“Politics has no relation to morals.” Niccolo Machiavelli
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
Martin Luther King Jr. (emphasis added)
Last Friday I was honored to share my thoughts on the state of moral leadership at the Friday Forum, a gathering of engaged community leaders held weekly at Koinonia Coffee House, a West Jackson socially conscious small business. I didn’t pull the ideas about this kind of leadership out of thin air; I have pondered the definition and state of moral leadership with some consistency since I returned to Mississippi. In our state’s capital city I worked for a Christian racial reconciliation nonprofit, served as senior pastor of Jackson’s oldest black congregation, and was an active advocate for a more open and just society. Now as a religious leader and assistant professor at Alcorn, one of our oldest HBCUs, I continue to ponder this urgent subject. In these contexts I observed up close and at a distance the political machinations both in the local churches and in local governments. As a community engaged pastor-theologian, I often felt like a novitiate with regards to how amoral “leaders” in both spheres were in their desires to acquire and maintain power, seemingly for vainglorious reasons. As someone who believes character matters as much, or more, than charisma I was often disappointed by the ways in which church folks, politicians, and civic leaders who described themselves as Christians or believers in some religious and ethical tradition were seduced by the spirit of the age, the prince of the air, the god of this world. People I long respected revealed themselves to have no moral center, no anchor in a time and place adrift with immorality and injustice. But as Marvin Sapp sang, I’m stronger and wiser now. I know the games and I know more clearly the distinction between moral leaders and what I call Machiavellian ones. The following insights are what I shared with that intimate gathering of leaders last Friday.
1. Moral leadership is about more than doing
All leaders are in some way defined by what they do: leaders influence, inspire, initiate, inform, and institutionalize. They cast vision, mobilize followers, and improve the common good of the led. Leaders makes more leaders.
Great leaders do all of these things well. But I have discovered that what separates moral leaders from leaders generally is that moral leaders aren’t defined simply by what they do…they are defined by who they are and how they do what must be done. Moral leadership demands that those who desire to lead discern the “content of their character” and have something for which to stand. Moral leadership is about being virtuous, not perfect or self-righteous, but always considering how your decisions glorify God, affirm human dignity, and do the most good. The bottom line for these leaders isn’t profit margins, winning elections, or climbing the executive ladder (though these things in and of themselves aren’t bad); the moral leader wants to be ethical, have integrity, and do the right things along the way to her or his goals in life. The moral leader asks will God or my mama be proud of me if I do this.
2. Moral leaders are self-reflective
In his book The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, Albert Mohler asserts, “Leadership is the greatest intellectual challenge I can imagine.” I agree. Moral leaders think deeply about who they really are, what they are called to do, what challenges they’ll face in seeking to achieve that purpose, how to deal with complex problems and people, and so on. But as Martin Luther King Jr said, one of the hardest things to do is to get people to think…even about ourselves. Since leadership is so action-driven, and what must be done has a kind of urgency, some leaders go to the frontlines not spiritually or mentally dressed for the battle. They don’t know who and whose they are and haven’t done the soul-searching necessary for identifying and clarifying their core convictions, the things for which they are willing stand to die. Moral leaders do the hard work of reflecting on their story and how it fits into a larger narrative of truth and transformation. Without this, they risk losing themselves and others in the journey.
3. The 3 V’s of moral leadership
I am convinced that every moral leader must identify their values, vision, and voice. All leaders, even Machiavellian ones, have values. They often value duplicity, dishonesty, unbridled power, control, and narcissism. But the moral leader must value things much more excellent, eternal, and virtuous. Things like spirituality, justice, community, family, etc., must be part of the stuff moral leaders are made of. Once these values are identified through self-reflection, they must be clarified through further self-reflection and conversation.
Once these values have been clarified, they need to be shaped into a compelling vision. The moral leader must be honest about the present state of things and hopeful about the making of things to come. The vision must be able to compel people from apathy, corruption, injustice, and complicity toward a bright hope for tomorrow and the flourishing of human community. This vision must be understood as something too big for your singular achievement. It’ll take God to help bring to pass a God-sized vision. It’ll also take everyday people contributing in ordinary ways to co-creating a preferred future. The moral leader thus understands herself or himself as part of something bigger and doesn’t seek to be the fulfillment of everything desired by the led.
This vision must be clearly and convincingly communicated in your authentic voice. In self-reflection the moral leader has listened for what Howard Thurman calls the “sound of the genuine.” Every moral leader must identify his or her authentic voice and communicate the vision in ways that compliment that leader’s purpose and personality. A voiceless vision is a vision never actualized. Whether through sermon, song, or social media, the moral leader must cast the vision, make it plain, and make it so welcoming that others want to run with it.
4. The means are as important as the ends
Machiavellian leaders have a goal in mind and don’t care who they mislead, hurt, or defame to get there. They operate in the spirit of the “enemy” who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. (John 10:10) Even if the ends are good, just, and beautiful, the means to those ends are evil, unjust, and ugly. For the Machiavellian, there are no morals save one: win by any means necessary!
The moral leader, on the other hand, believes that how you get to your goal is as important as the goal itself. The moral leader cherishes humanity too much to see people as tools, things, and objects. They are concerned about something greater than themselves. Certainly, the moral leader wants to win in order to implement his or her vision but would rather lose gracefully on principles than to win deceitfully, because the moral leader is convinced that truth crushed to the earth will rise again.
5. Moral leaders are in short supply
The state of our moral leadership is in question. Particularly in the black community, many of our religious, civic, and political leaders have chosen the Dark Side, believing there is great gain in corruption, debauchery, and misinformation. Many of our own leaders have taken from the oppressor’s playbook and have become oppressors of a different kind. As Zora Neale Hurston powerfully said, “All our skinfolks ain’t our kinfolks!” And sadly it seems many of the led are satisfied with this state of things.
But I am convinced that God will never leave Himself without a witness and God always has a remnant who seek “to do justice, and to love kindness,and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8)
My prayer is that more leaders lead morally and that the led will demand that their leaders be moral and hold us accountable to a more excellent way.