When 2020 began, the world could not have predicted what headlines would be written mere months later. From global environmental disasters to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary and challenging conversations about racial equity—these are only a few of the most influential events of 2020.
The one thing United States citizens had predicted was the 2020 presidential election, and it’s even more apparent that in a state of emergency, people look to leaders to guide them through uncertain times. “It is the calling of the leader to help people be able to hear God’s truth in the midst of the cacophony of competing voices,” says Peter Vogt, dean of Bethel Seminary. Leaders impact every aspect of society—both nationally and neighborly—and there are certain qualities that define good leadership, especially when encountering crisis.
At least, that’s what Professor of Christian Thought David Clark and Program Director of Transformational Leadership Mark McCloskey teach in their seminary classes. Last spring, they had a conversation about what it means to be a good leader with a strong biblical foundation. Here is what they had to say:
David Clark: When I went to seminary, Mark, honestly, we did not really discuss leadership at all. Today’s seminary at Bethel is different with the sense that we spend time and energy learning about leadership, theory, practice. Could you give a thumbnail sketch about your approach to leadership?
Mark McCloskey: There are a lot of ways to look at leadership, but we have a very specific approach to teaching and learning leadership at Bethel. Leadership begins and ends with a thorough understanding about what the Bible teaches about good leadership and poor leadership. Leaders are catalysts for change and transformation. We’re told in the Scriptures that leaders are men and women who experience, embody, and extend a certain range of what we call biblical virtues: faith, hope, love, courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control. We teach at Bethel a biblical, virtue-based version of transformational leadership that is in accord with the Scriptures, but it applies also to the rest of the world. People in businesses, people in non-profits, people in roles of community leadership have much to gain by sitting and listening to what the Bible has to say about leading well.
DC: So, you’re thinking that a virtue-based approach toward being a transformational leader will be relevant in all sorts of contexts: businesses, education, government, and obviously, the church?
MM: There are some competing narratives for what constitutes a good leader. Two of them are what I call a charisma or personality-based approaches and then a technical, managerial competence-based version of leadership. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those, if they supersede virtue, we’re all in trouble. If a person is charismatic in terms of personality, if they’re the born leader who walks in the room and everybody follows them instinctively but they’re not connected to these biblical virtues, that’s dangerous. If you have a technologically sophisticated managerial, astute version of leadership and it’s not connected to the virtues, that’s problematic for the organization. I firmly believe that these virtues are the starting point for what we call the “right stuff” or the fundamental, foundational, personal attributes of men and women who can lead in a variety of situations, but especially the kind of situation we find ourselves in today—a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment. In that kind of environment, the virtues shine.
DC: You’re making reference to the COVID-19 situation, which really raises the question, how would a virtuous leader navigate these emergencies that arise?
MM: For a starting point, let’s just walk through the seven cardinal virtues. Faith: the leader full of faith will recognize that God is at work on a larger story. Courage: courageous leaders move forward in the face of fear. Hope: leaders who have a realistic hope know our best days are ahead of us. Love: leaders know what it means to love their neighbors as themselves in this context. They demonstrate sacrificial love that rises to this occasion. Wisdom: wise leaders know how to interact and respond to others. Justice: just leaders know how to deal with their resources and respond to those in need. Temperance (self-control): because of their grounding in the Lord, temperate leaders can calm others.
DC: So much of the leader’s role is to be an example of how we do well in the face of difficulty. How do we develop leaders like this? Is there a playbook for preparing leaders to face these kinds of emergencies?
MM: I don’t know if there’s a playbook, because it’s impossible to anticipate the next emergency and what it will require. However, whatever the emergency is, it will require virtuous men and women who stand at the foot of the cross, who are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, who live to the glory of God, and who embody this virtuous foundation that God builds into their life and character. Those will be the kind of men and women that churches—the larger community, society and even country—will require and will look to in need. How do you prepare for that? The best time to prepare for a crisis is well before the crisis. I took a tour of the Pentagon in the early 2000s, and there’s one whole hallway with all the crises the United States military has faced. After 9/11, the next display was blank except for the words: “The Next Crisis.” How do you prepare for a crisis? You work on learning these virtues—the habit of virtue. The habit of when things get difficult, we see ourselves in God’s unfolding story and trust him. We develop faith and hope and love. In other words, we are called to build up these virtues. We need to tend to our own development of virtue, realizing that as we grow in virtue, we could be a great value to others in the next crisis, including this one.
DC: Would you give some guidance or advice for leaders who are facing this particular emergency?
MM: Attend first to your own stance. How do you want to show up today? What’s your stance toward life right this moment? Intentionally come to terms with your stance toward the Lord in the midst of this day. How do you want to show up to people—to your family, your neighbors, your church? And be intentional about that. I want to show up as my best-self, which is my virtuous-self trusting in the Lord. I want to show up full of faith and hope and love. I would also look for opportunity. There’s a theology in the New Testament called the Kairos moment—the opportune time. Make the most of the opportunity the Lord provides in each moment.