I confess I am not quite sure what to make of the recent avalanche of essays and books on leadership. In general I tend to be skeptical of how-to books, though I have no doubt that these authors might have some wisdom. I have cherished a book found in a used bookstore written by Donald Brann and titled, Bricklaying Simplified. Mr. Brann does a nice job laying out the basics, but I cannot imagine how one could learn to lay brick by reading his book. You can learn to lay brick only by being initiated into the craft by a master craftsman.
Laying brick and assuming a position of leadership may seem like apples and oranges, but just as learning to lay brick requires that one become an apprentice, so does learning to assume a position of leadership. Both to lay brick and to be responsible for the good of a community require the development of practical wisdom, for both laying brick and leadership involve the responsibility to make judgments. For example, most of the time when laying brick you can do what you have always done; but then one day you discover that your judgment is required to make a different choice because a particular corner has a unique angle. This is the practical wisdom of bricklaying. Leadership entails similar challenges.
Because leadership requires the development of practical wisdom, I worry about the attempt to develop general theories about what makes a good or effective leader. Different societal and community contexts affect what it means to lead, and these different contexts resist attempts to generalize about leadership. Put differently, the focus on leadership qua leadership may undercut more basic descriptions of offices determined by a community’s traditions, such as priest, president, teacher, parent, and physician. These descriptions should make a difference for the kind of judgments required by the office, as well as the mode of discernment required to make the judgments. Those called to exercise leadership operate in a particular context and for particular ends.
The desire to develop general accounts of leadership is an expression of our loss of a positive account of authority. In the absence of any agreements about why we need offices of authority, leadership becomes an attempt to legitimize why some have power over others. Subsequently, leadership qua leadership implies some people rise to positions of power in order to “get things done” and not because such positions are inherently necessary to the common good. As a result, leadership reproduces the assumption that we have no alternative to the manipulative character of our interactions in modernity. The modern aversion to authority means modern people have to be convinced that leadership is a good thing.
In his book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we find it difficult to know what nonmanipulative interactions might look like; all evaluations are viewed as arbitrary because they can express only each person’s particular sentiments. Because we believe our moral commitments to be no more than an expression of our preferences, any effort to have others join us in what we think needs to be done means we have no choice but to resort to manipulative bargaining strategies in the hope some will identify with our arbitrary choices.
MacIntyre’s account of our social and political life may seem exaggerated, but confirmation of his account of our social and political lives can be readily found in a commercial for any candidate running for public office. They always promise to provide leadership, for example, by giving us economic prosperity. What is missing is any acknowledgment that it is by no means clear that political officeholders have the power to make the economy do anything. Yet anyone running for office cannot acknowledge they are not quite sure what can be done about the economy because such an acknowledgment would suggest that they are shirking from the presumed responsibilities of being a leader.
Our political discourse states that the president of the United States is the “leader of the free world.” What in the world does it mean for someone to be the leader of the free world? What or whom do they lead as the leader of the free world? This attribution seems to imply that America embodies the ideal of freedom and that leadership is a matter of securing said freedom. But rather than promising us security, they might remind us that we live in a dangerous world that is quite beyond the control of anyone—even the president. The only alternative to the politics of manipulation is truth. But any political leader who tells the truth stands little chance of being elected. As a nation, we demand truth while not having the courage to hear it.
What might all this have to do with the church? Am I implying that reflection about leadership in the church and how the church understands the politics that constitutes her life is misguided? I certainly do not think that to be the case, but I do think the politics of the gospel requires us to develop an account of leadership that challenges the world in which we find ourselves. The church is to be a community that expects that those who would lead us will tell us the truth—even if it means that the truth they must tell us is that they are not sure what the truth is in a given situation. And our leaders, moreover, are called to help us become the kind of people who can listen to truth because only the truth of Jesus Christ can provide freedom.
A community that demands its leaders to tell the truth does not then expect them to make up for the deficiencies of the community. Instead, leadership is necessary because the church is an institution constituted by the conviction that without truthful speech we cannot sustain the trust necessary to be a people who abide in Christ and with one another. Accordingly, some are set aside to exercise the authority necessary to sustain the disciplines of truth telling and truth hearing that make our abiding possible.
To exercise such authority is an exercise in power. Any community that cares about goods in common depends on offices of power, so it would be false to understand power and authority negatively. In the Gospels Jesus is referred to as the Good Shepherd who cares for and tends to his flock. This image of power entails a form of servanthood—caring and tending—and it is the image most aptly associated with leadership in the church.
But Christians in positions of authority must struggle to understand this seemingly simple image if they are to represent it in their ministry. Failure to struggle with this christological vision of leadership results in one of two dangerous positions. If leaders embrace a worldly form of power, their ministry will likely be just that: their ministry, rather than Christ’s. The parish becomes a cult of personality wherein parishioners rely on their leader’s successes rather Christ. A sense of pride attaches to belonging to this pastor rather than that pastor, and the one Shepherd who leads the one flock becomes largely irrelevant.
On the other hand, the servant who leads without acknowledging power is too often tempted toward forms of manipulation that turn Christ’s flock into a bleating mass of codependency. The lack of acknowledged power on the part of the pastor is dispersed to the fold, and the sheep wander aimlessly in search of some concrete guidance. In this instance, the people never learn to care for and tend to their own—not to mention others—as their power has been undermined by the pastor’s aversion to power. In both of these cases, the fine balance between power and serving has not been struck, and both the community and the good news of the gospel suffer.
By contrast, when the christological vision of the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep is manifest through the offices of power in the church, the church makes visible a form of leadership that uncovers the fears that drive worldly forms of manipulation and replaces them with gestures of trust that come from living truthfully with Christ and one another. Such trust is always tested by our speech. For part of what it means to live truthfully is learning to speak truthfully—and expecting our leaders to do so even when the truth doesn’t go down easy. If we resist hearing the truth, our leaders will be tempted to tell us lies, and our abiding together becomes farcical.
Truthful speech is at the heart of the matter, for it is through talking to one another that the church discovers what goods we have in common. Those who occupy the ministerial and priestly offices of the church have a particular responsibility for helping the church become articulate, and this is done not through how-to lessons but through witness and practice. As our leaders practice an articulate faith in Jesus Christ, through speech and service, we are apprenticed to this peculiar way of speaking and being in the world. Leaders may from time to time be those who have to make the hard decisions, but more important than the decisions they make is the language that has shaped the decision.
I should like to think such an understanding of leadership is important for helping us understand the work of theology and how that work is central for the mission of seminaries. What we teach in seminary is speech. And we learn speech by listening. To return to the parable of the Good Shepherd, in John’s Gospel Jesus explains:
The one who enters the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gate keeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him
because they do not know the voice of strangers.
(John 10: 2–5)
The primary task of seminary education is to train pastors as those who will lead the church, which means our primary task in seminary education is to train pastors who will recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd so that they may train the rest of the fold to do the same. And we learn the voice of the Good Shepherd by listening and observing how his voice has shaped the hard-won speech of the church through the ages. By tending to the church’s speech—how she prays, admonishes, laments, argues—we learn to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and we learn to test the voice of strangers. Leadership requires both attentive listening and careful speech, both wisdom and judgment. If either is avoided, the fold, including the pastor, is at risk.
I have been in the business of teaching those called to the ministry for many years. I confess I remain unsure how best to train those going into the ministry, those who will be called upon to be leaders, to be people of wisdom and judgment. How do you train someone to be wise? It is a difficult question that I still seek to answer. But in the very least, those called to occupy the office of theologian for the church must attempt to instill in our students a love of the language of the gospel, that is, the voice of the Good Shepherd. For if those called to lead the people of God have confidence and trust in the words we have been given, we can hope that the church will be an alternative to the politics of manipulation that so dominates our world.