Bobby Clinton talks about the need for leaders to finish well. His research suggests that very few - one in three or four - leaders manage to get to the end of their life in leadership without becoming irrelevant or disqualifying themselves by doing irreperable damage to their integrity.
So when I heard the news that Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House Press Corps, decided to “retire effective immediately” after some unguarded and unwise remarks about Jewish legitimacy, my first reaction was one of sympathy. After all, the odds are good that I’ll do something similar at some point.
This is something that’s been a big theme of the past year for me - the Master’s course that I’m doing has been very hands-on and practical, and has had quite a few personal implications. It’s helped me to reflect on who I am and what the challenges and weaknesses in my leadership are likely to be. It’s given me a healthy fear - not a paranoia, although it was that for a while - of the darker side of my character.
I don’t think I’ll be caught out by making unacceptable statements about the state of the world. (Let’s face it, that’s pretty much de rigeur for Christian leaders at times.) I’m more likely to use my big mouth and overconfident attitude to overrun my colleagues and alienate myself from them. That’s how I’m likely to blow it: to have a big public bust-up with someone and call them an idiot. And then try to go around preaching a Gospel of love for neighbour.
And no, just because I’m a forgiven sinner doesn’t mean I get my integrity back. That’s the whole tragedy of the Helen Thomas story: the longer you live, the more likely you are to make a mistake that derails you, because it only takes one.
But knowing what is likely to derail me is a big step to making sure that it doesn’t happen. I can’t say for sure I’m going to get to the finish line well, but at least now I have a map with the landmines marked on.