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Leading in an age of terrorism

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Two West Australian TRG officers wander toward their 4WD after their demonstration of rappelling from the Police Helicopter, November 19, 2005 (Credit: Devar via Fotolia)

If you were to ask leadership gurus around the world what the three most important characteristics are for leaders, chances are you would hear a smattering of the following words: vision, strategic thinking, charisma, passion, determination. Would you hear the words courage, humility, and gratitude?

The Paris attacks, along with other similar terrorist strikes over the past year, have brought up a host of issues for leaders in the 21st globally-connected world. Perhaps the most daunting is how to lead in an ever-increasing fear-soaked world. The reason fear is such a difficult challenge to leadership is because leadership is about balancing present concerns with future possibilities. Fear paralyzes people into only being able to think about the immediate, however, and distorts the present reality in all manner of ways that leads to a compounding of fear.

Vision and strategic thinking are some of the first things we think about in terms of leadership, especially amidst crisis, because we desperately want leaders who have a plan and have confidence that their plan will be able to eliminate the threat. In chaotic times, those presenting themselves as ordered and confident appeal most to followers.

But the challenge is to continually see the long-term ramifications of our short-term decisions. The study of history reveals that myopic decision-making often leads to disastrous consequences down the line. Observe how the aftermath of World War I led to the root of the problems that became World War II.

One of the great consequences of our contemporary leadership education, and with it the entire leadership industry, is that we have educated the mind but not the heart of leaders. We have filled books upon books with dumbed-down rhetoric that appeals to the basic instincts of humans: how to get what we want. Popular Christian leadership material has been culpable too.

In the face of a world where terrorists and the fear they want to spread is the new reality, should we be shocked that most of our leaders have no clue about the philosophies, motivations, and reasons why terrorists are acting the way they do when they’ve only been schooled to think pragmatically about others and believe the best of themselves? As C.S. Lewis noted years ago, our education system has created “men without chests”.

Three of the most foundational leadership characteristics that receive little to no attention in our increasingly secularized world are courage, humility, and gratitude. We misunderstand courage and think it is about ourselves rather than acting on behalf of others’, view humility as lack of self-confidence (a ghastly sin in the modern age), and have no greater Being to show gratitude to since we’ve made ourselves the highest of all things.

We have glorified ourselves into imbecility, so is it any wonder that leadership in the contemporary era is filled mostly with insecure ego-driven people?

The great need for leaders of our time is a return to the virtues of courage, humility, and gratitude. Here’s why each is so important:

Courage is needed because pragmatism won’t make it palatable to make the right decisions when many will oppose. C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, writes that “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

Humility is needed because we need to learn to see ourselves as stewards of gifts rather than conquerors. We need humility because the answer to our challenges does not always lie within us, and only humble people will realize that. Jim Collins notes this paradox in describing the “level 5 leader”, but even moreso Christians should understand this from the beautiful and costly humility of Jesus (read Philippians 2:5-11).

And finally, gratitude is needed because fear causes us to doubt the goodness and faithfulness of God. Here is the kind of gratitude we need, as expressed by noted children’s author Kate DiCamillo: “Dear God, thank you for warm summer nights and candlelight and good food. But thank you most of all for friends. We appreciate the complicated and wonderful gifts you give us in each other. And we appreciate the task you put down before us, of loving each other the best we can, even as you love us. We pray in Christ’s name, Amen.”

Perhaps, though, the greatest struggle of Christian leaders today is that we falter in our belief that God is making all things new. Sally Lloyd-Jones’ reminder is especially poignant for this week of Thanksgiving, as we give thanks for all that God is doing, even amidst such terrible world events: “Behind what you were doing, underneath everything that was happening, God was doing something good. God was making everything right again.”