Everything Rises and Falls on Leadership
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
Leadership guru John Maxwell has long been a mainstay in the evangelical church world. His books line the shelves of pastors, his conferences have been populated by many Christian leaders, and his principles have been embraced as axioms by untold numbers.
A "Maxwellism" that I have heard quoted perhaps more than any other is this:
"Everything rises and falls on leadership."
A simple statement, but one that points to the importance of those who guide people and organizations. What we do matters, and how we lead has impact for good or ill.
I think about this statement today as the House of Representatives begins debate on the impeachment of the President of the United States. Here, now, where not only Democratic leaders, but also some members of the President's own party have indicated support for this process, we have come to a juncture. It is a conversation about the events in the Capitol last week even as it is about the kind of leadership culture we have had over the last number of years that helped lead to it. This national dialogue needs to happen, because it forces us to ask hard questions about the kind of nation--and the kinds of leaders and leadership--that we would like to have moving forward.
We know that white evangelical support for the President was strong during both the 2016 and 2020 election cycles. Indeed, they have formed a bulwark. And to be sure: this administration has delivered policies, decisions, and appointments that have been lauded by many in that group. If a simple curated checklist of policy results, reviewed in a vacuum, were all that are required to evaluate the last four years, then for many social and religious conservatives there is victory to celebrate.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, though. For even as the last four years have unfolded, the character of national leadership has become more and more impaired. Time and again we have seen with our own eyes a style of leadership that degrades, obfuscates, and inflames. A voice that has carried with it a kind of narcissistic bravado lacking in the kind of introspection, self-reflection, and growth that we would like to see in those that lead us. A President whose inflammatory rhetoric and reinforcement of discontent and conspiracy has brought us a place woefully exemplified by last Wednesday's violence in the Capitol.
This sorry state of affairs is about leadership. It has to do, I would say, with the potential of leadership to bring great benefits as well as disastrous outcomes. Let me be clear: our current political moment is not about whether traditionally conservative political policies are acceptable positions to hold (they are), nor is it about whether this administration has made some policy decisions endorsed by a significant number of Americans (it has). Traditionally conservative and Republican principles--whether you agree with them or not--are perfectly welcome on the stage of American discourse. What is at stake, rather, is a question about the character and direction of presidential leadership.
For many people of Christian faith--people I know and love--the tradeoff has been that the current President's "baggage" was worth putting up with in order to achieve a set of desired outcomes. It has been a political calculus. For others, support for the President has gone well beyond this. To both groups, though, I would ask for a good and hard look at where this leadership has led us as a nation: a precedent of corrosive political rhetoric heretofore unheard of at the presidential level, a failure to strike a consistent tone for the common good, a tacit endorsement of political violence, an unwillingness to accept common-sense facts, and in the eyes of many (especially of the rising generation) an accelerating discrediting of conservative political philosophy and--much more damningly--a Christian faith that is understood to uncritically accept just about anything the President said or did.
If we really and truly believe that everything rises and falls on leadership, then this moment, even as late in this presidential term as it is, should serve as a shock to the system. A reminder that the words about leadership we have repeated again and again actually mean something. That a group (and a nation) does rise and fall on leadership--one defined not only by the particular decisions made, but by the style and character of those leading.
Here, now, at this late date at least, we should speak forth an honest evaluation and critique of substandard and corrosive leadership. It is perfectly acceptable and proper admit that this is not the character of leadership we need, even if the current administration supported some preferred policy goals. If the emperor has no clothes, there is a need for us to say it. To not do so is, in part, to endorse more of the same and to perpetuate a situation where character does not really seem to matter. Where all we really need from a leader is someone who will do what our group wants, irregardless of any other factors.
The time has come--and indeed, it came a long time ago--when we must speak plain truth. To do so is not to abandon Christian convictions or the Kingdom of God. Rather, it is to more fully inhabit what motivates them. Leadership and the character it embodies matters. We rise and fall on it. And those of us who serve as Christian leaders need to not only model what it means serve in leadership, but help work to ensure that, moving forward, our leaders have, maintain, and exhibit the kind of character upon which everything rises...or falls.