In an interview with the NY Times in 1992, prize-winning author David McCullough, who died this past Sunday, remarked, “People often ask me if I’m working on a book. That’s not how I feel. I feel like I work in a book.” It was a way of saying he would become lost in the world of his characters and their context. In Henry Kissinger’s latest book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, he too became immersed in another world, the world of six postwar leaders. They were the architects of their societies, redefining national purposes and opening new vistas. For Kissinger, these stand out as world-class leaders.
I’m drawn to such books, given my fascination with leaders and my passion for world-class (make that “divine-class”) leaders of the future. Kissinger gives several commonalities, and it is clear he is directing this to those geopolitical leaders seeking to steer leaking ships of state. His insights are especially applicable to those religious leaders seeking to guide listing churches through the turbulent waters we find ourselves in. And God knows, there are many.
Each of these case studies reveals national leaders who understood that effective leadership is not an option—it is indispensable. It’s imperative we, the church see the same necessity. Leaders recognize there are decisions to be made and a way forward to be proposed, one that helps people reach where they have never been. While the leaders in this book came from different cultures and faced their own overwhelming challenges, they had these seven qualities in common—
1-They were direct, bold, and decisive. They told people what they needed to hear. Even when conditions proved unfavorable—even when their words offended important constituents and entrenched interests—they acted decisively.
2-They had a penetrating sense of reality. There was no space for escaping into unrealities, creating a world of make-believe. They saw things as they were, protecting what must be preserved and releasing what should be discarded.
3-They respected the need for solitude. Faced with decisions that determined the fate of their nations, they respected the role that the quiet had in their lives. Stillness and reflection were essential prerequisites to every major decision.
4-They embraced the priority of leading with character. They recognized that worthy leadership is guided by standards and restraints. Effective leaders carry a certain gravitas; they resolve to pursue integrity, persistence, determination, and courage
5-They did their homework. They gave themselves to developing their minds. Each one was shaped by a broad and rigorous humanistic education, giving them a sense of history and an ability to deal with tragedy.
6-They had a compelling vision. Leaders, by nature, are directional. They dream of the future. Ordinary leaders manage the present; the great ones transcend the status quo and raise their societies to the next level. These are the leaders who are farsighted, hence transformational.
7-They were strategic. With an intuitive grasp of direction, these leaders were able to set objectives and lay down a strategy. Among them was a strategy of humility, will, equilibrium, transcendence, excellence, and conviction. It’s critical. Only calculated leaders are able to navigate between the certainties of the past and the ambiguities of the future.
Helpful as these are, my guess is that few who lead the church will take the time to read such books as Kissinger’s. Too many seem to lead by the seat of their pants, assuming leadership comes naturally, intuitively. It doesn’t. Others might assume leadership can be delegated to others; it’s enough to prepare sermons and extend pastoral care. It’s not enough.
Consider this. Is there a context where leadership is as indispensable as in the church? I can’t think of one. Is there room for leadership to be less than excellent? There can be no space for mediocrity, let alone ineptness. Where else is God so potentially present and the devil so powerfully active? Where else are so many things on the line—things that have eternal ramifications? And yet, it is rare to see congregations determined to create a leadership culture where pastors and elders and staff are held to the highest standards of leading.
Nonetheless, Kissinger, for all of his geopolitical brilliance and controversy, misses an important aspect of leadership. The essence of leadership begins with God. Without a leadership rooted in him, our leadership is like cut flowers, denied the necessary nutrients providing growth, energy, and life.
Seeing these seven qualities through the lens of God, it is in God alone that leaders gain a holy boldness, one willing to call into question the values and presuppositions of secular culture. There is no wishy-washiness to his will, no room for pusillanimous and indecisive leadership.
Only by immersing oneself in the daily discipline of contemplating divine wisdom can leaders hope to gain a more penetrating sense of reality. It is here we learn the true potential of words, the inevitable consequences of pride, and the reality that the more self-absorbed we are, the less there is to find absorbing.
The solitude of God is less about introspection and more about dialogue, where there is an exchange of thoughts—the exchange of souls—between the leader and God. He always has the first word, and only after we have listened to his voice can we respond in prayer and make prudent decisions.
God alone provides the true embodiment of character. Left to ourselves and our own ideals, we lack both precision and clear boundaries. Moral excellence begins with his virtues, ones that begin with love and end with humility.
We too must be characterized by ‘deep literacy,’ for the church is ill-served by leaders who invest little time in reading carefully and engaging critically. But true knowledge begins with knowing God and discerning what he has revealed. This alone enables a leader to be truly thoughtful rather than thoughtless.
Where there is no vision, there is no leader. Without a vision, the parish perishes, but true futurists rest upon the One who alone sees the future. True visionaries get beyond their own imaginings, assessing everything in terms of divine possibilities, looking beyond the immediate and out into the stretches of eternity.
Finally, godly leaders are also strategic leaders. Rooted in God, leadership is anything but spur-of-the-moment and unplanned. It too is deliberate and calculating—but for reasons that transcend politics or profits. It’s about advancing God’s kingdom—not ours. Leaders are tasked with making plans, but more importantly, they are called to place them in his hands (Prov 16:1-3). Faith realizes God alone is able to bear the weight of all of our trust.
Admirable as it is to be world-class, a leader who is lost in the God who transcends this world can become a leader of the highest caliber—a divine-class leader.