The Heresy of Western Leadership


I am grateful to Justin Lewis-Anthony’s scepticism about leadership. The same day that America was going to the polls to elect Donald Trump I was exploring leadership in ministry with friends and colleagues in the Diocese of Chester including Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Bridgman. Lewis-Anthony suggests that the leadership bandwagon started rolling in the early 90’s (he blames George Carey), and since then leadership programmes in the church have been proliferating. The Diocese of Chester was quick onto the bandwagon and I was involved in one of their first courses. (I don’t understand why we haven’t given as much attention to other ships which have a more legitimate claim to be part of the fleet – we never hear of friendship, fellowship or companionship training programmes do we, even though there is more theological justification for them?)

Where do our ideas of leadership come from, and why are we so bothered about leadership anyway?

Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book has the clever title You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and Probably a Heresy)He traces our thinking about leadership to the double headed Emersonian “ur-myth” of “the frontier” and “the American Adam”. For Lewis-Anthony “there is a layer of mythology which is omnipresent, omnipotent and omni-transparent, pervading and influencing every part of our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of leadership comes from believing in and living under the power of the myth of leadership”.

There is a reminder here that we can’t escape mythology in ideology. Drawing on the work of Levi-Strauss, Lewis-Anthony reminds us that ideology develop in an unconscious process shaped by the stories which we tell ourselves. He quotes Kelton Cobb (p.99):

Our myths feed us our scripts. We imitate the quests and struggles of the dominant figures in the myths and rehearse our lives informed by mythic plots. We awaken to a set of sacred stories, and then proceed to apprehend the world and express ourselves in terms of these stories. They shape us secretly at a formative age and remain with us, informing the ongoing narrative constructions of our experience. They teach us to perceive the world as we order our outlooks and choices in terms of their patterns and plots.

In other words, we are caught in a bubble – a bind. Once the myth making took place round the camp-fire. Since the 1950’s it’s been on-screen through film making. One nation has dominated the film industry, and consequently the unconscious formation of our ideology. For a long time we have been subjected to the only films available which have relentlessly had the same story to tell. They have fed us our scripts.

Lewis-Anthony quotes German film maker, Wim Wenders: “No other country in the world has sold itself so much and sent its images, its self-image, with such power into every corner of the world. For 70 or 80 years, since the existence o cinema, American films – or better, this ONE American film has been preaching the dream … of the Promised Land.” (p.75).

The frontier is not about place, but about defining experience. It is to the frontier that the American intellect, according to Turner, owes its striking characteristics. “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.” (p.81).

The American Adam myth breeds the individualism that Turner talks about and which is such a modern phenomenon. The frontier depend the sense of individualism to the extent that Americans told themselves, according to Billington, that “every man was a self dependent individual, fully capable of caring for himself without the aid of society.” (p.93).

The journey to the frontier is essentially westwards. The journey spawned a genre of film which took over our screens, the “Western”. The western myths of the Western have shaped a leadership that is essentially masculine and white. The films show how the west was won and defended and how the wild was tamed and controlled. Typically the hero is a man “in the middle, between civilisation and savagery”. Lawrence and Jewett describe the Myth: “A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradise condition: the superhero then tends to recede into obscurity.” (p.210).

The American Adam is a man, and a man with a gun. Lewis-Anthony is quite right to point out that in carrying out the redemptive task, the American Adam becomes the American Cain. But it is with the status of hero and leader that this American Cain is expelled, rather than with a curse.

For Lewis-Anthony any leadership based on this Myth is fundamentally violent, and therefore wrong. “Under the American mono myth of redemptive violence, to be a leader/hero means to be prepared to use violence. To be a disciple/follower means to accept, in turn, an invitation to use and be thrilled by violence.” (p.213). Leadership in our society is “fatally flawed by its roots in violence, the will to power and destruction”.

Tom Wright asks the question about “what any of this has to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Lewis-Anthony continues: “Wright reminds those within the church, the ‘religious admirers of leadership’ that there is a basic problem in this admiration of North American society. With its roots in the mythic use of violence by the outsider, the extra-societal Adam, what can we find in the scriptural tradition to counteract, or set aside, this cult of violence? Surely we can find some ways in which the crucified Jesus of Nazareth rescues leadership from both Marduk and John Wayne.”(p.213).


Why are we bothered about leadership? It matters to those who are the victims of leadership violence. It matters to those of us whose minds have been made up by a myth of leadership. It matters to those who are excluded by such a myth – anyone who is not a white, male, rooting’ tooting’ son of a gun. It matters to God’s mission. The Washington Free Beacon has put these two images together, a Nazi rally – which inspired a scene in Star Wars. It all looks frighteningly ecclesiastical, except there’s more people.

10 thoughts on “The Heresy of Western Leadership”

  1. Thanks David. The gender angle is really interesting and has stuck with me this week. I’m making the assumption that we’re thinking about gender conceptually rather than personally – ‘male’ leadership being exercised by both men and women (though probably predominantly by men).

    I’m wondering where female leadership might have been developing while the male Adam has been waving his gun around? Maybe in schools, in the home, in the caring and nursing professions? But perhaps always below the surface and under the radar, and by those without institutional power or seniority? Could we even rewrite history by telling it through the eyes of the subliminal, hidden but still influential champions of a female model of leadership?

    Just some rambling questions that probably don’t make much sense on a Friday afternoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is an intriguing question isn’t it? Does leadership still look anything like what we call “leadership” when exercised out of the spotlight, under the radar and without seniority? Has it become something more important than leadership then, like love or wisdom? (But Adam, put on a perch by his followers may never be able to agree with that.) I think Jim is asking a similar question in his maiden blog post when there isn’t much to write home about – the ordinary stuff.


  2. Very interesting. Okay, white, male pioneers decided to boldly go west and seek out new frontiers, slaughtering those who claimed prior ownership of the beautiful plains and mountains of the paradise they found. Thus the Western myth was born. The civilised, god-fearing, individual male protecting his family against lawless savages, armed only with a Winchester 73 and the strength of the myth he was unconsciously creating.

    But behind any myth there is often an older myth which contains the basic framework and tenets of the new myth, albeit in a different age and context. In this case it doesn’t take a PhD in history and theology to see the roots of the Western myth lying in the Biblical myth of the Promised Land.

    The biblical pioneers also went west before slaughtering the natives of Canaan who presumed to claim prior ownership of the land flowing with milk and honey. Whenever a savage horde threatened the settlers, a so-called ‘judge’ rode into town and raised an army to defeat them, an individual hero typically male – except for Deborah, a fascinating precedent for Thatcher, perhaps, though America is still not ready to welcome a Deborah, it seems.

    How can the Church NOT be obsessed with leadership when its founding myths are all centred on individual saviours? The only way to combat and contradict these myths is by deconstructing the leadership of Jesus in order to cast it into a collective, cooperative, communistic form.

    But that isn’t easy when this male individual saviour calls 12 men to follow HIM and when he appoints one of them to hold the keys of power. There is probably enough in, say, some of the words ascribed to Jesus in John’s Gospel to formulate a more inclusive, communal type of leadership, all being One in the Spirit, for example; meanwhile rejecting the discipleship and Petrine supremacy stories as myths created to serve the Early Church.

    The Early Church needed to be an organisation that would persuade the Roman Empire that Christians were down-to-earth realists who could be trusted to keep order rather than out-of-this-world fantasists who would spread the kind of chaos caused by that Spirit-filled maniac, Paul of Tarsus. Ever since those days, the Church has been restrained in a straitjacket of canons that spring from a philosophy of leadership that keeps the Holy Spirit safely contained and allows for a neat and readily understood hierarchy to lead undisturbed.

    The Holy Spirit is the potential hero (male of course) who is kept well beyond the borders of the town whose leaders swear they don’t need him. I think there’s an Eastwood film like that where the unwelcoming town leaders have a guilty secret – but one must never stretch an analogy too far …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Geoff
      Yes I take this. But the Israelis did take a wrong turn when they followed the other nations in demanding a king. It seems we can’t stop trying to follow what others are doing in spite of Paul ‘s and the Spirit’s best efforts.


  3. Dear David

    I found myself a few summers ago caught up with this book whilst camping. I read bits to my wife (an unusual and suspect irritating reaction but it said so much about my visceral reaction to the points he was making). There is a tension.

    The bible “bigs up” key characters (Abraham, Moses, Joshua) and our response to Peter (feet of clay but he comes good in the end) is not markedly an improvement. Some models of leadership play with “servant leadership” but I suspect accepts the idea of gently pressing from the rear. I forget the book now, written by a then Sheffield based Anglican priest who tried out a congregational model of decision making which I found attractive (God does not locate wisdom solely in the ordained/elected people) but also slow in making decisions. Our problem lies in the urgency which Reform and Renewal imposes on us. Someone needs to make decisions now.

    Recent political events here (Brexit) and over the pond present us with new and deeply unattractive but dangerously effective models of leadership. It would be interesting to put the leaders in these scenarios through JLA’s template to see whether his image of the sole hero (Farage, Trump?) still hold good. Where does Pope Francis fit into this? Or Obama-like (or Rowan Williams-like) attractive but ineffective leadership?

    And, do we want effectiveness (gets brownie points, whoever is handing those out in church nowadays) or foot-washing, self-sacrificing models of leadership? (Other models may apply.)

    Grace and Peace


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alan Ecclestone ran a weekly Parish Meeting in Darnall Sheffield for many years (c1940s-1970s). I don’t know how much it took decisions, but in any case Alan was a powerful, intellectual leader with a crystal clear agenda and Christian-Marxist ideology!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks David for this. There is nothing more attractive than strong leadership at least in the first place, They save those of us who have less leadership qualities from thinking we just have to buy into what is being fed to us. The obvious danger is that we may be fodder to an egotist.
    The leadership Christ teaches so quite different, it is not reliant on gender, position, charisma or any other man made art of leadership. He leads us through his deep relationship with God and with us. If this is true then we should communicate with each other through the God in us. I am not sure what that may look like.

    Liked by 1 person

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