This excerpt is adapted from Chapter 18 of Albert Mohler’s new book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters (Bethany House, 2012).
Leaders are involved in one of the most morally significant callings on earth, and nothing the leader touches is without moral meaning and importance. While the leader shares the same basic moral requirements as everyone else, there are certain virtues that the leader simply cannot do without.
In making us in his image, God created human beings as moral creatures. Our minds are constantly in a moral mode of thinking and reasoning. Our consciences demand attention, and we are continually observing others around us for moral signals.
Our Creator gave us laws, principles, precepts, and commandments that guide us, convict us, and protect us. Christian leaders know to be thankful for the common morality that is revealed in nature and has been recognized in some form in virtually every civilization and culture. We are also thankful for the specific moral instruction given to us in the Bible through the commandments and statutes and laws that frame our Christian moral knowledge.
Furthermore, we must recognize the importance of the moral order represented by the government, which, after all, was also given to us by our Creator in order that we might live in societies of order and peace. If these structures of law and morality did not exist, leadership would be impossible.
But laws and commandments are not enough. Leadership requires the possession and cultivation of certain moral virtues that allow leadership to happen. If the leader does not demonstrate these essential virtues, disaster is certain. Consider these people who have changed the moral landscape of modern life. When you hear the name Richard Nixon, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that he became the first (and so far, only) president of the United States who had to resign from office. When you hear of Enron, the first thing we all remember is the spectacular failure and collapse of a major American corporation, at least in part because of fraudulent valuations.
Or think of Bernard Madoff, now sitting in a federal prison in North Carolina, sentenced to 150 years in prison for leading the largest Ponzi scheme in history, with $18 billion defrauded from investors. Madoff defrauded some of the biggest and most illustrious people in the world, and he got away with it for an amazingly long time. But time ran out for Madoff, and the collapse of a vast Ponzi scheme is about as spectacular as the most impressive natural disaster. Madoff is an example of leadership, to be sure. One of the lifers with him in prison wrote about him with great admiration on a prison blog: “He’s arguably the greatest con of all time.”
Sadly, the same tale of leadership without virtue has meant the collapse of many Christian ministries and churches. The very people who should know the most about the necessity of virtue in leadership can be among the most embarrassing examples of its lack.
Leaders are subject to the same laws, moral principles, and expectations as the rest of humanity, but the moral risks are far higher for them. For that reason, there are certain moral virtues that are especially crucial in the leader’s character and life.
Tell the Truth
Truth telling is central to leadership. William Manchester once described the effect Winston Churchill had on Britain when he led the nation at the point of its greatest peril by saying that Churchill “could tell his followers the worst, hurling it to them like great hunks of bleeding meat.” Manchester didn’t mean that Churchill was either crude or cruel, but that he told his people the truth because the truth alone could save them. Churchill told them the truth about their peril, and then he told them the truth about themselves, giving Britons “heroic visions of what they were and might become.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated the same virtue in his Fireside Chats, in which he spoke to Americans of the sacrifices they would have to make and of the price they would have to pay for victory.
One of the greatest temptations that comes to any leader is the temptation to tell something less than the truth. The organizations we lead can fuel this temptation. Our followers would often rather hear a comforting untruth than an uncomfortable truth. Leaders know that telling the truth can be costly and, for that matter, downright awkward. Nevertheless, not telling the truth is a certain recipe for calamity and embarrassment.
A friend of mine, a leader of great courage and virtue, recently had to stand in front of a vast crowd and tell them that the organization he had just been called to lead had been ineffectual for the better part of 50 years. A half century of bloated statistics had obscured the facts, and no one close to the situation had dared to speak the truth for fear of embarrassment, retribution, or even worse. That is a tough job—-telling stakeholders that they have all been complicit in hiding the truth from themselves. My friend knew the most important things to know in this situation: first, that telling the truth was simply the right thing to do; and second, that he had to tell the truth in order to clear the way for a better (and more honest) future.
Most of us will never bear a burden of that scale in truth telling, but one of my most important responsibilities when I report to the board of my organization is to point out not only what we are doing well but also what we are not doing well. I always try to tell them that they should be asking about the projects and programs people are not talking about because they are often not talking about them for good reason.
We are always tempted to put our best foot forward, and this is often exactly what we need to do. But we cannot stop there. We must be ready to tell the truth at all times, even when it hurts. If your followers find out that you are not trustworthy, your leadership is undermined, usually fatally.