The leader and the loyal opposition

What if Christian leaders cultivated relationships with people in their organizations who offer constructive and creative disagreement?

A radio interview with a recently re-elected president of an African nation caught my attention recently on my way in to work. The interviewer was asking him about the results of his re-election (which he won by more than 90 percent of the vote). She asked whether the final tallies were the result of repression of opposition voices, and, after some back-and-forth, she asked pointedly, “Don’t you, as the leader of your country, have a responsibility to cultivate a viable opposition party?”

Such an interesting question! Setting aside the larger geopolitical and human rights implications, it made me wonder if leaders of institutions have a responsibility to cultivate opposition to their own leadership.

Frankly, I’m not sure most leaders even think about it, because it seldom feels as though they suffer from a shortage of opposition. Further, most have been trained to believe that central to their work is “gaining alignment,” the building of strong coalitions within their organization (and beyond) to achieve a discerned vision. In many leader development programs, days-long sessions are dedicated to the art of attaining and maintaining organizational alignment.

This suggests that for most leaders “the opposition” has become a problem to be solved or overcome, not a constituency to be encouraged. But might there be merit in a leader spending his or her limited time cultivating a loyal opposition? The answer, I would suggest, depends on how we define the opposition.

If we hear in that word a reference to the predictable obstructionists who derail any meeting they attend, or if we hear it and imagine the crank who is never happier than when he or she is complaining about a policy or program, then “the opposition” seems like a group of people no one should spend time cultivating.

But if we define the word differently then we might find a group worthy of significant individual and institutional investment. If we hear “opposition” and think about those people with whom we have serious disagreements but with whom we have creative and constructive encounters, then we have identified a group worthy of a share -- perhaps even a sizable share -- of time and resources.

Doris Kearns Goodwin offers one example of this in her book “Team of Rivals,” in which she chronicles the inner workings of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Lincoln selected for his cabinet three of his former rivals for the Republican nomination for president (William Seward as secretary of state, Salmon Chase as treasury secretary and Edward Bates as attorney general). Historians may argue whether this represented a certain “keep your friends close, your enemies closer” political pragmatism on Lincoln’s part; however, Kearns Goodwin seems to suggest that by harnessing the energies and passions of this opposition, Lincoln offered the country better leadership in the end.

And if, as Christians, we already have an obligation to reach out to those who disagree with us, doesn’t it make sense to invest in those opponents with whom reconciliation seems most fruitful?

Here, the notion of the “loyal opposition” might be helpful. In the British parliamentary system (among others), the party that is in the minority is referred to as the loyal opposition, a sign of their ideological divergence from the party in power but also of their respect for the majority party’s authority to govern. For Christian institutional leaders, cultivating a loyal opposition, a group that can disagree while also recognizing the calling and authority of the leader, seems essential.

The problem for most leaders is that they spend so much of their time reacting to those who simply oppose them that their “loyal” opposition gets neglected. Members of the latter group then never receive the attention and support they need to become creative and constructive dissenters. Without such attention, people can devolve into frustrated naysayers.

But what if that changed? What if institutional and ecclesial leaders refused to pay attention to the squeaking wheels? What would happen if the bishop made it a practice to shred all anonymous letters (which are soul-taxing even if not terribly time-consuming)? Or if the pastor refused to meet with lay members until they offered constructive solutions to their familiar litany of complaints?

Then, in turn, what would happen if the bishop invited five pastors with whom she disagreed on almost everything to breakfast once a month to talk about the diocesan, synod, or conference vision? What if a pastor invited the two or three most opinionated lay leaders to read a book with him and discuss it informally? What if …

These particular ideas may not work. But it’s worth asking: What if leaders actually sought out constructive opposition and cultivated it wisely?

Of course, for Christian institutional leaders, trusting and cultivating the loyal opposition is not just politically savvy or institutionally beneficial; it is not just about providing better leadership in the end. It is also about the witness we offer in and through our leadership, for investing in the other with whom we disagree is a practice of reconciliation. It says that our relationships will not be defined or determined by our differences, but by grace -- grace that binds us together in shared work for the sake of the world.

By identifying and nurturing a loyal opposition, leaders not only do themselves a favor but live attuned to the heartbeat of the gospel.