Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership


Writing  a book on global leadership, I have been especially attune in these days to books on the subject. Of course, there are no end to books on leadership. In an age so lacking of sound leaders, it is ironic that books on the theme are published practically every day—Start with the Why, Rise, The 21 Laws of Leadership, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Good to Great, On Becoming a Leader, Drive, etc. etc.

One that has recently caught my attention is Discover Your True North, by Bill George. Like other books that focus on the more intrinsic side of leadership, George underscores the importance of knowing yourself. He builds off his mentor, Warren Bennis, who made a similar point in his On Becoming a Leader, noting that self-knowledge is essential to any leader. The place to begin is the inner territory. You have to first know yourself, your life stories, your crucibles, and your setbacks. Self-awareness is the foundation of authenticity—and thus it is at the center of your compass.

This message seems to sell, especially in an age that has become more and more disillusioned with things extrinsic–numbers, profits, innovative prowess, and great accomplishments. We tell ourselves we can put up with the ethical baggage—the rumored affairs, questionable income practices, fits of rage—as long as a leader is performing. But we also know that down deep we long for leaders who carry a certain weight, a gravitas. We want someone, as Lance Morrow put it, with a force in the eye, the stabilizing voice, the correct bearing. We long for men and women of substance—principled leaders. Not little tin horns who are morally vacant and strut around trying to impersonate gravitas.

This is where George’s book comes in.

But for all the accolades, from David Gergen to Daniel Goleman, and major CEO’s in between, something is missing in True North. If I could be blunt, something dishonest is going on. Finding our guiding values by looking deep within will not lead to a true north. Nor will gaining more knowledge change things. This is hard to admit for most leaders. Hard to admit in a culture of self-dependence, one David Brooks in his Road to Character defines as the Big Me.

A rigorous focus reveals we are not the moral creatures we think we are. Leaders, no matter how great, carry the weight of their own defects. There is a warped heart that needs straightening. This is what we see when we look within. It does not make us worthless—but simply lost and out of place. It is time we admit that we are not up to being the point of reference. There is a radical evil at the heart of our being. This is what Jesus said. “Out of the heart comes evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, lewdness, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (Mark 7:21).

If a leader aspires to find true north, he must admit that his moral compass is inadequate, no matter how deep he gets into himself. He must acknowledge that none of us has the power to confront our weakness and change our character on our own. Only the transformative work of Jesus can correct and empower us. God, out of His infinite love for us, has sent His Son to undo sin’s damage and save us from ourselves, shifting us from self-worship to God-worship. Only God can purge interior impurities that would otherwise remain. His Spirit surfaces a self-absorption we would otherwise miss. There is a divine repair that exposes our motives, unmasks the things that have attached themselves to us, strips away our layers of self-deception and rationalization, and builds in us a trust and affections for God. With a new heart, our lives can now be reoriented and find their divine heading (Eph. 2:4-10).

This, of course, is getting to the heart of the gospel, which gets us to our true north, but is usually dismissed in more sophisticated circles. We’d rather claim that one will actually find a virtuous soul that can flourish, given the proper guidance. Self-love, self-praise, and self-acceptance are necessary paths on the journey. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and actualized.

But it is all vain. As Dallas Willard put it, we are like farmers who plant crops, but cannot admit the existence of weeds and insects We can only think to pour on more fertilizer.


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