September 20, 2023

Five Lessons That Big Ange Can Teach Christian Leaders

Big Ange praying for a miracle? It’s happening!

My Big Ange Dilemma

I am a Gunners supporter. An Arsenal Football Club tragic. From way back. 1980. Living in Australia watching late night replays as a band of white English blokes hoof the ball forward for a nil-all draw on a muddy pitch in the shadows of the standing-only chilly Highbury terraces.

Now? It’s a rainbow nation of silky smooth, superb athletes, stroking the space-aged faux leather orb in swift triangulations around the billiard-table green of an equally space-aged Emirates stadium,. And watching it live-streamed. And Arsenal winning. And winning a lot.

So it pains me to say it, but I have a dilemma. A Big Ange dilemma. I have realised that I feel somewhat conflicted by the upcoming North London derby against fierce rivals Tottenham Hotspur. And not just because they also play beautiful football. But because their head coach, Australia’s own Ange Postecoglou, is a leader extraordinaire. In the world of stick-to-the-script football coaches, Ange’s tactics and his press conferences are already legendary in the English Premier League. And that’s after one month. A month in which he won Premier League Manager of the Month.

But it’s more than that. In an anxiety-inducing sport, where so much – glory and money – rides on one slip of the foot, or an offside decision, or a last minute substitute, Big Ange, with his gruff voice and his “G’day mate” attitude is MR Non-Anxious Presence. Yet it’s not just about leadership in football. Ange’s approach to leadership is a lesson to all leaders. And a few more Christian leaders could take a leaf or two out of Big Ange’s book. Because from where I sit, the Christian leadership world is Arsenal 1980, when it could be Tottenham 2023.

I’ve written about other great football leaders before and what they can teach us, so here are some ways Ange too can teach us all (even if I’m hoping for a Gunners win on Saturday).

Big Ange Has No Sense of Entitlement

Ange came into the Spurs role after a series of poor leadership choices by the clubs owners. Simply put, in order to fix a stuttering team, they signed up a succession of extremely successful European coaches who had heaps of silverware to boast of. And those coaches all thought they were doing Spurs a favour just by being there. All thought that they were the hero in the story. They failed to see that the supporters, not even the players, are the heroes, because without the supporters the club is done. With no one attending, no one watching and no one buying the rip-off priced gear in high street shops across the world, it’s over. Ange, by contrast, came in humble. With no sense of entitlement. He didn’t feel he was owed. It was a privilege to have the job.

Christian leaders who think they are owed something by their church or organisation are not humble. They see themselves being rewarded for their efforts. At best they see their new role as the next staging post in their career. And at worst, they see the sheep as things to feed off rather than offer food to. What adds to that sense of entitlement is forgetting where they came from, and I don’t mean Bible College. I mean that they came from alienation from God and without Christ or hope in the world. And God saved them! Gave them what they now have. Big Ange never forgets his roots. The dad who took the family from Greece to Australia after a coup, and did it hard to raise the family in a safe environment. You can be sure that when a Christian leader reeks of self-entitlement, it is because they have forgotten the gospel, no matter how often they use that word.

Big Ange Doesn’t Hide Behind Words

The UK sports media, with its voracious appetite for destruction, hangs on every word that Big Ange says. Why? Because he’s not full of bulldust. If Ange means to say that he got it wrong, he’ll say he got it wrong. If he says he made a decision for a certain reason, you better believe that’s why. He doesn’t fog the conversation with football shibboleths to cover his butt. He speaks plainly, calls out bad behaviour, and treats people with respect with his words.

Bad Christian leaders don’t merely hide behind words when they’re getting things wrong, or doing things they shouldn’t, they hide behind gospel words. By that I mean they weaponise gospel terminology to push their own agendas, and then dare anyone (usually lay leaders of lesser theological capacity) to stare them down or challenge them. I have seen and heard the term “gospel” used to justify all sorts of bad behaviour by leaders who say things like “This is a gospel decision”, when really it’s just what they want. Or “this is a gospel issue” when really it’s just about their insecure personalities. Great Christian leaders own their stuff, admit their failings, don’t blame-shift and speak the truth in love, using the the term “gospel” to heal the hurts of others, not hide their own sins behind.

Big Ange Is No Respecter of Persons

Is Harry Kane staying at Tottenham or leaving? That’s been the question all summer prior to the transfer season. Kane, the England captain, record goal scorer for club and country, was looking to leave the club in search of silverware. Harry had carried Spurs for years during the doldrums. If you could get the ball to Harry – and that’s often how the managers made it appear – then it might work out ok. How would Tottenham cope without him, given how poorly they were doing with him? How could Big Ange persuade even bigger Harry to stay?

Here’s how. He didn’t. He let him go. Ange knew he wanted to go, so he didn’t try too hard to stop him. Much to everyone’s despair at the start of the season. But now? Even the most ardent supporters are going “Harry who?” At the moment – and there are refinements to make – the goals are coming from elsewhere.

Christian leaders who favour some and not others in their leadership are a bad example of what it means to be like Jesus. Jesus was no respecter of persons because God is no respecter of persons. And because God is no respecter of persons, thereby meaning Jesus is no respecter of persons, neither should Christian leaders be.

But so many are. So many overlook other gifted leaders, and fail to see that the goals can come from elsewhere. So many poor leaders either see themselves as the irreplaceable Harry Kane, or someone else as the irreplaceable Harry Kane. And to make matters worse, the poor leader will refuse to replace a Harry Kane who is either toxic in the system or of unfit character for ministry. Why? Because he gets us all the goals! Even if the overall culture is being tainted by that person. Ange looked at Harry Kane, looked around him, and thought, “If you don’t want to stay here, then me having you here is going to be a hindrance, no matter how good you are.” And he let him go.

And here’s now else we know Big Ange is no respecter of persons. Because, as was reported, he greets, and seeks the interests of, everyone from the tea-lady to the star players. Everyone is equal and worthy of their place in the club in his eyes.

Big Ange Knows His Gift Limits

Spurs have an under-performing, but brilliant Brazilian star in their side, Richarlison, who this past week said that he is seeking psychological help for off-field issues. While the fans have been on his case for weeks due to him having all of the decisive touch of an elephant on skates in front of goal recently, Ange has been more circumspect. And when asked how he intended to help Richarlison in the psychological stakes, he was up front. He simply said that that wasn’t his area of expertise. He had people in the club who knew what to do and how to help and that he would be taking advice from them. He finished by saying this his role was to help the young men in the side flourish as footballers and men, and he’d put the framework in place for that to happen.

Good leadership is about creating the frameworks that allow other people to flourish. It is not about being “the man”. It is not about being the apex feeder at the top of the pile who feels insecure if someone else on the team is better than they are. Good leaders, – and it should be absolutely crucial for Christian leaders who know the body language of 1 Corinthians – , know how to staff to their weaknesses. Good leaders are able to staff bigger than themselves in order for the organisation to grow beyond their own limits.

Think of those Russian dolls, the ones with dolls inside dolls. If a leader can only see themselves as largest outer doll, then they will always staff smaller than themselves and the organisation will be limited. But if they see themselves at the centre of the organisation, then they can staff bigger than themselves and the organisation will grow. Too many times I’ve seen insecure Christian leaders feel threatened by other members of staff, or indeed lay leaders, who know more than they do. Such leaders tend to deflect blame when something grows wrong, and hoover up praise and take credit for things others have done well. Such leaders will find that there is a steady turnover of good staff. Their response of course is always “It’s hard to get good staff!” when in reality the problem is that they cannot keep good staff.

Ange’s teams have been able to play attacking free-flowing football because players aren’t looking over their shoulders wondering what they should do. Ange trusts them to do what they are gifted at, and revels in that.

Big Ange Values Character As Well As Gifting

One of the constant comments by players about Ange, upon signing up for Tottenham themselves, was that their coach was concerned to know what they were like as men, not just what they were like as players. They observed that he wanted to know that they were good people who would enhance the club with their attitude and actions off the pitch. A goal-scorer who was on the front page of the paper as much as the back page would be unhelpful. In football you want both character and gifting. And Ange called on young men to step up to both. That’s an attractive call.

In Christian ministry we should value character and gifting. Not either or by the way. It’s become common place to say we should preference character over gifting, and to an extent that is true. But not when putting a team together. Value both. Value the gifted leader who has moral weight, not merely the gifted leader who gets stuff done, but whose personal life or attitude towards other staff is toxic. Sort out culture and strategy will take care of itself. As I’ve said before, the rainmaker in an org who is toxic will take more than the give to the place. Get rid of them!

Churches have to pull themselves out of the celebrity leader culture in which toxicity is overlooked because of giftedness. In the past two decades, ungodly leadership has caused enough heartaches, forced enough external inquiries, and generated enough headlines in both Christian and secular media to last a lifetime. And even more so than secular leaders, we know that each one of us will have to give an account for ourselves before God as leaders of his sheep, not ours.

Plenty more to say about Big Ange and leadership, but it’s early in the season. Let’s see what it looks like post-Christmas.

Oh and if you’re wondering about the match on Saturday, I’d kinda be happy with a 3-3 draw.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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