In my upcoming book, Missing Voices (Langham), I raise the question whether or not we need leaders. Are leaders essential, irrelevant, or somewhere in-between? After listening to the campaign ads for what seems like forever (and ever), I am wondering. Do we need these people?
As I note in my book, people do not seem to think twice before spewing their vitriolic words. Leaders are the butt of most jokes, both in front of and behind leaders’ backs. Just watch any of the late night shows with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel.
Adversaries are constantly assassinating a leader’s character. This has been true from the beginning. President Grant was described as a drunkard, a vile man with no ideas. Abraham Lincoln was referred to as an ignoramus and a buffoon. The editor of one newspaper labeled Grover Cleveland a moral leper.
It’s an unruly and disrespectful world out there. To quote from writer Anne LaMott, you would think most can’t help but feel ‘like a treadmark on the underpants of life.’
Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are becoming the orders of the day. More and more yearn to smack down and shame every authority figure (especially autocrats). Better disruption than the visible hand of order. Books like The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations only affirm this. Leaders? There’s a reason they always get voted off the island.
Still, there are critical reasons why leaders are necessary. Leaders bring order out of chaos. I was a political science major in college. In my third year, the professor decided to yield his leadership to the students. We were invited to determine the syllabus and the course of the course. Confusion and bedlam ensued. For weeks, we had no idea where things were going. Abdicating his leadership left the program uneven, requirements unclear. Friction and confusion filled the vacuum. This is what I remember—there was nothing I remember learning.
Someone has to sound the alarm. This is what leaders do. All too often, we become complacent. Churchill understood this necessity. As a student, he had memorized these lines:
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For death is in charge of the clattering train.
These words stayed with him in the 30’s, when sleep had deadened England’s ears to the rising Nazi threat, and no one seemed to be at the lever.
Leaders save us because they have an eye for laxity, a nose for stale air (at least the right ones). They can discern the moment where divine opportunity breaks into visible reality. Leaders understand that ideas and methods get old and people get distracted. Only leaders are sufficient to keep the organization evolving in an increasingly fast-paced world. Leaders help set the moral bar. They keep a certain order. They align our thoughts.
Where would Israel have been if Moses’s presence had not disrupted the party? Why else would Jesus have declared, “Sheep without a shepherd scatter”? Think about it. At every major turn, God has raised a leader—
-when he made creation, he appointed a man to rule for him
-when he decided to save a world, he called Noah
-when he chose to call forth a nation, he enlisted Abraham
-when he determined to rescue His people from Pharaoh’s grip, he appeared to Moses
-when he decided to take the land, he told Joshua to arise
-when he chose to create a dynasty of leaders who would perpetually reign, he anointed David
-when he resolved to build a wall, he sent a report to Nehemiah
-when he elected to protect His exiles, he challenged Esther to step up
-when he expanded His redemptive work to Jew and Gentile, he turned Paul’s world upside down
-when he chose to save the world, he sent Jesus
One can only hope this Tuesday he is still raising leaders.