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Christian Leadership Books' Great Cloud of Unknowing

The church has always been susceptible to having the waves of secular enthusiasm wash over it. In the 1920s and 1930s we saw the emergence of the Social Gospel; in the 1970s and 1980s we saw the rise of liberation theology, which is essentially Marxism with salsa. On a less political plane, we have seen Christian aerobics programs at the height of the fitness craze and Christian punk-rock bands during the new wave era. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment on the writing style of journalists, there is no cultural fad that the Christian subculture cannot appropriate and make worse.

Now, leadership studies are in vogue among Christians, and if you take the literature seriously, you would think that Jesus Christ was cut out to be a managing partner at McKinsey and Company. It probably should not have surprised us that Governor George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher or that Vice President Al Gore embraced the guiding slogan, “What would Jesus do?” (wwjd, for short). But Jesus as marketing manager or human relations consultant? Try out this sample: “It struck me,” writes Laurie Beth Jones, author of Jesus ceo, “that Jesus had many feminine values in management and that his approach with his staff often ran counter to other management styles and techniques I had both witnessed and experienced.” Or this, from Bob Briner and Ray Pritchard’s Leadership Lessons of Jesus: “Jesus was both the greatest manager and the greatest leader of all time, and both His management skills and leadership abilities should be prized and emulated.” But what about his goals? From most of these books, you would hardly know that Jesus is the Savior of man; he seems more like F. W. Woolworth instead. Can the salvation of mankind through incarnation and crucifixion really be appropriated for the purpose of selling widgets?

I am reminded of a competency hearing for a bumbling surgeon at a southern California hospital many years ago, where the surgeon in the dock explained that “Jesus guides my scalpel.” To which the chairman of the board of inquiry replied, “I’m sorry; he’s not a licensed practitioner in the state of California.” So, too, we should wonder whether Jesus will really make his second coming at the Harvard Business School. The pablum that appears in many of the Christian leadership books makes me wonder if we have not mistranslated the New Testament passage in which Jesus overturns the tables in the temple. More likely, he was upending the tables at the Christian Booksellers Association convention.

Max Weber’s Revenge

Before going further, I must pause and offer full disclosure along with some background. I am the author of a book in this genre, Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity. As I confessed in my preface to that book, I first thought the idea of writing a leadership treatment of Winston Churchill was ludicrous, but then I changed my mind for two reasons. (Well, okay, three reasons–the financial blandishments of the publisher were not an inconsiderable factor.) First, Churchill was totally and surprisingly absent from the best-selling leadership literature. One book from Harvard University Press, for example, goes on about Hitler for seven pages, while Churchill is not mentioned at all. Second, it became clear to me in reading leadership literature that the example of Churchill stands in opposition to the current, popular understanding of leadership, which emphasizes a highly passive posture, whose most prized value is consensus.

Churchill would have called the leadership precepts of our time “mush, slush, and gush.” In fact, one total-quality-management instructor told a person who brought my book to class that Churchill exemplified the unacceptable trait of “linear dichotomous absolutism,” or “lda.” When unpacked, this cloying flotsam of jargon means that Churchill believed in objective reasoning (“linear”), that good could be distinguished from evil (“dichotomous”), and that evil should be opposed (“absolutism”). Seems to me the world could stand a bit more lda.

In short, I came to realize that a genre of literature that included Attilla the Hun and Mafia dons would sooner or later get around to considering Churchill–and would probably get him all wrong. Rather than let some nitwit write about Churchill, I decided I had better do it myself.

The second observation that should be made is that there is a positive side to the popular fascination with leadership. The growing interest in leadership represents an implicit rejection of bureaucracy and of the Progressive Era theory of administration, both public and private, that sought to reduce management decision making to a scientific process that does not require the personal characteristics or insight that we ordinarily associate with leadership. In this organizational scheme, managers are as interchangeable as any other moving part. Think of it as the logical extension of Frederick Taylor’s famous time-and-motion methods: Not only are workers reduced to robots but so are executives. In other words, the impersonal forces of matter, rather than the personal forces of individuals, were thought to determine the shape and direction of progress in the modern world.

The coming of systems analysis and other sophisticated quantitative methods seemed to complete the repertoire of scientific management, and its slow undoing probably can be traced to the first instance of its use in running a war–Vietnam. But that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that the revived interest in the importance of personal leadership for organizational success represents Max Weber’s revenge. Weber, the theorist of bureaucracy par excellance, nonetheless had misgivings about his project, warning that bureaucratic rule would turn into “mechanized petrifaction” and that bureaucrats would turn out to be “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Weber’s provisional solution–charismatic leadership–did not work out very well for Germany (despite what Harvard University Press authors think), but his basic judgment may still be right: “Man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well.”

The (Incomplete) Escape from Bureaucracy

On the surface, much of the leadership literature can be criticized as simplistic or merely obvious–driven more by the hucksterism of the American publishing industry than by any real intellectual insight. (I think it was Woody Allen who quipped that if Immanuel Kant had been American, he would have written The Categorical Imperative–And Six Ways to Make It Work for You!) There is very little in most leadership books that an executive would not learn in a basic human relations or organizational behavior course. Leadership books, and especially the circuit-riding gurus who take up an entire day of your time instructing you on time management, have been rightly dismissed–as John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge do in The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus–as little more than faddism, clichés, one-part motivation, one-part plain common sense, one-hit wonders, and less. G. K. Chesterton remarked that there is but an inch of difference between the cushioned chamber and the padded cell, and the difference between Tony Robbins and Tom Peters often seems slight indeed.

This is the least of the problem. The trouble with most of the contemporary literature about leadership is that it still partakes of the viewpoint of value-free social science that is the very heart of bureaucratic theory. In other words, the escape from bureaucracy is incomplete. Instead of leadership based first and foremost on moral character and clarity of purpose, the most highly prized trait of leadership today is the ability to forge consensus through “non-coercive models of interaction.” In this model, “hierarchy is out, and loosely coupled organic networks are in.” One of the most popular definitions of “consensus leadership” is “an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” Such definitions make it possible to go on at length about Hitler’s leadership abilities. They raise new possibilities for a sequel to my Churchill on Leadership, such as Stalin on Leadership: The Complete Guide for the Command-and-Control Executive.

You would hope that the sub-genre of Christian leadership treatises would eschew the value-free approach to the subject precisely because of the centrality of moral and ethical character at the heart of Christian teaching. But you will be disappointed. “Jesus had a plan and adhered to it unfailingly,” Bob Briner writes in The Management Methods of Jesus. “He knew where he was going, and he went there…. Whatever the consequences, he would go to Jerusalem and carry out his plan.” Nothing about what “the plan” entailed (i.e., the salvation of mankind); it might just as easily be a Super Bowl coach’s game plan. Nothing about the fact that being God incarnate might provide you with a little more foresight about how the plan will unfold–a benefit none of us has today. Laurie Beth Jones (Jesus ceo) even has a chapter with the lesson that “He Knew That No One Could Ruin His Plans.” Of course, it helps to be omnipotent.

Nothing is more important than hiring quality employees, but these books tend to elide over what a personnel manager would doubtless call the “Judas problem.” Judas is understandably a cause for some embarrassment in these chirpy books, but, thankfully, none offers a chapter on “Surviving the Judas Employee.” “True,” Briner writes, “one of the twelve betrayed him, but I wish I had been successful in selecting the right employee eleven out of twelve times.” Jones writes of Judas’s betrayal: “This experience is common to many of us in business, in friendship, and in romance.” Just as Jesus himself might have put it in a sales meeting.

This could go on, as could a roster of titles that we might expect from the publishing industry. With two thousand years of church history with which to work, the permutations are nearly unlimited. The Reformation? A mere proxy fight for control of the church. The Crusades? An inspiration for traveling salespeople. Gothic cathedrals? The Wal-Marts of their time. How about Martin Luther on Leadership: How to Wage a Proxy Fight and Win, or The Jesuit Mode of Leadership: How to Fend Off a Proxy Fight and Win, or Venture Capital Lessons of the Council of Trent, or The Thirty-Years War as a Model for the Coke-Pepsi Rivalry, or Saint Benedict on Business: The Quiet Way to Climb the Corporate Ladder, or Savonarola on Leadership: How to Fire Up Your Stakeholders, or How to Profit from the Prophets: Putting Predestination to Work in the Commodity Futures Market? When Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about cheap grace, he had no inkling of the possibilities in the world of publishing.

Ultimately, A Question of Character

It is not impossible to derive from Scripture some edifying insights into the world of commerce. To make a genuine contribution, however, leadership literature should impart something of the substance of the person in question as well as how that substance affected his character, thought process, and decisions. (This is the value, for example, of Donald Phillips’s Lincoln on Leadership.) So it is important to single out the two books that stand above the typical tripe of the Jesus-as-manager genre of books. Richard Phillips, who has an mba from Wharton, chose King David as the subject of The Heart of an Executive: Lessons on Leadership from the Life of King David. The first thing you notice is that, at 272 pages of small type, this is a real book. And, of course, since King David was an actual political sovereign, his life and actions bear some reasonable resemblance to the real world that we can see or imagine. From this book, a reader will learn a coherent account of King David’s life, as well as lessons that can be applied in a serious manner.

James C. Hunter’s The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership is also a welcome departure. Hunter is a real live senior executive rather than a consultant of some kind (as most of the authors of the other books discussed here are), and The Servant is a straightforward narrative of what he learned by retreating to a monastery when his life and career were at low ebb. Nothing here about what depreciation method Jesus would use. It is, however, a moving affirmation of the value of contemplation, and its focus on Christian virtues makes it an oasis amidst the desert of Christian leadership studies.

Hunter’s book confirms the final judgment that questions of leadership are ultimately questions of character. Adapting the Jesus of the Gospels for the purpose of restating basic maxims of personnel management and human relations not only trivializes the Savior but also makes a hash of leadership properly understood. If we had genuine truth-in-advertising laws, most of these books would be called The Cloud of Unknowing. But that title is already taken.