Monday, August 22, 2011

When Leaders Die

Maybe it is the shock of an unexpected end, but learning of Jack Layton’s death today has somewhat staggered me. As the day unfolded, it is apparent that his death has shocked many others too. It is not an easy thing when a leader dies.

When leaders die there is a momentary stunning. People feel the void. Even the most ardent critics pause and experience an inner gasp. “What will happen now,” people wonder? “Who will lead us,” they inquire? New leaders will eventually emerge. But for now, there is a void.

When a leader dies, other leaders momentarily droop. Every leader makes a sacrifice. Every leader serves a cause. Every leader has faced opposition and mustered the hope to carry on. When a leader dies, frailty is undeniable. No leader can guarantee much less fully predict the future. The death of a leader parades the truth of common human vulnerability. It causes everyone to pause.

When leaders die they are replaced. They must be. Voids must be filled. Life requires leaders. Sustained progress or initiated change need leadership, whether that is the vigorous burst of a student movement or the unwavering commitment of a seasoned visionary.

Leaders are everywhere. They are volunteers. They are paid staff. They are grandparents, parents, friends, or siblings. Every influence, every affirmation, every encouragement is an act of leadership. Some people have a larger sphere of influence, but everyone contains some measure of leadership. It is an inseparable aspect of human interaction.

Maybe that is what makes a leader's death so unnerving. Everyone can relate. Society mourns the unfinished business that is inherent in any leader’s death.

The church has many leaders. Our structures require many positions of leadership. Sunday school teachers, board chairs, pastors, and youth leaders are but a few examples requiring leadership. There are also business leaders, politicians, Area Church and National Church leaders. As the level of responsibility increases so does the degree of vulnerability. The greater the scope, the greater number of supporters and critics there will be. Leadership is not for the fainthearted. But neither is it for the callous autocrat.

Perhaps it is in death that the true nature of a leader is revealed. When authoritarian regimes topple, people celebrate. When dictators cease there is relief. But when a beloved leader dies, the people bow their heads. An honourable pause is not demanded, but intuitively offered. Followers and critics alike acknowledge the loss when a respected leader dies.

Leaders point to a future where people want to go but are afraid to venture. They articulate what lies unspoken in the hearts of the people. It's not about forcing a vision onto people, but giving wings to a vision already in their hearts. When respected leaders die, their visions and aspirations will,l in time, receive a breath of new life for the future they spoke of is also contained in the hearts of the people. Someone else will pick up the mantle. The communal yearning will see that it happens.