Ambition: What Jesus Said about Power, Success and Counting Stuff

Summer can provide extra time and opportunities for reading and over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a few newish books around themes of Christian Leadership. One of these is Ambition: What Jesus Said about Power, Success and Counting Stuff , by Emma Ineson, Anglican Bishop of Penrith and previously Principal of Trinity College in Bristol.

The book’s chapters basically form a series of thought-provoking and helpful theological reflections around the theme of ambition, particularly as it relates to Christian leaders.

As Christians, how should we think of ‘success‘? Does failure actually have a part to play in success? Would we be better talking in terms of excellence (even if that has pitfalls of its own)?

What about ambition (the title of the book)? Is it OK for a Christian to be ambitious? Perhaps the answer to that is ‘it depends’! The author suggests that leaders need not to be afraid of ambition, but must pay more attention to character, learn to be accountable (‘The more ambitious you are, the more you will need others alongside you’), and develop a keen sense of theological reflection.

Then there is a chapter on counting (Goodhart’s law on measures and targets would have fitted well here). Counting can be useful (it helps us to know where we are) when done for the right reasons, but there are various wrong reasons for counting, not least the temptation to validate our existence by numbers).

Not too far from counting is the trap of comparison, and this too gets a chapter in which we get to meet the ‘approval monster’ (‘those with a high aptitude for performance have an interior approval monster who is very, very greedy’) and note some ways he might be tamed.

The final two chapters take a slightly different direction in that they focus less on traps related to ambition and more on positive leadership characteristics. First, we are encouraged to reflect on what it means to lead in the image of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are ambassadors of our King; we take our place in ‘the cross-shaped gap and mediate between what is and what could be’; and we lead with the vision that is inspired in us by the Holy Spirit who points us forward to the completion of the Kingdom.

The final chapter is a reflection on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, reading them as ‘key spiritual dispositions’.

Overall it’s a very good read, not only for the thought-provoking way it tosses up important questions for leaders, but also as a model of good theological reflection.

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