Watching the current news, I find myself practically screaming, “For God’s sake, someone please lead! Would you focus on governing rather than posturing?” Maybe it is my imagination, but I think I hear these same shrieks coming from my neighbors. I certainly hear them in the locker room, no matter one’s political persuasion.
So much of this present bull—t (sorry, I just can’t come up with another word) reflects a deficit of character that is plaguing society and leadership, and it is not merely in the political realm. On multiple fronts—corporate, athletic, religious—we find leaders who have capitulated to their lower natures, betrayed their communities, damaged their families, and lost all credibility. And credibility is everything.
Followers want someone who is solid, dependable, reliable, and trustworthy. Not a con—a fake. Not a showboat. Not someone who is suspect, someone who might have a pathological need to be relevant and will compromise everything to acquire significance. Not someone who comes across as a moralist—but has no true bearings.
We want someone we can respect. It matters (it must anyway)—
-how a person is moved or unmoved by injustice
-how a person copes with setbacks
-how a person deals with promotions
-how a person handles finances
-how a person controls appetites
-how a person treats power and authority
-how a person values loyalty
-how a person responds to criticism and personal attack
-how a person voices and lives out one’s convictions
-how a person treats one’s adversaries
And yet, all too often, toxic people are the ones who make it to the top. It’s amazing how this happens. We go through lengthy leadership searches only to end up with those who are deceitful and unscrupulously manipulative (Machiavellian); impulsive and thrill-seeking without any sense of guilt (psychopathic); or egotistically preoccupied with themselves (narcissistic).[i] And these people are creating havoc.
Most of us are hungering for leaders with great souls. Men and women who carry themselves with a certain gravitas. Leaders who demonstrate truthfulness rather than deception; loyalty rather than betrayal; self-effacing rather than self-promoting; compassion rather than oppression; decency rather than indecency; and sharing rather than exploitation. Where are they?
The more relevant question is—“How does one even develop a great soul?” Some would say it begins with a disciplined willingness to deny self. NYT columnist David Brooks describes it as a work of “self-restraint, self-erasure, and self-suspicion.” In his Discover Your True North, author Bill George agrees. The way to principled leadership is to become self-aware, learn from your story, process your crucibles and setbacks, listen to feedback, and identify the values that will guide your leadership. What matters is that one is true to oneself.
But let’s be honest. These responses are superficial.
True. Character formation does begin with heart introspection. The heart is the executive center of one’s life. It will determine our sexual behaviors, our posture towards things, our choices–whether to be greedy or generous, honest or deceptive, coarse or gracious, arrogant or humble, foolish or wise.
But knowing the heart is not enough. Spending time in the solitude of the wilderness might have some impact. But this does not lead to radical change. Left to itself, the heart is ill-equipped to guide one towards true north. To assume one will find a true self, which is innately good and can be trusted, consulted, and actualized, is to ignore reality. Sin has disordered the soul and disfigured our character. The deeper we look within, the greater we become aware of how broken is our compass. This explains the mass of contradictions.
The heart is a messy blend of good and evil. We can be both virtuous and vicious. And if we are honest, the darkness has far more control. There is a natural bent to be full of ourselves and empty of God. We have inherited a pathology that blinds and distorts.
It’s time we admit that leaders are not up to being the point of reference. We cannot change things internally by mere introspection and feedback. To argue otherwise is to be like farmers who plant crops, but cannot admit the existence of weeds and insects As Dallas Willard puts it, “We can only think to pour on more fertilizer.”
This is the piece left out of most leadership books. It is beyond ourselves to do the repair. This is hard to admit. Leaders like to think they are fully capable of self-leadership. This humanistic approach, however, is not only vain; it is intellectually dishonest. Leaders, no matter how great, carry the weight of their own defects. Our best efforts at transformation fall short. As one put it, “Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.”
Only the transformative work of Jesus (that comes because of Good Friday and Easter) can correct and empower us. Yielding to God’s transformative work of redemption, one is able to find one’s true north and build one’s leadership around non-negotiable core values—
And then, one can lead—for the sake of God—and for his glory.
[i] Klaus J. Templer, “Why Do Toxic People Get Promoted?”
(This post was adapted from the chapter “If You Want to Influence Others, Make Your Character Count,” Missing Voices: Learning to Lead Beyond Our Horizons, John E. Johnson, Langham Publishing, March 2019).