Two nights ago Kathleen and I had an extended conversation about what constitutes strong moral leadership. What will it take to produce it in greater measure at all levels of a troubled society?
It’s a big topic for two 94-year-olds retired from public life and with no platform from which to speak. But we had just watched American news coverage of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman.
We had seen the walls of large buildings torched in some of America’s major cities. Streets were crowded with people, mostly young, who were demonstrating in an orderly way. But the fires were being set by another group whose obvious intention was to destroy everything of value.
Our conversation touched on the inner human commitments that tend to make for strong character when taught and promoted. It was not about styles of leadership. There are plenty of courses, seminars, and videos attempting to address them.
It was rather about core qualities: wisdom, righteousness, and commitment to justice.
We knew that authentic righteousness requires that our thoughts and actions align with God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17). Justice seems to us to be the result of a human conscience aligned with God’s law written on our hearts, enacted into rule by law. And if we disobey such a conscience, and righteous rule by law, we damage character and deny justice.
Justice requires that both sides in a dispute be treated equally. To be just in a court of law is a most demanding challenge, and some say justice is always an approximation. Yet in everyday life fairness can be discerned as a reachable standard.
Leaders who operate from power, emotion, personal animus, empathy alone, prejudice, or taste will quickly be seen to be unjust or weak, inflaming observers. And, of course, leadership based on subjective/relativistic notions of morality will come to be seen as puny and capricious.
In the course of our conversation about leadership Kathleen reminded me of a Sunday-school song written a century and a half ago by an Episcopalian clergyman named Philips Brooks. It was about the prophet Daniel, the young Jewish lad who had been taken as a captive from Israel to Babylon to be trained as a civil servant. There, he was twice at imminent risk of unjust execution (the second time cast into the lion’s den because he would not worship an image of the king of Babylon).
Here are the words of a refrain we sang 85 or so years ago:
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.
The morning after Kathleen’s and my earnest discussion about higher leadership I went to the little “den” of our apartment and read with delight the early part of the Book of Daniel. I read how with utmost courtesy he stood like a rock on issues of importance, to his own peril. And how the Lord was powerfully with him.
And I like to think that today, too, we can say with Daniel (2:20-22):
Praise be to the name of God forever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.
Photo credit: astrangelyisolatedplace (via flickr.com)