Leadership is Complex
Confession. For years I struggled with the praise of MLK, especially in Christian circles. It wasn’t that I didn’t whole-heartedly agree with his movement to advocate for the rights of blacks, but I struggled with the dark side of King, the alleged affairs and womanizing. It probably didn’t help my ignorance that I grew up in Wyoming, a region of the US very isolated from diversity of any kind. Thus, the first time I encountered students of a different race, such as blacks, was as a college student at the University of Wyoming. Not too many years after these first encounters, I went on to live and work in an all-black community known as Binghampton in Memphis, not too far from where King was assassinated.
As a new Executive Director in 2005, one of my first encounters with racial tension was with a man we had hired who had recently left behind a life of crime, drugs, and pimping. Going by the nickname, Big Dog, he was a force to be reckoned with as a 6’4” 260lb all-star black athlete. Big Dog and I had it out several times as our cultures and assumptions of one another clashed often. Yet, yoked together in the name of Christ, our genuine love not only maintained the relationship but forged it over time. Even after I left Memphis in 2009, Big Dog and I have remained friends, and he has served as a safe sounding board for me as I have struggled through various challenges regarding race. One phone call two years ago was about my struggle with King. Big Dog listened but was just as quick to put me in my place and challenge my “white version of Christianity.” He was not suggesting that the extra-curricular activities were merited, but that regardless there was much one could learn and respect about MLK. I was rightfully put in my place that day. Reading King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I was struck by this quote, “Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” I wrote in the margin of my book, “Wow. I admire King for many reasons, but two of them are his humility and love. Quite commendable.” Big Dog was right, I have much to learn and appreciate.
Switching gears, Western and Garcia’s leadership book, Global Leadership Perspectives, proved to be an insightful survey of the different leadership styles from around the world. With some similarities to Meyer’s The Culture Map, this book provided a helpful framework for understanding the variety of leadership practices and suggested four dominant discourses of leadership. They define discourse as the “underlying set of assumptions that becomes accepted as the norm.” Following is a breakdown of each discourse:
- The Controller. The four qualities are efficiency, task-oriented, structured systems, and evidence-based.
- The Therapist. The four qualities are greater self-awareness, relationally driven, coaching-oriented, and focused on development.
- The Messiah. The four qualities are leadership charisma, vision-oriented, a strong sense of culture, and leaders demonstrating confidence in their abilities.
- The Eco-Leader. The four qualities are: focused on interdependence, maintaining system ethics, modeling leadership spirit, and curating a sense of organizational belonging.
In addition to these regional leadership breakdowns, the authors identify other potentially overlooked leadership approaches. South Africa has been pegged as possessing Paralysed Leadership due to the lack of consistent leadership and the depressive culture. It was suggested that changing this broken system will require a change in the leadership-followership dynamic. Since the end of apartheid and Mandela’s exceptional leadership, the leadership vacuum has been difficult to fill. The US is said to model Melancholic Leadership. The authors give the sense that the US has lost its way and has become deeply polarized as we have failed to produce the American Dream. Thankfully we have had leaders along the way to “make America great again.” 😉 Or not.
I found Global Leadership Perspectives helpful in considering how region, culture, and history map a country’s leadership approach. It was notable to me, and a little odd, that Canada didn’t make the cut. However, the chapter on Mexico gave me a deeper appreciation for my neighbors and their rich history and varied leadership styles over the years, but also Mexico’s tenacity to learn “different ways of facing life and solving unique Mexican problems.” Finally, with our trip to South Africa fast approaching, I am even more excited to better understand the impact of race, culture, and leadership in this diverse country. South Africa, here we come!
 Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail ; the Three Dimensions of a Complete Life (S.l.: Penguin, 2018), 27.
 Simon Western and Éric-Jean Garcia, Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2018), 190.
 Ibid., 192–200.
 Ibid., 253.
 Ibid., 260.
 Ibid., 120.
9 responses to “Leadership is Complex”
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Eric, I admire your humility in both listening to “Big Dog” and learning from MLK. I think that is one of the most amazing aspects of Jesus’ character and I am eternally amazed at how He would leave His glory in heaven, wash His disciples feet, and allow Himself to be crucified by sinful hands. What are some ways Black followers of Jesus could foster more humility in their walk with God?
Wow, great question. I honestly don’t know if I have an answer offhand. BUT, if I had to say right now, it would be to extend grace to people like myself as I do desire to learn and grow. Grace and the hand of fellowship/relationship. See you soon.
I was in a similar position with King as you were. I had read somewhere that he said, near the last couple of years of his life, that he could no longer preach the gospel. He was so consumed with the Civil Rights movement. But I didn’t dare share that with just anyone because he is such a revered figure. It shows, once again, that you can respect a person, be thankful for their faith, courage, and contribution, without deifying him. In the language of Western and Garcia, the idea of Messiah Leadership. But the masses do this over and over again, in politics, business. and ministry. Thanks for sharing.
For sure. Exciting to see you soon!
Thanks for your honesty about MLK. I am curious about how you in vision using these new enlightening concepts in your new position.
I will be working with a broader group of people, thus, cultures. I hope to grow in awareness to more effectively influence/lead those whom I have the privilege of working with.
Eric, last week you mentioned a struggle with Mandela’s willingness to use violence (correct me if I’m overstating this) and this week you mention MLK’s character as a tension. If you had to say what proves to be a bigger barrier to effective leadership, do you think it’s strategy issues or character issues that hinder it the most? See you soon!
You are correct. To answer your question, I would say it is both CHARACTER and STRATEGY as they are interconnected, in my opinion. See you soon!
Eric, I so appreciate your sharing the vulnerable story about you and your journey with Big Dog.
To take another angle on Roy’s question to you, what are aspects of MLK’s darker character and Mandela’s strategy(not moral mandate) of non-violence might offer you wisdom for your own leadership?
So looking forward to seeing you in SA