About every four years as we approach another presidential election cycle, I begin to experience a rather profound sense of cognitive dissonance. And I think, if Christians are thinking clearly and consistent with historic faith, they should too.
A clear pattern is woven through the biblical story that is at odds with our current political climate. Beginning with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, continuing through judges like Gideon and kings like David, on to Apostles like Peter, James, John, God almost always chooses as his leaders people we would least expect. Even those we might be prone to pick (like Samson or Paul of Tarsus) God uses most after he breaks them. Most of the biblical leaders were people I would label “reluctant leaders,” full of glaring weaknesses and faults.
But our American system now demands leaders who want – even eagerly desire – the position of greatest power. And unfortunately, Lord Acton’s proverb still rings true: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Ambition is key to political success in America.
Ambition in our media age, however, requires flawlessness. And flawlessness requires – even demands – a degree of duplicity and inauthenticity. Historic Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that at the end of the day, every human being is broken, selfish, . . . human. When we require our leaders to be perfect, we ask for something that is opposed to the integrity we need in leaders. The media demands perfection in our candidates, so much so that the first sign of weakness, the slightest fault, sin, or mistaken statement brings sharks to the blood and the candidate is pilloried, destroyed, consumed.
Further, our media-driven, sound-byte age, demands an ambition for power where leaders (candidates) must say things about each other that they know are misleading, taken out of context, or flat untrue. Yet the process demands that they do so. The goal too often is to make the opponent look foolish or even dangerous rather than to state clearly what the candidate himself advocates.
This has not always been the case of course. America has had reluctant leaders in the past. I think of George Washington first of course and John Adams who followed him. Both were men driven by a sense of duty far more than by a lust for power. Both would much rather have lived peaceful lives on their respective farms in Virginia or Massachusetts. But they acquiesced to the need of the nation and abhorred the ugliness of the political process. To a lesser degree this may also have been true of Lincoln, Truman and Eisenhower. Then came television and the rest is history.
Humility characterizes the reluctant leader. And humility is difficult to maintain alongside ambition for power. But humility is a necessary virtue of leadership that considers the good of the people before the leader’s own good. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, analyzed numerous major corporations and developed a five tiered pyramid of leadership – each with its own name to describe its character. The most successful leaders were those who were not the big shots, the media darlings, or the beautiful “up front” power player. Rather, he found the more reserved, persevering, humble leaders took their organizations to greater success. The book calls this highest level “Level Five Leadership” since to describe it “servant leadership” or “humble leadership” would go so strongly against the proclivity of our cultural moment.
We need leaders who know their weaknesses and limitations and are willing to admit them. We need leaders whose sense of calling and duty allow them to speak more about what they believe than about what the other candidate does or does not believe. We need leaders who are driven, not by a desire for the spotlight, but by a sense of duty to serve with dignity and humility.
But it seems we will continue to get what we want, not what we need.