Richard Turnbull, Oxford & Just Leadership in a Polarized Post-Pandemic World

To view a clip from this webinar with Dr. Richard Turnbull, click HERE!

Today’s environment desperately needs good leadership, including the dimension of being “just.” What is being “just?” That could mean many things: providing an equitable hearing, treating people fairly with impartiality and not making decisions subject to prejudice.

On a societal scale, being just relates to organizations and movements. Many human rights movements are cries for justice, to right past and present wrongdoings. Leaders need to be mindful that they are pursuing justice not just for individuals but organizations and societies.

To be a just leader in today’s environment in which polarization exists across many aspects of society is a great challenge. Motives and qualifications of leaders are challenged. For example, doctors and public health officials are sometimes not treated as impartial professionals but vilified as biased and politicized actors. The mandates of health officials throughout Canada during the pandemic were sometimes challenged as politically motivated rather than health driven.

How then to be a just leader? To address this topic of just leadership in a polarized post-pandemic world, the ELO Peer Advisory Group Network had Dr. Richard Turnbull, Director, Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics, Oxford, present on May 10th on the topic “To Act Justly.” This session was part of the ongoing series on "The Dimensions of Character." The ELO Peer Advisory Group Network is focused on character development as at the heart of successful leadership.

Dr. Turnbull began his remarks by noting that the issue of acting justly often arises among Christian business leaders. One of the verses most often quoted by Christian business leaders as a source of inspiration and direction is Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

What does it mean to “act justly?” Dr. Turnbull addressed the concept of justice not just in reference to the utterance by the Prophet Micah, but rather a broader biblical context. He talked about four theological principles regarding justice in a fallen world.

  • We need a clear appreciation of the creation mandate going back to the Garden of Eden. This is where work was instituted before the Fall and people were given the responsibility for both wealth management and wealth creation. This was part of God’s idea of justice for humanity.
  • We need to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over all things at all times. This then impacts how people view the treatment of people and things. Richard quoted Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, who famously noted that “every square inch” of the world’s domain is under the sovereignty of God.
  • There is the dignity of the human person created in the image of God, which is the motivation for justice. This means that people need to be treated with respect. We must balance wealth creation with wealth responsibilities.
  • There is the challenge of being a disciple in a fallen world. To act justly on a consistent basis is no easy task. There are biblical injunctions for disciples to strive to be fair, pursue justice, and be impartial.

The above four points provide a framework for understanding justice in a holistic manner. Justice is rooted in the foundation of the relationship between both God and people as well as among people.

Christians have strived for just practice in life and business, with varying degrees of success, over the centuries. Dr. Turnbull cited the example of one group he has studied. These are the Quakers (with well-known names today such as Rowntree and Cadbury) who were successful business leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries in England.

The Quakers were both successful in business and were known for their just approach to life and business. Their success was aided by the following principles:

  • They had a culture of passionate commitment and purpose as they saw their business activities as part of their Christian calling.
  • Their spirituality encouraged both business and personal discipline which laid a foundation to pursue the risks of entrepreneurship.
  • They displayed utter moral integrity which lowered transaction costs. Those within their circle were held accountable. They had finely developed networks, what today would be called “social capital.”
  • They had a vision that extended beyond the business enterprise—they were motivated by the fact that what they were doing was important in terms of impacting lives.

Many of the business practices, such as developing a high trust and extensive network, are recommended to aspiring businesspeople today. There is, however, one additional aspect of their approach to life and business which was unique. The Quakers often referred to being guided by an “inner light.” Today, we might refer to this as the notion of “letting your conscience be your guide.” This is a charge for leaders to develop a conscience to act justly.

So, how can we apply this information to be a just leader in today’s post-pandemic polarized world? The biblical mandate provides an impetus to pursue justice as part of the responsibility of Christian business leaders. It can cut through polarization and personality and focus on the biblical mandate. This will allow believers to act justly, not just for themselves but for others, and to hear the cries for justice.