This has been quite the year for leadership. Near the end of July, in the middle of violence between black men and police, Stephen Collinson nailed my thoughts in this CNN headline:
Who can make it stop? Is there a leader who can stop the chaos and heal America?
For a student of leadership like me, it was a summer chock full of case studies from all of Canada’s neighbours. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but I want to weigh in with the back row leader’s perspective in a three-part series.
Full disclosure: I’m a dual citizen, and a former Republican who is planning to vote absentee in the U.S. election, not because I like the choices I’ve been dealt but because I don’t want to abdicate on my responsibilities as a naturalized American. I’m also a child of Europe, in possession of an uncompleted Irish passport application and with similar eligibility in Britain. I really don’t see a need for four passports, but I can’t hide the fact that I do feel loyalty to all four. That said, I’m an observer of much of what I’m commenting on, so I recognize I may have missed some nuances. Anyway, let’s jump in.
1. Populism is a form of leadership.
We’ve seen populist revolutions in the U.K. with Brexit, the U.S. with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and in Colombia last week with the people’s rejection of a peace deal referendum. Populist movements have multiple influencers and an inertia of their own. It’s hard to pinpoint the leader of a movement, which has its weaknesses but also offers some protection from political pressures. In The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom use the metaphor of a starfish to discuss movements, pointing out that scientists still don’t know how starfish move in concert when they’re essentially an organism by committee. Without a head, the starfish is less vulnerable to damage and still manages to move and feed itself, but I suspect it sometimes surprises itself with where it ends up.
But isn’t Trump the leader of his movement? Attempting to read the trends and making adjustments to stay in front of the mob makes a good surfer but a poor leader. Trump has had a remarkable ability to see a wave building and to harness it without being knocked off his board; consider the strange bedfellows who resonate with “Make America Great Again,” and his flirtations with David Duke’s endorsement.
2. The most challenging part of leadership is to figure out how to get “there.”
It’s easy to be a critic, and even to lead a group away from “here.” But the wilderness beyond is full of regrets, uncertainty, and leadership pitfalls – where followers turn on a leader when their expectations aren’t met. Just ask Moses. Or Nigel Farage, who decided he “did his bit” in leading Britain out of Europe and wasn’t ready to take the mantle any further. As Bill Hybels is fond of stating, leaders move people from “here” to “there.” Leaving isn’t enough; it’s only the beginning of the need for good leadership.
It takes real courage to take on the wilderness ahead of Britain. You could argue that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had a lot of wisdom in backing away, but they lacked the courage — or perhaps the specifics — to back up their vision. Theresa May remained in the game even though she hadn’t supported the Brexit decision. It’s now up to her to help define the vision for what “there” is going to look like.
3. There’s a hunger for thought leadership.
Back on this side of the pond, there’s a failure of imagination. Dialogue is non-existing and creativity fails to get a hearing when well-defined camps hold long-established lines. Civility is lost, and the President skirts legislative approval while Republicans even resort to suing the President to prevent action. Too many Americans have believed the lie that the other candidate or party is wrong on 100% of the issues. And so there is no nuanced thought or open-minded discussion about tackling healthcare, immigration, gun violence, racism and terrorism.
When someone decides ahead of time that one party has the right position, it undermines their ability to think honestly. Even worse, it neutralizes their voice to speak into the issues.
4. The Church has lost its voice.
The issues America is facing have spiritual roots and spiritual implications. Only the Church can speak to heart issues like hatred; the State’s hands are tied. So the Christian must be able to work between the parties to challenge the extreme edges of gun freedom, to address roots of poverty, to seek equality and remove profiling in the application of law, while also seeking religious freedom for believers to operate in their sphere to address heart issues. No political party has a corner on solutions for these issues.
When the Church marries itself to a political party, as the black Church has largely done with the Democratic Party and the evangelical Church with the Republican party, they are taken for granted and their voice is silenced. When Donald Trump thinks he has evangelicalism firmly in his camp by offering them greater influence, power and friendly Supreme Court justices. Many no longer criticize his character or other policies, because they’ve heard what they need to hear.
5. Any void will be filled.
This is not an election as much as a referendum on the direction of the country. If the Republican party can’t fight off its hijacking, a void will certainly beckon for a new party to represent the conservative, immigrant-loving spectrum in a merger with the disenfranchised #nevertrump social and economic conservatives. If ever the United States could tolerate three parties, this seems the time.
However, I submit that the leadership void will not be filled by a politician. The Christian community must rise up to defy hatred, challenge racism, love the unloveable and defend the vulnerable. Spiritual leadership is needed, and it must come from voices that are not power-hungry and bowing the knee to any political party. To some, such meekness and humility will look like weakness. Some might call them losers. But the last will be first, and the first last. The meek will inherit the earth. The one who loses the world will gain his soul. That, more than anything else, is what America needs to find again.
On July 7, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed police officers in Dallas in the middle of a public firestorm focused on police brutality toward black men, it was not a politician who stepped up to lead with fresh vision. The world noticed when Dallas’s black police chief found a platform to address the craziness. David Brown had just the right combination of empathy with black minorities, identity with the uniform and Christian compassion, and his leadership drew praise from all parties.
That’s the kind of leadership we need.
Part 1: A void of leadership
Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials