Where Giants Dare to Tread
01 December 2005

Stepping into the unknown is always scary. There are many pitfalls - and you are on your own.

'IN POLITICS,' remarked former Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, during a speech in London some years back, 'one inch ahead, it is pitch dark.'

Stepping into the unknown is always scary. There are many pitfalls - and you are on your own. So much easier to be back in the ranks. There at least you have safety in numbers. You can make your mistakes together. And others can share the blame if things go wrong.

A few years ago I had an experience of being out 'one inch ahead'. I had to choose a direction-whether to go down a certain road or not. It had long-term consequences both for myself and for others. Should I say 'Yes' to what seemed like a marvellous opportunity? Or hold back in case it represented a wrong road? I took advice, some of which was contradictory. I could see the vision of what might be-but there were also warning signs that I might get 'off track'. I listened to others, but in the end I had to make the decision. No one could to do it for me.

Of course a leader cannot get out too far ahead. You have to take people with you. Nor can you lead from behind. 'Those who claim to lead the masses,' wrote Gandhi, 'must resolutely refuse to be led by them.'

One of my favourite stories about leadership is of the Frenchman sitting at a table outside a café in Paris. He hears a great roar a couple of streets away. He jumps up. 'There goes the mob,' he explains as he dashes off. 'I am their leader. I must follow them.' Another image that amuses me is the cartoon of the over-cautious leader 'sitting on the fence with both ears to the ground'.

Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders, held that the secret of leadership lay inside. 'A leader is useless when he acts against the promptings of his own conscience, surrounded as he must be by people holding all kinds of views. He will drift like an anchorless ship if he does not have the inner voice to hold him firm and guide him.'

It is costly both to lead and to accept to be led. The best leadership usually comes from those who have already learned to be good followers.

In the Welsh folk-law classic The Mabinogion, the story is told of a giant king called Bendigeidfran. His troops, whom he had led over to Ireland on a revenge mission, were unable to cross a broad river to pursue the enemy.

Bendigeidfran lay across it, making himself into a human bridge for his men to march over. This story gave rise to the Welsh proverb A fo ben bid bont (to be a leader you have to be a bridge). The late Lord Callaghan, who then represented Cardiff in the Westminster Parliament, took that as his motto on being appointed Prime Minister. A leader must be a servant and a bridge.

'Genuine authority,' says writer Margaret Silf, 'is always liberating. Power that is not rooted in God's authority is ultimately enslaving.' Ever since Jesus proclaimed, 'I come among you as one who serves' and dramatically washed the feet of his followers, the concept of servant leadership has stood as challenge and alternative to the usual ways of the world.