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The state of political leadership in America

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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The Presidential Seal is seen on a podium at the White House in Washington (Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing)

The race for the White House is well underway, and the upcoming Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary are just the beginning of a long season of political jockeying leading up to the November general election. Our national attention in terms of leadership will be, until November, squarely on political leaders. It seems as if the most important quality that voters are seeking on either side of the spectrum is somebody who will simply “get things done”. Voters are skeptical of those perceived as government insiders, so, naturally, both parties have witnessed the rise in popularity of perceived political outsiders.

But this overwhelming desire for pragmatic leaders, what does it say about the state of leadership in our country? Do we really want leaders, or simply officials who will push their agendas using any means necessary? James MacGregor Burns, in his seminal work Leadership, described the confusion we have regarding leadership:

“Many acts heralded or bemoaned as instances of leadership—acts of oratory, manipulation, sheer self-advancement, brute coercion—are not such. Much of what commonly passes as leadership—conspicuous position-taking without followers or follow-through, posturing on various public stages, manipulation without general purpose, authoritarianism—is no more leadership than the behavior of small boys marching in front of a parade, who continue to strut along Main Street after the procession has turned down a side street toward the fairgrounds.”

In the blinding light of the present, it is difficult to remember that there are other ways to exhibit political leadership than manipulation and authoritarianism. We have largely lost the ability in contemporary times to value anything of the past, let alone study it and learn from both the strengths and failures we see. Caught in the swirling vortex of the present, where our attention is dominated by the 24-hour news cycle, we often become so mesmerized by all the channels of news and information presented to us that we lose the ability to step outside our current circumstances and reflect.

It certainly does not help that most of us are addicted to our phones. Studies are continuing to emerge that paint a disturbing picture of how we increasingly do not know how to handle our relationship with these ever-present devices. Consider the following: just the presence of a phone on the table has been proven to negatively impact conversation; there has been a 40% decrease in empathy amongst college students over the past 20 years; the overwhelming majority of smartphone owners repeatedly check their phones without being prompted by any message, alert, or call.

The fact is that we simply do not understand or think about the impact that our smartphones are having on us, especially when you combine its presence with the voracious 24-hours news cycle world we live in. But one of the most basic effects that we are seeing is that we as a collective have a difficult time engaging in self-reflection and critical thinking.

Self-reflection and critical thinking are vitally important for the political process, and our collective erosion in these abilities is showcasing itself in the bald rhetoric of our aspiring political leaders.

It can seem difficult to remember that there are other ways than manipulation and authoritarianism. But that’s why we need to look back and study those exemplary leaders of the past to inoculate ourselves against what C.S. Lewis called “the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone” of the present.

We need to continue to study and reflect upon the leadership of exemplary political leaders such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill more than ever before.

One such book that is particularly helpful is Donald T. Phillips’ work Lincoln on Leadership. In this brief exploration of the enduring leadership lessons of Abraham Lincoln, Phillips highlights Lincoln’s habits of building strong alliances, forging deep interpersonal relationships, persuading rather than coercing, and spending regular time in self-reflection among other skills that Lincoln developed.

Where are those abilities and dispositions among the current crop of presidential candidates? Sadly, in our rush for pragmatic leaders, we have focused little attention on the actual character of the candidates. Public relations experts explain to us what their actions mean, but what we really need to know is who these candidates actually are.

Political leadership is deeply important because it involves the well-being of all citizens. As Christians, we are called to seek the welfare of our communities, while also living as witnesses to the larger reality that Christ is Lord of all. In these times, we need to pray even more devotedly for our current government officials, and seek how God would have us engage in the local and national political process.