One of the classic metaphors for explaining ethics is relating it to ships at sea. C. S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft have used it, as well as many others. In this metaphor, think of a fleet of ships at sea. You obviously want to avoid running into each other. This is social ethics, or thinking about how to live with other people. You also would want your own ship to stay afloat and not sink from neglect or mismanagement, and this would be individual ethics. Individual ethics seeks to answer the question of what kind of character is right to pursue. Beyond not ramming into other ships and keeping your own ship seaworthy, you would also want to know why you are at sea in the first place. What is your destination? This is the ethics of teleology, or what kind of purpose humans have in life.
One of the strange facets of modern life is that we have an immense amount of knowledge at our fingertips but limited and weakening abilities to draw this knowledge together into anything coherent. Our knowledge is a mile wide but an inch deep. We lack the ability to see into things and discern what is really going on. This lack of wisdom is one of the defining characteristics of our contemporary understanding of leadership.
Perhaps the most stunning and pernicious component of leadership in our current state is that we have little to no room for leaders to develop. From sports to politics we are a “win-now!” society. Look at the college football subculture, where the “win-now” mindset brought us the horrific saga at Baylor and leaves coaches around the country fearing for their jobs. Is it any wonder why so many turn to shortcuts? Politics and business are the same way. The 24-hour news cycle, combined with the voracious speed and appetite of social media, brings leaders under scrutiny for every move they make.
Is it any wonder that leaders respond to this exhausting cycle with image management rather than honesty, directness, and courage? We demand that our leaders succeed immediately, but spend less and less time thinking about how success actually happens. We don’t even bother with defining what true success means anymore.
It takes too long to build a culture of trust, commitment, and hard work that leads to success. That’s why we don’t really care about ethics anymore. We think that that is the realm for the navel-gazers, those with too much time on their hands. What does all that stuff have to do with real life anyhow?
This “win-now” culture has reduced the worldviews of most leaders to a narrow vision of success. Everyone has a worldview, of course, a vision that guides the way we live. But in a “win-now” world, most leaders’ worldviews are situated and defined entirely by an emaciated view of success.
The worldview for Christian leaders is something entirely different, however. We are guided not by a twisted vision of success, but by the story of Jesus Christ seen through the themes of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.
Christians believe God created the world and gave humans purpose. We understand God as the originator and sustainer of all things. That is a towering thought for Christian leaders. We are not our own, left here to fend for ourselves. The purposes and structure of Creation are what give Christian leaders a foundation for how their organizations and people can truly succeed and flourish.
But sin came into the world through the rebellion of Adam and Eve and thus distorted life. The reality of the Fall is evident everywhere, from broken relationships to systemic injustices. Christian leaders understand that a major part of their jobs is helping lead their followers through the muck and mire of the consequences of sin.
In this act of service, though, Christian leaders hold to the truth that there is an answer to the mess of sin. Redemption is the culmination of the Christian worldview, enacted by Jesus through his death and resurrection, ultimately resolving in his final return. The reason this is so important for Christian leaders is that we believe there is a way forward in our organizations and relationships, even when we encounter the deepest sin: through repentance, trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Which brings me back to why Christian leadership is so important for our culture. Our worldview isn’t defined by success, but by loving God and serving others. We don’t need Christians in the world who will acquiesce and bow down to the Asherah-poles of what our culture sees as success, but rather Christians who will help redefine the very terms of success in Jesus’ name. We have an answer to why our ships are at sea, a comprehensive way of living that brings us under our Master and Commander Jesus Christ, ultimately bringing us into true human flourishing that changes us and the world forever.