I don’t know if you’ve noticed the theme tying together the media coverage of BP’s Gulf of Mexico debacle and our own controversy surrounding the failure of political leadership in the Black Saturday bushfires.
Overseas, Barack Obama has been constantly called upon to get himself to the Gulf of Mexico and be present — calls which he seems to have heeded. Closer to home, Christine Nixon’s presence — or rather non-presence — on Black Saturday has seen her cop tons of flak.
Why is the leader’s presence (or absence) such a big deal?
In Obama’s case, surely he’s better connected — better able to exercise meaningful leadership — in the White House rather than in the field. And, as I understand it, he’s legally blocked from actually doing anything much anyway. The responsibility for dealing with the disaster lies with BP at this stage.
I guess some of the sting here could be due to the still strong memory of George W’s unseemly delay in simply showing up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
But I suspect it goes deeper. Being present is deeply connected with genuine leadership. I’ve observed this in Christian ministry contexts. Unless you’re connected to the people you’re seeking to exercise leadership among — unless, that is, you’re recognisably one of them (as well as being someone who can do something they can’t do because of time, training, skills, etc) — then you can’t lead. Your solidarity with them — of which your bodily presence is a tangible sign — is too important.
Of course, solidarity may not be everything when it comes to leadership. But it certainly seems to have been important for the ‘pioneer of our salvation’ who came to ‘destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’. This leader identified with us, shared our flesh and blood, and ultimately tasted death for everyone (see Heb 2.10-18).