I have been speaking and thinking a lot lately about what kind of leadership we need in our world today. We live in turbulent, troubled times, and we are crying out for leaders to step up to the challenges we face — economic, social, cultural challenges — challenges that are perhaps unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. Frightening, scary, chaotic, uncertain — things seem to swirl out of control, to come apart at the seams, to splinter so badly that we no longer recognize what is true and good and beautiful for the whole.
There is a lot of shouting going on in our streets and in our halls of power, but no one seems to be pointing the way forward. “Where have all our leaders gone?” I asked recently.
In the midst of all of this, I am asking, what kind of leadership will make the difference? Is leadership even possible anymore? What paradigm of leadership could best inform the work of leaders to tackle the enormous problems we face? How should my university be preparing our students for leadership for the future of our world? What kind of a leader should I seek to become, a kind of leader that is perhaps very different from the leader I was 17 years ago when I began my work as a university president?
A prominent businessman, Mortimer Zuckerman, said in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, that we are “desperate for strong leadership.” We hear that sentiment all the time. “Democracy does not work without the right leadership,” he says, ”and you can’t play politics. . . . The country has got to come to the conclusion at some point that what you’re doing is not just because of an ideology or politics but for the interests of the country.” Of course that’s a line that either side can use about the other side. What is this “right leadership” for our moment?
We seem stuck in a kind of leadership that isn’t working, but is there a way out?
Perhaps we need an upside-down kind of leadership. That’s a phrase I’ve been borrowing from N.T. Wright’s wonderful sermon in June for the 600th anniversary of the University of St. Andrews. I talked about this in an earlier blog post, and I have been quoting from this sermon all through this turbulent fall. Wright says that we need to proclaim an “upside-down notion of human flourishing,” a vision like the one proclaimed by his university when it was founded 600 years ago.
“At the time when [St. Andrews] was founded,” Wright says, “truth and beauty were seen by most as reaching their climax in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” This “reframing of power” was seen to lie “at the heart of the task of a wise society, needing in each generation a fresh supply of wise leaders.” That was the purpose of the university, to equip a “fresh supply of wise leaders” who really get this “reframing of power.”
“The message of the early Christians,” Wright goes on to say, “is that true greatness comes through sacrificial love, that true leadership consists in self-giving. . . .” This is what the cross of Jesus does to us.
But can self-giving, sacrificial love possibly work in the world in which we live? Isn’t this a sign of weakness? Isn’t it just flat-out wimpy? Won’t the other side just roll over me if I adopt that kind of posture? In a world shaped by notions of sometimes ruthless, arbitrary power; in a world that aspires to serve the self alone; in an individualistic world, where God is dead, as Nietzsche says, where it is power against power, where it is my will against yours, where whoever shouts the loudest or shoots the biggest guns—can this upside-down view actually come to be the deep principle of leadership that can make a difference in our world? Do we have here perhaps the reshaping of the paradigm of leadership for our day?
I haven’t always operated this way as a leader, believe me. But I have come to see, in perhaps profound kinds of ways, that our leadership somehow must get hold of this deep and abiding principle of the upside-down kind of leadership that is grounded on the cross of Jesus. Perhaps this fundamentally Christian way of viewing the world is the way out of the morass of our historical moment?