanted for these testing times

We need leadership that is famous for fifteen miles not fifteen minutes.

Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer, coach and walking guide. She's a former district councillor and has a background in international development.

A deflated looking woman stands aside from a protest rally, holding a small doll of herself that reads Recall Knope'.
Local leadership: Leslie Knope serving Pawnee, Indiana.

We are in a year of elections – locally, nationally, and in the US, and I have been wondering whether it’s true that we get the leaders we deserve, whether political leadership has always felt this way – this detached, divisive, even dangerous? More about ambition than integrity, about individuals more than our common life? Where might we find leaders that can take us into an increasingly hard to navigate, uncertain world?  

I find myself thinking back to local leadership and difficult conversations I was involved in as a district councillor. These were often conversations about priorities, and money – mainly, the fact that there wasn’t enough of it, and what there was continued to be pared back and back until only the absolute essentials were covered. Many council tax bills have recently gone up, usually with an explanation of the reason for the rise. Local authorities in Scotland recently voted for a council tax freeze but only after the promise of funding from the Scottish government to make up the shortfall. During my time on the council, we would write letter after letter to government ministers seeking clarity about grants or cuts. When extra funding was announced we were pitted against other councils to bid for meagre pots of money, taking time away from officers who were already stretched too thin. Each councillor, each officer, each member of the community we served had their own idea about how to approach budgeting and spending. Sometimes those ideas aligned, but often they did not. Councils are in an impossible situation.  

And yet decisions made at this level impact us all. National leaders might set the direction, but local leaders steward and implement and envision and listen – they are close to the people they serve, their decisions impact us all day-to-day: councils are responsible for things like children’s services, highways, housing people, parks and pools, and lots more

The people who have played the biggest role in my life have been the people that made me feel valued, seen, heard, capable. 

Conversations about how to fund local authorities are difficult at any time, but especially so now, with crises coming from every angle – cost of living, climate change, ongoing post-covid recovery, austerity, and so on. To be a leader now – nationally yes, but especially locally, means making sure that essential services keep functioning despite lack of funding or clarity from government, and whilst also tackling climate change and all the other pieces of our fragmenting world. To be a leader now who shows vision and humanity and care despite the seemingly cynical and hurting spirit of the age – is, I think, a test of the meaning of leadership. This test of leadership doesn’t just face local and national government though. It faces all of us right now as we contemplate an unknowable future.  

Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that “our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be”, and we are all capable of helping others be what they can be – whether a neighbour, a colleague, a community, a team, an organisation, others we come into contact with; we can all lead. Author, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The people who have played the biggest role in my life have been the people that made me feel valued, seen, heard, capable. They have seen who I am, and who I could be, and they walk with me as I move in that direction. I think the best leaders do this too.  

It is not glamourous, but, like a lighthouse that shines by just staying where it is, it calls people, lights the way, watches, serves, guides. 

In contrast, the worst leaders seem to cling to traditional ideas of power, to control more than setting people free, to achieving their goals through any means necessary. I think of authoritarian regimes that rig elections and limit freedoms, and corporations that pursue profit at the expense of employees and the environment, and political campaigns that prioritise controlling the narrative over informing people. These embody warped leadership traits. And these warped ideas of leadership are given airtime, they fuel our news and our social media feeds and our anxiety. They make us angry, but they can also disempower us and close off the possibility that there is another kind of leadership, one more aligned with the Old English root of the word ‘leader’, meaning ‘one who guides and brings forth’. There are, though, places we can look that point to that other kind of leadership – to something more beautiful.  

One place is my own doorstep. Here, there are people that see a need and organise people to fill it – whether hunger, loneliness, lovelessness, this is a kind of roll-up-your-sleeves leadership, the kind that is famous for fifteen miles not fifteen minutes. It is not glamourous, but, like a lighthouse that shines by just staying where it is, it calls people, lights the way, watches, serves, guides. 

I try to hold on to the fact that we do not need to wait for national elections to call forth the kind of leaders we want. 

Another place is the gospel, where again and again Jesus turned traditional ideas of leadership upside down. He taught that it must serve, not be served; that it can be great through humility not self-importance. He criticised religious leaders for seeking prestige and personal gain. And Jesus did not just teach this stuff, he lived it – he washed the feet of his disciples, he empowered them rather than wielded authority over them. He lived as a shepherd that leads and tends his flock with his love. He laid down his life for his friends, for all of us. And this I think is where leadership starts to look a lot like love. Jesus showed how true leadership that transforms individuals and communities, that heals division and brings people together, is led and motivated by love, not power. He taught that leadership without love is hollow and even harmful. He showed that leadership, and the love that fuels it, guides and inspires and cares for people. We need these kinds of leaders now more than ever. My own experience tells me that hard conversations become easier to navigate when care, humility, and listening are present.  

In the UK, many of us are trying to get the measure of Rishi Sunak and Kier Starmer. An Ipsos poll in February explored how the public view these and other political leaders – a significant number were unclear about what they both stood for, but Starmer was ahead of Sunak in various leadership traits including experience, capability, strength. I want to know what other traits we’re seeking and demanding of our leaders nationally, locally and in ourselves. On the council I served on, I saw elected councillors asleep in meetings, ill-prepared, voted in because people did not think their vote or questions or care made a difference. On some level at least we do get the leaders we deserve – those we are prepared to be curious about, and call out, or encourage, or demand more of; more than just the ability to stay awake during meetings, more than just capability and strength, but also aliveness, care, compassion, humility, love.  

We need to demand more of our national leaders, especially now. But I try to hold on to the fact that we do not need to wait for national elections to call forth the kind of leaders we want. We can call them forth in ourselves, in each other, in our communities – these are the leaders that impact us closely, every day. I think of some of the best leaders I have known: theirs was a leadership of passion more than position, invested in people more than prestige, offering both humility and vision – a combination that feels hard to find in our current political landscape. They call to mind what writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, that: “if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Good leaders will help us see and navigate this endless ocean, these present storms – cost of living, conflict, division, ecological and economic unravelling. They remind us, like the gospel does, that the ship is a means to an end – one of new horizons, of togetherness, of love for this beautiful wide world. 

10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.