New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi wrote a recent piece in the aftermath of the Orlando tragedy entitled “Was Orlando Shooter Really Acting for ISIS? For ISIS, It’s All the Same.” Within the article, she tried to tease out how ISIS operates, exploring how they no longer care as much about directly ordering attacks to happen as much as they want to also indirectly influence the actions of individuals or small groups: “Influencing distant attackers to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and then carry out mass murder has become a core part of the group’s propaganda over the past two years. It is a purposeful blurring of the line between operations that are planned and carried out by the terror group’s core fighters and those carried out by its sympathizers.”
What is this influence that ISIS wields so powerfully? Why is ISIS is so compelling and alluring to so many people? When we ask that question, we quickly confront an important truth about leadership: you cannot understand leadership without appreciating the power of both direct and indirect forms of leadership. Direct leadership is what is most easy to understand. These types of leaders are our bosses, managers, and elected officials. They have formal authority. Indirect leaders are more difficult to understand because they do not necessarily have formal authority. They are our heroes, our friends, our mentors.
People become indirect leaders through their influence. Our world is increasingly shaped and changed by those who wield influence as much as or more than those who simply wield authority. We have to understand how this “soft power” works alongside “hard power”.
According to Howard Gardner, who has done extensive work in this area of leadership, the key lies in storytelling. He defines leaders as those who “significantly affect the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of a significant number of individuals…and they achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate.” Truly effective leaders, in his estimation, know how to tell stories at two different levels.
The first level of storytelling is how a leader communicates the basic framework of their vision. For this group, which is broad and diverse, and not necessarily sympathetic to the leader, “the story must be sufficiently elementary to be understood by the untutored, or “unschooled,” mind.” The second level is the more advanced version of the story, with more detail, nuance, and clarity. Gardner’s argument is that an effective leader knows how to communicate at both levels, the simple and the advanced.
ISIS speaks at both levels. At the first level, it communicates the simple story that the West is corrupt, materialistic, and immoral, and that it (ISIS) offers a remedy for these ills. At the second level, they communicate a more advanced narrative that includes the theological implications of jihad.
ISIS gathers recruits in with their basic message and then offer a comprehensive, advanced narrative that provides even more structure and meaning. Western society has a difficult time comprehending how powerful this methodology is, because most of modern Western liberalism (you could also call it “secularism”) only speaks at the first, more basic level. Its first level is that each individual should be free to live however they want, but its second level is less clear, because it does not really offer a comprehensive account of the world.
Christians can be guilty of only staying at the first level of storytelling as well. We have had difficulty communicating how the Christian message speaks to all of one’s life, instead of merely the afterlife. We have shied away from speaking the truth that the true cost of discipleship is the entirety of one’s life.
Our leadership has to tell a better, more comprehensive story. We need to communicate at both levels. The Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus involves people in a project that is not only bigger than themselves, but that also endures beyond their time on earth. That is the kind of influence that speaks to the totality of the human heart, showing that the problem is human sin and the solution is Jesus. All our leadership is in response to that simple, yet profoundly comprehensive story of redemption.