Are today's leaders any wiser in the exercise of authority than those we scoffed at in the 1960s and 1970s? We hope they've made progress — at least on a few significant issues like racial and gender discrimination. But still, is there more wisdom all around? It's a painful subject, because today's leaders include us.
Recent years have witnessed a parade of high-profile executives and boards — in business, the church, higher education, and nonprofits alike — pilloried for immoral or criminal behavior, or for covering up the faults of others. Self-righteous outrage has flooded the press and has saturated our conversations.
For those of us steeped in Scripture, these repeated offenses should only surprise us momentarily but grieve us continually. We know the temptations of power, however small our fiefdoms, and the reality of human weakness and sin. We know, too, that it takes more than the repeated pronouncement of commandments to make the rough places plain.
In God's plan, ongoing reform and renewal are necessary, with God supplying the leaders to make that happen. What Moses delivered on tablets required the wisdom of Solomon and the jeremiads of prophets. What the elites in Judea prescribed for followers of the Law required the witness of Jesus and the ongoing proclamation of the kingdom of God. Jesus was also especially clear that all authority is given by God.
Exercising authority takes practice. We can start as good fiduciaries by managing risk, measuring outcomes, promoting health and safety, protecting the environment, and being good citizens. But satisfying the requirements of the state, accrediting bodies, and our churches does not add up to the faithful practice of authority.
Compliance is leadership at its minimum, and even that requires judicious assessment as to the value and morality of the ever-growing mountain of regulations. Compliance is merely a blunt instrument by which we acknowledge what we are not supposed to do, what records we are to keep, what evidence of quality and value we are to provide.
But obeying regulations does not prepare us sufficiently to speak and act in extraordinary circumstances, because regulations do not prepare us to address death and grief, crime and outrage, disaster and panic, institutional mortality and public frustration. They do not even replace the independent judgment required to provide steady guidance in pursuing and sustaining an institutional mission.
To govern well, we must be students of human history and Scripture. We need schooling in prudence, justice, moderation, and courage as well as in faith, hope, and love. The exercise of virtue, and nothing less, makes wise and even heroic leadership possible.
Take the example of your own institution's history, guarding against the temptation to express undue adulation or outrage over particular episodes. Instead, search for the roots of today's challenges. Look for signs of prudence in the weighing of options and the timeliness of responses. Consider whether decision makers were well informed and whether their conclusions were just and temperate. Note where leaders exercised courage by facing objective realities and making painful choices.
Then use these insights to assess how well you are doing. Search for evidence where fear, emotional outrage, or procrastination are clouding judgment and inhibiting the virtuous practice of authority. Look for opportunities to prod members or executives into choosing priorities and taking well-informed risks on what matters most. Assume that people will make mistakes needing correction. Use the mirror of virtue and humbly pursue truth. In so doing, you will build a usable legacy in governance for your successors, another practice worthy of those chosen by God to lead.