Some Wisdom for Leaderless Times

Yesterday, I connected with a publisher to go over a book proposal. It was pleasant enough, sitting at an outdoor table next to Starbucks facing a morning San Diego sun. But there is an urgency to what I am feeling and what I shared.

It is another book on leadership, though the emphasis here is less global and more theological. Lord knows we need to get this right. James MacGregor Burns once wrote, “The crisis of leadership today is the mediocrity of irresponsibility of so many of the men and women in power.” He wrote these words decades ago, but they are still relevant. Especially relevant, given what we are witnessing in our current halls of power. A recent scholar put it more bluntly—there is a “misrule shipwrecking our country.” Hard to disagree. We see the evidence in the political, corporate, as well as the religious world.

Maybe the alternative is to be done with leaders. As one writer put it, “Be formless, shapeless, like water.” It is interesting to note the current leaderless movements breaking out in various parts of our world. I recently left one in Lebanon, where protestors were blocking my way to the airport. The Lebanese people have had it with inept leadership, and so they are burning tires, closing access to governmental buildings, and leaving the country. In Chile, Iraq, and Hong Kong, other leaderless movements have created certain chaos. People are rising up to say—“Enough!” We had dinner two nights ago with a Hong Kong resident, who shared harrowing stories of what is going on. There is no singular voice. Much of the movements are led by social media.

It’s important, however, to be aware of what happens over time with leaderless movements. A recent Atlantic article raised the question, “How Long Can Leaderless Movements Last?” It’s a fair question. Without a clear leader, movements risk morphing into something participants cannot control. Protests eventually split, with a minority compromising the original intent. Anarchy takes hold.

The point is that movements are not sustainable without leaders. But great movements require great leadership, something largely absent. What we need, I believe, is leadership more centered, one that reflects a carefully understood theology. Leadership is more than setting forth a vision, accumulating followers, and influencing people to go forward. True leadership, contra most books on leadership, does not begin with us. Authentic leadership—

-begins with God and his determined will (not ours)

-is a joint venture, partnering with God to do his work (not our individualistic efforts to do our work)

-is contingent upon God’s wisdom (not ours)

-is subordinate to the power and authority of God (which he grants so that we can give it away, serving others and not ourselves)

Unless we pursue such leaders, our world will remain destabilized. But this also requires a citizenry with moral discipline, one that recognizes the value of faithful institutions like churches. Followers must also be those whose moral values “rest on authority independent of men’s will—they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being” (words shared recently at Notre Dame by Attorney General William Barr).

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