Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Leaders and the Lack Thereof

Interesting discussions everywhere now, amidst the current economic crisis, of the dearth of leaders to get us out of the mess we’re in. You’d think that this recognition—that we are not being led by capable leaders—would have preceded the crisis, and thus prevented it. Now, when we have let ourselves be led into morass, we want to talk about leadership? Now that we’re trying to slog our way out of the mire?

We should have been doing so all along. Admitting that we have failed to define and expect good leadership in our culture is a necessary first step to resolving the dilemma in which we now find ourselves. We’ve been far too willing to allow people with demonstrable lack of character, integrity, and leadership ability to lead us. We’ve given ourselves as sheep to shepherds whose intent was not to preserve the flock, but to fleece it. We really do not have the right to lament, when it’s we ourselves who have anointed these shepherds. And it’s we who have made ourselves into unquestioning sheep demanding to be fleeced, in the name of God.

I’m intentionally using religiously loaded language as I talk about the political-economic crisis in which we find ourselves, because at the same time that there’s a lot of chatter about our need for good political leaders now, I’m also noticing similar discussion of the need for (and lack of) good pastoral leadership in the churches—especially in the American Catholic church.

In a 27 September interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, stated that the Democratic party is in the process of transforming itself into “the party of death,” and declared that “pro-life” Democrats are “rare, unfortunately” (see Cindy Wooden, “Archbp. Burke Warns Democrats Becoming ‘Party of Death’,” http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/2054).

Burke’s Roman pronouncements unfortunately raise serious critical questions about the quality of leadership among American Catholic bishops at this point in history. As Wooden’s article notes, there has been talk among American Catholics that Burke got transferred to Rome this past June to remove him from his pastoral role in St. Louis. Where he did, in the estimation of many Catholics, a conspicuously poor job of leading his flock.

Burke’s leadership style in St. Louis was long on threats and short on, well, good shepherding. Like a gun-slinging cowboy of old West myth, he shot right and he shot left, excommunicating almost anybody who looked at him crosswise. In January, he sought to discipline the head basketball coach of Jesuit-run St. Louis University, Rick Majerus, after Majerus appeared at a Hilary Clinton campaign event and made statements in favor of stem-cell research and a pro-choice stance on abortion.

Burke’s last big act as archbishop of St. Louis (a downright mean and craven act, in my estimation) was to remove from ministry a highly regarded leader of the St. Louis church, Sr. Louise Lears. Burke moved against Lears because she had attended the ordination of several local women as priests.

To Catholics of the far right, Burke has become a hero. In the 2004 election, he was a leader of the minority of U.S. bishops who stated publicly that communion should be denied to any political leader affiliated with a party that, in their view, promotes abortion (read: Democratic political leaders). Burke has continued to promote this position in the 2008 campaign, and has been joined in this stance by several bishops who are seeking to use the power of the pulpit to coerce Catholics to vote “right” in the coming election.

Pastoral leadership? Leadership, period? In my view, the attempt of some Catholic pastoral “leaders” to coerce their flocks into good behavioir clearly demonstrates the lack of sound leadership among many U.S. bishops today—and provides an important lesson for anyone looking at what has gone wrong with leadership in the political sphere.

To put the point plainly, when Burke was challenged in St. Louis—and he was, frequently—he responded to the challenges by becoming belligerent. Belligerent: from Latin roots bellum and gerens—“war-bearing.” Rather than respond to valid questions with reason, dialogue, and meetings designed to get to the root of problems, in which everyone concerned had a voice, Burke took out his crozier, his shepherd’s staff, and shook it at the flock.

He fulminated. He threatened. He sought to coerce. He excommunicated. He did not behave like a pastoral leader, a good shepherd, intent on binding up wounds. He inflicted wounds, and those wounds will take a long time to heal in St. Louis.

The lessons Archbishop Burke teaches us about leadership (or, rather, its opposite) are not lost on contemporary American Catholics. In a blog thread commenting on the Cindy Wooden article cited above, lay commentator Dennis Porch, M.D., states, “I find Arch Bishop Burke’s comments to be a chilling reminder of the poor leadership in our church.”

The increasingly widespread lament that American Catholicism is dominated today by pastors who exhibit a significant lack of leadership ability is echoed in an interview with the retired president of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, in today’s Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122272143108887413.html?mod=googlenews_wsj). Hesburgh states,

The Catholic Church, like any other human organization, depends on leadership, and leadership depends on performance. If you look for leaders in a given group and you don't find them, something is wrong. When you had leaders, such as you just mentioned, a few decades ago, I have to say the Church seemed more vital to most people, even to people outside the church.

In Hesburgh’s view, the problem of leadership (that is, the problem of lack of sound leadership) in the American Catholic church today begins with education—with the system by which priests, and therefore bishops-to-be, are educated. In response to a question about the lack of leaders today of the caliber of John XXIII or Rev. Robert Drinan, Hesburgh notes that if we’re to deal with the leadership issue, we’re going to have to take a close look at “the educational system for clergy” and/or the kind of people we draw to the priesthood.

As an educator, I agree. Wholeheartedly. Moreover, I’m an educator whose own theological education occurred in part in a seminary setting, though I was pursuing a master’s degree in theology as a lay student rather than a seminarian. This experience gave me an eye-opening look at the kind of seminarian church leaders have cultivated as potential bishops for several decades now. My theological education allowed me, alas, the opportunity to have close contact with two people who eventually did get elevated to episcopal rank.

Based on this experience, I have long been convinced that what counts, when the church anoints a bishop nowadays is not pastoral skill. It’s not intelligence. It’s not education. It’s not strength of character.

It’s game-playing ability. It’s knowing how to say yes when saying yes is a timely thing to do. It’s having a healthy appetite for opportunistic self-advancement. It’s being willing to collect scalps for your superiors by destroying those designated as juicy little victims, scalps as evidence of your willingness to do anything you're told to do. It’s caring more about ecclesial ladder-climbing than pastoral leadership.

There is—I cannot overstate this point—a fundamental, lamentable stupidity about many of those who have been made bishops in recent years. A calculating stupidity, with game-playing intelligence galore, but without the wide base of information needed to make sound moral judgments, and thus to be a good pastoral leader. And the church is suffering as a result—suffering terribly.

As is our society, insofar as we have elected to leadership positions not the best and brightest, but the most venal and the most dim. To our shame, we seem to have come to a point in the history of our nation at which being venal and dim is actually a positive argument for getting elected. We want, after all, leaders with whom we can identify, with whom we can chew the fat as we down a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Not those frighteningly “elite” folks who have gone to ivy-league universities and who chew arugula leaves.

As an educator, I have to conclude that, when we have come to the point that we actually prefer dullness over intelligence, dim-witted cluelessness over education in those who lead us, the American educational system has failed. And disastrously so.

I’ve noted on this blog that one of my responsibilities in previous academic positions was to think, research, and write about the concept of transformative leadership. Both that assignment, and the opportunity my own placement in the structure of several universities provided me to study good (and bad) leadership at close hand, have convinced me that good leadership is about sound character and more.

The equation of leadership with character goes without saying, in my view—though I’d argue that liberal education today (in universities, where my experience lies) elides over that obvious connection. I’d argue that too few liberal arts programs give the concerted attention to values and character education that their course of studies promises—and we’re all paying the price for this elision. I’d also argue (and have done so, on this blog) that far too many educational “leaders” are nothing of the sort, but are skilled numbers crunchers who know how to spin good images, without knowing much at all about the process of education and the values that underlie a sound liberal arts education.

Here, though, I want to focus attention on something that should be equally obvious in any analysis of sound leadership, but is also often overlooked. This is that to do better, we have to know better. And we don’t learn to know better until we learn to know. Period. This is the “and more” that follows “sound character” in my penultimate paragraph.

People can’t learn to do better when they have no ideas at all in their heads. They can’t learn to do better when their heads are full of clueless pedestrian chatter about what they are told to believe, even when those beliefs are patently absurd and counterfactual. People can’t learn to do better when they are given educational diplomas professing that they are educated, while they cannot identify “the Iraq” on a map, or think that living close to Russia constitutes foreign-policy acumen, or profess that dinosaurs and human beings inhabited planet earth at the same time.

In leaders, lack of sound education is not merely a ludicrous soundbite for “Saturday Night” skits to exploit. It’s a damning flaw. It leads to misjudgments. It leads to bad moral calculations based on misinformation. It leads to hybris about what one knows, because when one knows all too little, one can assume that one knows much simply because the empty room of one’s mind has some furniture scattered about it.

When that mental furniture is a muddle of half-digested “biblical” truths, of half-memorized catechetical statements, of dummies’ guides to why evolution is wrong, and when the person carrying that furniture around in his or her head is making judgments that radically affect the future of the planet, then something is wrong. Isn’t it?

Or am I simply one of those elitists who still think that education and ideas should count? That answers to simple questions shouldn’t be spates of incomprehensible jargon. That leaders’ inability to model the virtues of the leadership they tout should be noted, made the subject of public discussion, and critically addressed.

And that educational “leaders” such as myself need to be held accountable for offering our nation “leaders” of the ilk we’ve seen in recent years. Who have gotten us into the economic mess in which we now find ourselves.

P.S. It occurs to me to add that I have long agreed with Alfred North Whitehead's observation that some of the most educated folks in America do not have college degrees. Whitehead noted this as he traveled around the nation giving lectures, and encountered women who were stay-at-home mothers who found time, in the midst of their busy days, to read. And to read widely. Whitehead said that, after speaking with many women of that sort as he lectured, he had come to the conclusion that one could sometimes educate oneself more deeply and more widely through careful reading than through higher education.

After working in higher education and noting the inability of quite a few educational "leaders" with whom I worked to construct simple sentences, to write cogent paragraphs, to read college-level texts, to think critically about complex issues, I have become convinced that Whitehead is on to something. After hearing abysmally educated and semi-literate educational "leaders" talk about how the "jewelry" is still out, or about how this or that will not happen on their "clock" (for "not on my watch," with no awareness that the "watch" in that phrase is not a timepiece), I find much to praise in Whitehead's argument.

In the anti-intellectual cultural context of American life, I do think that seeking as much education as one can find is a virtue, and I am concerned that Whitehead's argument can too easily translate into attacks on higher education per se. I continue to hope that it is possible to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and texts in American higher education. But I also recognize that many educated people have never had the opportunity to attend college, and may have educated themselves just as well if not better without the benefit of college classes.