An Easter Reverie: The Great Cloud of Unknowing in Christian “Leadership” Books

I was looking through an old hard drive for an academic paper of mine from more than 20 years ago, and I happened to stumble across a long book review I wrote for the Acton Institute in 2000 on “Christian ‘leadership’ books,” and I thought it might be suitable on this Good Friday for a Holy Weekend reverie. I can’t believe I actually read all these books. Anyway:

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 was essentially Marxism with salsa.  On a less political plain, 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 about the writing style of journalists, there is no cultural fad that the Christian subculture can’t appropriate and make worse.

Now the trend of “leadership studies” is 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 & Company.  It probably should not have surprised us that Gov. George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, or that Vice President Al Gore embraced the guiding slogan, “What would Jesus do?”  (Or “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?  You would hardly know that Jesus is the Savior of man from most of these books.  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 practicioner 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 haven’t mistranslated the New Testament passage where Jesus overturns the tables in the temple.  More likely He was upending the tables at the Christian Booksellers Association convention.  (Sometimes these books even snipe at each other.  Charles Manz’s generally superior book, The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus, distinguishes itself from Jesus CEO by noting that “it focuses on visionary leadership, while the focus of this book is on empowering rather than visionary leadership.”  Well, glad we got that cleared up.)

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 (Prima, 1997).  As I confessed in my Preface, I first thought the idea of writing a leadership treatment of Churchill was ludicrous, but 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 popular understanding of leadership today, which emphasizes a highly passive understanding of “leadership” 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 was an unacceptable example 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 round to considering Churchill, and would probably get it 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, of the Progressive Era theory of administration, both public and private, that sought to reduce management decision-making to a scientific process that doesn’t require the personal characteristics or insight that we 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 also 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 can probably 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—didn’t work out too 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. . .”

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 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 wouldn’t 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 Wooldridge do in The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus, as little more than faddism, chichés, 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.

But this is the least of the problem.  The trouble with most of the contemporary literature and teachings about leadership, however, 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.  It raises 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 (wouldn’t you love to have Jesus’s predictions of the Fed’s interest rate plans??)—a benefit that none of us have today, even though a lot of executives think they are God.  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 that 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 about “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 can expect from the publishing industry.  With 2000 years of church history to work with, 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 WalMarts 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 St. 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.

 It is not impossible to derive from the scriptures some edifying insights into the world of commerce, as indeed the work of the Acton Institute shows.  To make a genuine contribution, leadership literature should impart something of the substance of the person in question, and how that substance affected their character, their thought process, and the decisions they made.  This was the approach I tried to take in writing about Churchill, and is the value, for example, of Donald Phillips’ 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 Kind 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 way.

 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 are most of the authors of the other books here), 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 the Christian virtues makes this book an oasis amidst the desert of Christian leadership studies.

 Hunter’s book confirms what ended up being the final judgment of my own work on Churchill: Questions of leadership are ultimately questions of character. To adapt 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 make 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’s already taken.

 Books discussed in this essay include:

Bob Briner, The Management Methods of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).

Bob Briner & Ray Pritchard, The Leadership Lessons of Jesus: A Timeless Model for Today’s Leaders (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).

Bob Briner & Ray Pritchard, More Leadership Lessons of Jesus: A Timeless Model for Today’s Leaders (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998).

James C. Hunter, The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership (Rocklin, CA: Prima, 1998).

Laurie Beth Jones, Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership (New York: Hyperion, 1995).

Charles C. Manz, The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus: Practical Lessons for Today (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1998).

Richard D. Phillips, The Heart of an Executive: Lessons on Leadership from the Life of King David (New York: Doubleday/Galilee, 1999).

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