Steven Croft: Humility is an essential quality for a good leader

The Queen hands out Maundy money at York Minster in 2012. Picture by Simon Hulme
The Queen hands out Maundy money at York Minster in 2012. Picture by Simon Hulme
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THE General Election campaign opened on Monday. For the next few weeks every news bulletin will focus on questions of leadership. We will compare and contrast those who are seeking to represent us in Parliament, those who want to form a government, those who want to be Prime Minister.

Tonight on ITV, seven party leaders will tell us their vision for Britain. They will also tell us something about themselves. It’s a vital moment in our national life. But what does it mean to lead?

The Christian tradition of reflection on leadership in communities goes back over 3,000 years. It is the oldest and richest seam of reflection on leadership the world has ever known.

Today in Sheffield Cathedral, I will be taking part in two special services which go to the heart of what the Christian tradition still teaches the world about leadership.

In different ways they each look back to the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. According to Luke’s Gospel, an argument broke out in the middle of the meal about which of the disciples was the greatest: who was called to be the leader? Jesus spoke about the leaders in the wider world – kings and benefactors – and then he said: “But not so with you!” Christian leadership is meant to be different.

The first event, this morning, is the Royal Maundy, held in Sheffield for the first time in its long history. Over 1,000 people will pack the Cathedral. There will be beautiful music and ancient words.

But at the heart of the service is a very simple action. Her Majesty the Queen will distribute gifts to 89 men and 89 women, nominated for their service to church and community.

This tradition goes back hundreds of years and looks back to the moment at the last supper when Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his disciples.

It was at that moment when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: love one another.

We take the name Maundy from the Latin for new commandment (novum mandatum). The gift of money is a symbolic and practical expression of love for others and, especially, love for the poor.

All the recipients gathered in the Cathedral a couple of weeks ago for the Maundy Lecture. I’ve never known the Cathedral to be so full of joy. Everyone I spoke to was surprised, but delighted, to be nominated.

The Lord High Almoner told us that the Maundy is the only honour in our national life where the Queen comes to the recipient: she not only travels to Sheffield but also moves within the service to each person to make her gift – a moment we will never forget.

Then, later today, after the royal party have left the city and the crowds have gone, the Cathedral community will gather this evening to remember once again the events of the Last Supper.

There will be a similar gathering in every town and village across the region. In that second Cathedral service, I will take a towel and a basin of water, as Jesus did, and wash the feet of 12 of the congregation. The service is a powerful reminder to follow the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.

The Christian tradition of reflection on leadership in communities goes back over 3,000 years. It is the oldest and richest seam of reflection on leadership the world has ever known.

It begins with the ancient stories of Abraham, Sarah and Moses, who lived more than a 1,000 years before the Christian era. Moses was distinguished above all his many qualities for his humility. It continues through the stories of David and Solomon, Hannah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, all of them in different ways humble men and women. It reaches its high point in Jesus, the Son of God who became a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. This profound and wonderful quality of humility is essential for wise and good leadership in communities.

I hope to learn a lot today. But here are two reflections on these two special services. The first is that humility remains an essential part of all leadership: in the family, in the workplace, in the wider community, in our national life.

Humility in leadership is essential: we trust most those who understand how big the problems are, who know they need wisdom and help, who communicate that they still have a lot to learn, who are big enough to admit their mistakes and work as a team. We are willing to follow those who are willing to do the most basic tasks, not to be served but to serve.

But, second, humility is not just for leaders. The foot washing can be misunderstood. The lesson Jesus draws is very clear. He does not say: “As I have washed your feet so your leaders should wash the feet of those they serve.” Jesus goes much, much further: “You ought also to wash one another’s feet.”

Each of us is called to humility. Each of us is called to love and to serve. This calling is rooted in Christ’s love for us, Christ’s offering of himself for us. Humility is to be at the heart of all we are and our vision for our nation.

• Steven Croft is the Bishop of Sheffield. He tweets at @Steven_Croft.

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Video: Thousands turn out in Sheffield as Queen hands out Maundy money