Sunday, January 18, 2009

The heart of a leader

The historic rise of Barack Obama to the presidency has rekindled an old question: Who is a leader?

Is a leader someone who inspires others to follow by the power of vision and example? Is a leader a charismatic individual who attracts followers with personal magnetism? Does a leader impose authority on others by sheer force of will, or persuade them with reason?
“The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa,” writes Joseph S. Nye, a Harvard University professor and author of The Powers to Lead. “Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war has led us to over-emphasize command and control and hard military power — and downplay other styles of leadership.”
In Nye’s view, we need to see leaders less in “heroic terms of command” than as people who excel in “encouraging participation throughout an organization, group or network.”
Doesn’t sound very exciting. But for all his charisma and oratorical gifts, Obama probably would agree with Nye’s definition of leadership. To succeed as a national leader, he must find ways to bring together many people with differing opinions to accomplish urgent objectives. Abraham Lincoln, the leader Obama often cites as a model, brilliantly co-opted his political opponents by bringing them into his cabinet — the “team of rivals” — during a time of great national crisis.
Lincoln, however, possessed other attributes in short supply among many contemporary “leaders”: personal honesty, moral courage — and humility.
“He was a strong man, and like most men quietly confident of their strength, without vanity or self-consciousness,” observes historian Paul Johnson. “He invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided. Of how many other great men can that be said?”

Not many — particularly these days. Eighty percent of Americans believe the nation faces a “leadership crisis,” according to a poll by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.
The center, in collaboration with U.S. News and World Report, recently convened a panel of judges from various fields to select 24 of “America’s Best Leaders” from more than 100 nominees (see
The panel defined a leader as someone who “motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things.” They rated nominees based on their effectiveness in setting direction by “building a shared sense of purpose” to make a “positive social impact”; achieving results of “significant breadth and depth”; and cultivating a culture of growth by “inspiring others to lead.”
Their choices, the fourth such listing published by U.S. News, recognized famous and lesser-known leaders, including educators, scientists, physicians, business executives and entrepreneurs, military officers, politicians, activists and artists.
Many of these leaders richly deserve recognition for their work. What struck me, however, was this: No religious or spiritual leader made the list of 24. Not one.
Did the panelists conclude there is not a single American religious leader motivating others to “accomplish great things”? Or was their perspective on leadership so secular that they didn’t even consider religious work worthy of consideration? I don’t know. But if they’re open to nominations for next year’s list, here’s mine: Eric Reese.
Reese, 42, a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Brazil, recently received the Pedro Ernesto Medal of Merit from Rio de Janeiro, named in memory of a renowned mayor who fought poverty in the city. It’s the highest honor conferred by the city on its citizens and foreigners.
Reese puts his life on the line daily to work with the poor in some of the most dangerous favelas (slums) of Rio, where shootouts, prostitution and drug trafficking rule the streets. He’s been threatened by drug dealers and paramilitary gang members, but he’s befriended them, too. Watch him tell his own amazing story here.
“I might be crazy,” the Albany, Ga., native admitted to a reporter. “But one thing I know: I know Jesus, and I'm gonna preach His name. I'm passionate about my work. Back when I was in the Army, fighting and jumping out of airplanes ... I told God I’d do the same for Him.”
And he motivates Brazilians formerly trapped in misery to do it, too.
“There are people who have overcome fear. There are people who have overcome the stereotypes of these communities. And they come in and they set up things and they tell me what to do. They lead out.”
People like Marcia, once a prostitute and drug addict. Now she goes into dangerous places with Reese to rescue others from darkness.
“If you could see her when we met her and see her now,” Reese says, voice cracking. “Only the grace of God can do that.”
Reese doesn’t risk his life in Rio for awards or recognition. He does it because he loves God and God’s children.
Still, U.S. News and Harvard, if you’re looking for someone who “motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things,” I’d match Reese up with all your academics, executives and politicians.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Predictions and possibilities

Listen to an audio version of this post at

The new year brings a fresh batch of forecasts for the future.

Well, semi-fresh.

Some of the predictions from the World Future Society’s recent “Outlook 2009” report already are coming to pass. Others already have proven wrong. Continued growth of the developed world’s economies for another five years? Scratch that one.

The forecasting business is about as reliable as the current stock market. But here are some intriguing predictions to watch for:

-- Total connectivity — By the end of the next decade, nanodevices and implants will create an omnipresent, seamless communication network “among all people everywhere” — or at least among those who choose to participate and have access to the technology. Think you’re connected now? Just wait.

-- Yotta, yotta, yotta — The yottabyte (that’s 1 septillion bytes of data) is the digital measurement you’ll be using by 2050. That, according to “Outlook 2009,” raises the possibility that you’ll be able to record and store “every second of [your] life on a computer and no doubt post it on Facebook.”

-- 3-D TV — Mathematicians have developed blueprints for instruments that could project 3-D images, like the holograms in “Star Wars.” Just think: You’ll be able to experience bad reality TV like you’re part of the show.

-- Git along, little microchips — Ranchers soon will round up cattle remotely with GPS tracking devices and related technology. So much for cowboys.

Enough about technology. On a more human scale:

-- Mobility — More migrants moving from poor to rich countries will provide needed labor but increase social tensions and backlashes against immigrants, particularly in difficult economic times. How will Christians respond to the strangers in their midst — with hostility or love?

-- China’s faith to grow — China’s powerhouse (and now rollercoaster) economy could spur a “rapid growth in religions” as tumultuous shifts create a “yearning for stabilizing influences.” Christianity already is the fastest-growing faith in the world’s largest nation. Whether or not it embraces democratic freedoms, China might count more practicing evangelical Christians than the United States within a generation.

-- U.S. “organized religion” to shrink — Despite a 40-percent increase in the national population over the last 35 years, religious congregations are experiencing declines in overall attendance. Thus, “traditional Western religion’s influence over the mainstream will likely continue to wane.” Whether this prediction comes to pass is up to followers of Christ. What if God Himself were to replace “traditional Western religion” with a new movement of the Holy Spirit across the land — through our consecrated lives?

-- New activism will increase — “Self-reliance and cooperation will become prevalent societal values” as younger generations replace the baby boomers as social leaders. Gen X and Y are “highly entrepreneurial and … very socially aware. Societies can expect more small-business activity, more social activism and greater outreach across cultures and political parties.” All of those characteristics will serve the cause of God’s mission — if young Christians use them in His service.

-- Hangin’ loose — “Forty-one percent of U.S. adults say they are delaying major life decisions, such as buying a home [or] marrying. … The main reason cited is a lack of personal savings, along with concerns about the U.S. economy’s overall future.” That doesn’t sound so good from an economic and social point of view. But from God’s perspective, how many people who delay major financial and personal commitments that tie them down might become available for His global purposes?

We’ll see what happens. Anyone can make predictions. God holds the future.