Leadership for Such a Time as This
In re-reading Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve, my attention became directed on chapter two. The title is, A Society in Regression and it discusses at length how our American culture is unraveling. “A society cannot evolve, no matter how much freedom is guaranteed, when the citizenry is more focused on one another than on their own beliefs” (p. 57). This is an accurate statement of our present-day state of affairs and he does an insightful job of developing the idea. He compares at length the similarities and differences between modern-day America and medieval Europe.
He discusses the breakdown of institutions in both periods. The rule of law, politic stability, business patterns, the Church—all of these were under attack in the medieval period. To counter this regression, leadership needs to stand up and fight. Differentiated leadership that is capable, informed and pushes against the tides of regression is the difference between a society that continues to crumble and one that gets back on track. And this leadership must come from an individual first and foremost: and individual that can lead a group to influence its culture for the good. It comes at a cost, as all things do, but the leadership that Friedman describes is the prescription for success.
Both time periods also have rapidly changing power shifts and alliances. Certainly, this plays out in our headlines on a daily basis today, but it was just as true in the medieval time period. This makes for fast-changing rules and expectations in a society where leaders need to keep up and be prepared for the unexpected. Leaders need to act proactively in this case and not just reactively. The best defense is a strong offense.
Each age was also characterized by large populations moving into urban centers. This dynamic pushes a rise in “political correctness.” In the right measure this is a good thing: it helps solidify cultural norms and tolerance. But when this force grows too strong, it can have the opposite effect. People feel enslaved to say and do the right thing, even when it goes against their own belief. Personal conviction, freedom of thought and speech and artistic expression all become muffled. This is another area where differentiated leadership is needed to battle against this over-reach. In today’s society we see political correctness run amok and every time a leader tries to stand up against it, they are mocked, or torn down. But the fight must be fought and it takes strong leadership to do so.
Friedman says, “the climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression.” This is the current state of affairs and leaders in all segments of society need to take note of this reality. And for us in this cohort and people who are engaged in ministry how we lead in this culture is under especial scrutiny. We must be able to read the cultural shifts happening and navigate them skillfully. Underlying all of this is of course our faith that provides each of us courage and direction from God. We cannot be guilty of not being able to read the signs in our society. In Matthew 16:3, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and Sadducees when he says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” We should take not of this warning and practice the differentiated leadership that Friedman so wisely describes.
16 responses to “Leadership for Such a Time as This”
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Troy, thanks for giving us the historical perspective that you do in this post. I’m guessing that some of Friedman’s historical material will appear somehow in your historically focused project. You mention that a certain amount of political correctness is beneficial but there can also be “over-reach.” What indicators would signal over-reach to you?
Roy: The threshold is blurry, isn’t it? When political correctness morphs into people being afraid to share their opinion for fear of reprisals or retribution certainly that is an indicator. But it can be more subtle than that. A strong sense of the need to conform is also a sign of over-reach. Many people don’t want tolerance, what they really want is uniformity, so they don’t feel afraid of someone else’s opinion.
Troy – the thoughts in your post and corresponding comments make me think of those for whom harmony is a key value in their leadership and how they function. These last several years have shed much light on political correctness and many times I have wondered where wisdom is held in that – and is it the same for everyone? While there can be over-reach there is also under-reach. But can we really determine that for anyone else other than ourselves?
Good question Kayli: In one sense we can and do determine the boundaries of political correctness for others. Those are the norms and rules of society. There are rules on broadcast TV professional journalism about what words can NOT be spoken and written. Even though we live in a country where we value “Free Speech.” There are rules within the freedom that benefit everyone involved. But it is the ‘unspoken’ rules that are trickier and subject to change.
The great leaders of our faith chose to do the right thing in the face of being told it was unorthodox. What often is labeled progressive and theoretical within a generation is seen as right.
I wonder what “theological” issues our churches and denominations face today will be on the wrong side of history, similar to the white church’s response to chattel slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Differentiated leaders help make healthy changes even when they are emotionally attacked in the process.
Andy: Good question, perhaps the issue of homosexuality? We are too close to the fast-moving developments of this issue to see what history will say about it. History will also have a lot to say about our generation’s attitudes about women’s roles in ministry. There is never any shortage for explosive issues to divide the church.
Thanks Troy. What I hear (or am reading in between the lines) is the tension of living these principles out in our current world. Is that a fair assessment? For example, like Roy’s post, what DOES empathy look like today in a way that is engaging culture and people where they are at but also not compromising gospel realities and truths?
What applications are you seeing of Friedman in our current leadership capacity?
Eric: Yes indeed there is a tension there, isn’t there? When we are placed in a leadership role we have to have the emotional intelligence to skillfully navigate these norms that society is piling up on all of us. Faith, courage, insight; I pray for these qualities continually.
Hey Troy, I appreciate your reflection. You write, “People feel enslaved to say and do the right thing, even when it goes against their own belief.” For me belief and values must be critiqued on the basis of the “greatest commandment.” The feeling of “enslavement” may be the necessary feeling of leadership if their beliefs have enslaved and devalued others. This is the essential quality of shadow work, or repentance. Thoughts?
Michael: Yes, when others have been enslaved, then as leaders we are required to stand up to that and act according to the “greatest commandments.” It takes courage and faith to be sure.
What a great conversation your post has provoked, Troy! Thank you for that! I was drawn to the same sentence that Michael quoted from your post: “People feel enslaved to say and do the right thing, even when it goes against their own belief.” I’d value hearing more from you on how you, as a leader in your context, discern the tensions between “doing the right thing” and going against one’s own belief? The juxtaposition I hear in this sentence is that doing the right thing is antithetical to one’s own belief. Am I correctly hearing that tension? Could you say a bit more about what you mean by ‘doing the right thing’ and how you see that in tension with your own belief?
There is a tension, isn’t there? Society’s attitudes don’t always agree with the church and as leaders of the church we will be expected to speak intelligently about our faith. We need to both be courageous about Christian teachings and at the same time always reaching out to others with the love that is found in the Gospel.
Troy your concern for political correctness in the right measure and without compromising our convictions is one that’s valid not only for America but also for South Africa and, most likely, all other contexts. Here we’re witnessing a rapidly growing critical need for the church to be wise as serpents (diplomatic, politically correct), yet prophetic (as oracles of God clearly addressing the need for divine standards in an increasingly decadent society) and doing so lovingly (with unflinching compassion for neighbor, knowing we’re also saved by grace). Let’s pray for each other as we manage this delicate balance.
Thanks for your perspective from South Africa. I think you’re right about the new order of political correctness is now to be found everywhere. Strategic in our ministry is indeed needed. Prayers for you and your ministry Henry.
Troy thank you for providing a historical view. If you were to invite your parishioners to consider their pain threshold (discomfort with change) how would you apply Friedman’s wisdom in leading that conversation?
Good question Nicole. People don’t like difficult change but they sure do welcome a good change! I would follow Friedman’s script when dealing with the difficult changes that people in my church face. Empathy, faith, patience . . . it all goes a long way.