Three Lessons on Leadership from the Aftermath of Charlottesville

September 5, 2017
Last week, we talked about the fact that churches (especially white, conservative churches) need to address the rising tide of white nationalism. As we continue to reflect upon the violence that occurred in Charlottesville last month, our primary focus should remain on the difficult issues related to race and American life. Nevertheless, I think that there are some important lessons that we can learn about leadership from this tragedy and its aftermath.

Unfortunately, the lessons that I intend for us to discuss are derived primarily from mistakes that have been made by leaders. They were certainly made by the President of the United States, but they are mistakes that I have made, too. Some will not appreciate this approach to the topic, but I think that it is important to reflect upon the mistakes that leaders make so that we can avoid repeating those mistakes in our own contexts.

Focus on Relationships, not Winning

One thing that I think we need to learn in the aftermath of last month’s tragedy is that winning and leadership are not the same thing. Indeed, winning (whatever that means) is not even the goal of leadership. Rather, leadership is about relationships. It is about constructing a healthy team around us, helping that team become fully engaged in its mission and fully committed to its values, and developing each team member to become all that God has created her or him to be. If we do these things, then we will usually win in all the ways that really matter.

Why is it so important to make clear the distinction between winning and leadership? For one thing, the clamor for results can be so loud. We run the risk of losing ourselves if we give in to its demands for success at all costs. For another thing, leadership means saying hard things and making hard decisions. Real leaders will be criticized. As one pundit pointed out, it is not our job to win every argument. It is our job to lead.

Get the Facts and Put Them in Context

When a crisis situation comes our way, it is absolutely vital that we get all of the facts and put them in their proper context. It is easy to criticize the President for not doing this well, and such criticisms are a necessary part of the political process. Still, the truth is that I sometimes mess up on this point, too. I talk for a living, and it is all too easy for people like me to run off at the mouth whether or not we actually have anything beneficial to say. I need God’s Spirit to remind me that it is better for me to wait to speak until I have all the facts and have had time to think about them than it is for me to speak out prematurely and lose all of my credibility.

It can be difficult to show restraint in a crisis situation—especially when we think that the events we are responding to fit a well-established narrative. But that is when we are most susceptible to a very public mistake. It can be difficult to recover from those kinds of mistakes, so it is better to resist the pressure to provide immediate feedback and give ourselves time to do research, to think, and to consult people that we trust.

Avoid Temper Tantrums

It is also important for leaders to avoid temper tantrums. In a discussion of President Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville, political activist and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham asserted that the President made the comments that he did about violence on “both sides” because he is angry that his supporters are always being equated with white supremacists by the mainstream media. It is beyond doubt that this is a narrative that has been (implicitly or explicitly) propagated by some members of the press, so it is understandable that the President would be upset. Nevertheless, the President’s tirade against the media on August 15 only made things worse for him (as tweets from people like LeBron James illustrate).

That is usually what happens when we throw a fit as a leader. We demonstrate that we do not have control of our emotions and cannot be trusted to manage the affairs of a complex organization (like a nation or a congregation). Moreover, we damage relationships that we have worked hard to cultivate and that we need in order to lead effectively.

You might object that Jesus lost his temper when he cleansed the temple of all those money-changers and animal merchants. “Can’t a temper tantrum be helpful sometimes? Indeed, doesn’t the nature of certain injustices demand an angry response?” I understand why people think like this, and I have thought this way at times, too. But we need to remember that this is the only time Jesus reacted in this manner, and one wonders if this particular “temper tantrum” was pre-planned, sort of like when a baseball manager gets himself thrown out of a game to demonstrate to his team that he is on their side.

In the end, I just wonder if Dallas Willard might not be right after all. Maybe there is nothing we can do when we are angry that we cannot do better when we are not.

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