Remembering the Power of Words

(this is part 2 of a 5 part series on leadership and legacy)

In part one of this series, I began with Abraham Lincoln and why some of his leadership traits are not only necessary in the 21st century, but in fact, leaders like Lincoln remain elusive and rare. In this series, I am processing in my own mind, but then also building a case that if leaders are going to be effective in a globalized world, then certain traits will need to be prevalent. In looking at the legacy of Abraham Lincoln two primary traits needed for leadership in today's globalizing world stand out: 1) Lincoln's resolute focus on a higher purpose and his commitment to something greater than himself and 2) Lincoln's amazing ability to work alongside people with 'clashing ideologies' and to get people who disagreed to move in the same direction.

Now, in this installment, I want to focus in on yet another trait necessary for leadership in an interconnected world and one that has considerable relevance for bloggers and readers of blogs. Leaders in an interconnected world (particularly where English is often the primary tongue of global business, technology, and higher education) will still need to learn how to use words effectively. And perhaps, the best wordsmith in American history remains Thomas Jefferson.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, though, doesn't set up Jefferson as a great leader. In fact, he writes,

To Amercia "Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as a mistress. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter. His war record was not good. He spent much of his life in intellectual pursuits in which he excelled, and not enough in leading his fellow Americans toward great goals by example. Theodore Roosevelt called him our worst President,"
(To America, p.2)
The enigma of Jefferson doesn't stop there. Ambrose continues,
"He ignored the words of his fellow revolutionary John Adams, who said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free...Jefferson left another racial and moral problem for his successors, the treatment of the Native Americans...The author of the Declaration of Independence threw up his hands at the question of women's rights,"
(To America, p. 5)
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Learning from Lincoln: Leadership in the 21st Century

This weekend, I finished reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I will make a confession: this book will linger with me for a long time--it's an amazing experience and if you allow yourself the time to get lost in its 19th century world for a while, this book could change your perspective on leadership in the 21st century. Growing up in Northern Illinois with regular trips to Springfield, I encountered Lincoln's heroic status at a young age and as I have grown older, I am simply more appreciative of Lincoln not simply as a leader, but also as a man.

The New York Times, in November of 2005, published the following words in regard to the book by Goodwin and more specifically in regard to Lincoln the leader:

"How did he do it? Goodwin deals with this question better than any other writer. Part of the answer lay in Lincoln's steadfastness of purpose, which inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries. Part of it lay in his superb sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of public opinion as he moved to bring along a divided people to the support of "a new birth of freedom." And part of it lay in Lincoln's ability to rise above personal slights, his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other." (the full article can be found here.

Let's reflect on the lessons as identified by this New York Times writer, but let's do so with an eye to faith and leadership in the 21st century.

1) "steadfastness of purpose"--instead of caving in to public opionion or trying to be trendy and relevant, Lincoln seemd to focus his energies on leaving a legacy. And I believe we'd do well to mimic his example.

2) "inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries"--how many times have we seen teams split up or churches fall apart due to 'petty rivalries'? The phrase seems to haunt the present relationships being exhibited in Congress as well.

3) "his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies"--this may be one of the single most needed traits of leaders in a globalized era. Now, how will faith leaders within Christendom prioritize what's essential over and above what's not essential? Who will not only lead God's people, but who will also "get along with men of clashing ideologies," so that Christians can press forward with what's important instead of devouring one another in partisan debate?

Of course, there are many more lessons to draw and Team of Rivals is worth its own seminar or college class. For whatever reason, the world seems devoid of leaders who are willing to put a higher purpose above petty debate and rivalry. If you have a leadership role in any organization, do yourself a favor and read Goodwin's book. You won't be sorry and you may find yourself challenged to imitate Abraham Lincoln over a 100 years after his death.

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Chesterton Keeps Me From Going Crazy

A business consultant once told me about 'crazymaking' cultures. She observed several corporations that posted their vision and mission on the wall, but it had little do with daily life in the company. People were rallied around things at the big sales meetings and management retreats that simply had nothing to do with the true day to day operations. What this leads to is a 'crazymaking' culture. Sometimes I feel like I am completely losing my mind as I listen to various 'pep rallies' around certain camps or issues. Maybe we live in a 'crazymaking' culture all the time?

Chesterton rescues me when he writes in his book The Everlasting Man that: "the sanity of the world was restored and the soul of man offered salvation by something which indeed satisfy the two warring tendencies of the past; which had never been satisfied in full and most certainly never satisfied together. It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story...." 

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Rebuilding Rome

In the classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons, we find these words in chapter 2: ""The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful." Gibbons, of course, could have written these words yesterday for the New York Times and we would still nod in understanding.

Perhaps, this is why we have seen a veritable rebuilding of Rome in film and in fascination in recent years. We have now moved into a time period in American history where we are not only seeing the global influence of the United States brought into question or doubt, but also the global dominance of the United States brought under greater scrutiny. And so, the influx of films on Rome may simply serve to feed our fascination with a time period that, frankly, is becoming more and more familiar to us. Rome, a great civilization built upon the backs of an incredibly large military force and amazing technological prowess, was also a society in search of stability. The people longed for the glory years and men like Marcus Aurelius, Augustus Caesar, and Marc Antony served as not only images of power, but as examples to men who would follow. Will there ever be another leader like Caesar? Will we see an alliance the likes of Antony and Cleopatra again? How about a philosopher/leader like Aurelius, does our world still have room for men who would be known more for their ideas than for their charisma?

This past weekend, a new series entitled Spartacus premiered to rave reviews on the Starz network. This comes on the heels of the great success in recent years of films like Gladiator and 300. This also follows the acclaimed HBO series Rome, which I confess hooked me rather quickly. And I confess, I am caught up in the resurgence of the Roman Empire. Yet, I wonder how long this will last?

Most of the contemporary versions of Rome, unlike previous takes, are able to push the envelope and actually display graphic violence, sexually explicit material, and a raw spirituality, that was previously intolerable for well meaning people to watch. But, not only are we able to see Rome in all of its power and profanity, but we are also able to experience a Rome that elicits in us a longing for men and women who would rise above the masses and fight for something bigger than themselves. Part of the glory of Rome isn't even real; part of the glory of the Roman empire remains the mystique of it, the mystery of it. Part of the decline of Rome historically and its resurgence cinematically is found not only in the annals of world history, but in the recesses of our own imaginations. And so, I wonder if the mystique of the United States is starting to decline and thus our fascination with Rome is begining to rebuild and rekindle in us a longing for a civilization that is seen not only as great, but truly epic in scope.

Gibbons, in chapter 3 of Decline and Fall adds these words: "The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people. A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince." Perhaps, the rebuilding of Rome would be the thing that also wakes up the church to be 'on the side of the people', one that dares to stand against the principalities and powers that define a world enthralled with itself. Just maybe, this new Rome resurgence will also decline and eventually fall, but then again, such a decline won't happen overnight. Rome was neither built nor rebuilt in a day. 

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'That Isn't Right'

I miss my grandfather. One night, in 1994, he went to sleep and never woke up. Instead, I woke up the next morning, received a phone call and cried. I miss him for a variety of reasons and I am sad for many reasons as well. My wife never met him and I hate that. My children never met him and I hate that too. I think that my family may understand me more if my grandfather were still around. Why? Because in his own simple way, he made sense of the world in which we lived. And sometimes common sense is in short supply. And for me, he made sense out of chaos, not because of his simplicity, but because he understood chaos better than most.

Now, he came from a generation that isn’t known for conversation and emotional dialogue. Tom Brokaw called it the ‘Greatest Generation.’ He fought in Asia and was wounded in battle. He worked on the Chicago Northwestern Railroad for over 40 years (a photo of that engine hangs above my son’s bed) was married for fifty years and fathered four children. He had a Marine tattoo that simply looked cool. He was tough, but in a way that was unassuming. He once drove himself to the hospital because he had, what he called, a ‘stomach ache that wouldn’t go away.’ The doctor diagnosed it as a ‘coke can size’ hernia in his stomach. An urgent surgery was performed and a few hours later, he drove himself home.

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Dobson and Pigskin Politics

So I’m scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook the other day and see a link to a story on ABC about Focus on the Family running an anti-abortion ad during Super Bowl XLIV starring Tim Tebow. I may have been the last person on the 'Interwebs' (that’s what my 65 year old dad calls it) to see this, but it sparked a few thoughts.

In the article, Gary Schneeberger, a Focus on the Family spokesman, is quoted as saying, “There is nothing political or controversial about the spot.” Are you kidding me? Nothing political or controversial… right. Focus on the Family has become synonymous with both politics and controversy due to its strong alignment with crazy right-wing ideologies.

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In Search of Global Heroes

“Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her contribution to the international ban on landmines. She achieved that ban not only without much government help, but in the face of opposition from all the major powers. And what did she say was her secret weapon for organizing 1,000 different human rights and arms control groups on six continents? E-mail.” [1]  We now live in the tension of knowing far more than we have ever known about the world, with access to information across the globe coming to us at broadband speed, so we cannot plead ignorance. We can only act or not act.

In the midst of Hollywood’s recent explosion of films dedicated to superheroes and comic book figures, Roger Ebert, in reviewing The Dark Knight, observes: “Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie. “Spider-Man II” (2004) may have defined the high point of the traditional film based on comic-book heroes. A movie like the new “Hellboy II” allows its director free rein for his fantastical visions. But now “Iron Man” and even more so “The Dark Knight” move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies, and hopes.” [2]  And in an age of globalization, our “deep fears, traumas, fantasies, and hopes,” are shared across cultures, generations, and mediums at breakneck speed. If it’s true that we are increasingly becoming interconnected and interdependent on a global scale, then can it be true that we are now in search of heroes that will connect and rescue us all? Our heroes, now, must be people or figures who can not only transcend their context, but cultures as well. In other words, our heroes must be part of something bigger than themselves and challenge us to values that are shared beyond our own immediate context.

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The Worst Idea of the Decade

Recently, Cathleen Falsani, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of Sin Boldly (which I loved and found to be her something of a kindred spirit), wrote an article for the Washington Post that is worth noting. The article is part of a series entitled 'The Worst Ideas of the Decade,' and Falsani focuses in on the 'Prosperity Gospel.' You can read her article here.

At this point, I agree with Falsani. This incessant need we have to call the American Dream a Biblical idea is more than alarming. The lack of self-criticism of professing Christians and their embrace of 21st century capitalism needs to stop. While there are a great many benefits of America's economic engine and its place in the global economy, calling all things 'capitalism' good and all things 'socialism' bad is too narrow minded. I rather enjoy the fact that Jesus is claimed by Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and yes, even capitalists and socialists. Jesus lived his life in such a way that he's difficult to label and modern Christians would be wise to follow suit.

On this note, Falsani follows up with a second post found recently on the Sojourner website.
I think Falsani speaks truth again. Thanks Cathleen, keep up the good work, and if you're looking to send out signed copies of any of your books, my address can be sent out rather easily.

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Three Pastors on the Gospel and Social Justice

Since the idea of justice comes from the Bible, we pause to give three examples of pastors who link the gospel with social change. If you have any other examples of pastors doing this, please add your comments to this post. We're always seeking to learn to walk with churches, leaders, and families more effectively.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has written a book entitled Ministries of Mercy. Click here for a few articles related to this topic. Keller expands the discussion in an article entitled "Gospel Centered Ministry," which you can download in a pdf by clicking here.

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Social Change: Can We Begin the Process in the Schools?

There is an old maxim that goes like this: ‘one cannot not communicate.’ In other words, whether we like it or not, we are always, whether verbally or non-verbally, communicating something. Even ignoring another person is a response and a facial expression is sometimes far more expressive than a few words. In a very real sense, the same is true in terms of schools and social change. Schools influence communities and they “cannot not” influence the communities in which they sit. In other words, schools will indeed leave a mark, so the question isn’t whether or not a school will impact a community through social change, but we must identify whether the influence is one that promotes social justice or injustice?

Do schools promote a certain type of social change or are schools simply reactionary institutions following current trends? In this paper, we will make a case that not only do schools impact social systems, thereby becoming agents of social change, but schools can actually lead the way in ushering in positive social changes by being more intentional in both instruction and influence. We turn first to a foundational question that sets up our understanding of intentionality. What is the difference between education that positively impacts a culture and education that intentionally advocates for social change?

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As a University director of study abroad in Central Texas, ideas and stories matter. These reflections are for pilgrims making progress.