Max DePree famously argued that the first task of a leader is to define reality. Now, it seems, we live in an age where most believe that task to be to create reality. The New York Times Magazine recently ran a lengthy feature on President Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes, and the leadership implications are striking. Rhodes, we find out, grew up wanting to write fiction. He did not go the traditional route to politics. No master’s degree in international relations or prized internships on Capitol Hill. In fact, he has no background at all in foreign policy, yet, as the article explains, he is “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from POTUS himself.”
The entire article is worth your time to read because it so accurately describes the cultural shift that’s taken place in leadership. We find ourselves now thoroughly immersed in a postmodern climate that blatantly rejects the idea that there is an objective reality but rather encourages everyone to create their own story because, of course, there is no overarching story. The Times Magazine feature relentlessly reminds the reader that we’re in a new world.
Part of that new world is the prominence of social media. Whereas in the past, news took time to develop and disseminate, now it is instantly created and spread at the touch of a button. Ben Rhodes is the “master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.”
We’re still trying to figure out as a culture what kind of impact social media is having on us, and the overthrow of traditional media has brought about a new frontier where the most influential people are those who know how to use these platforms for their own benefit. David Samuels, author of the Times Magazine article, describes how Rhodes uses this new landscape to his advantage:
“Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Rhodes, and those within the Obama administration, know that the changed landscape has given them an easy opportunity to reshape how Americans think about themselves and the world:
“When I asked Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, and a close friend of Rhodes’s, whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative, he replied, “We saw that as our entire job.”
While it is tempting to try to explain all the different ways that this kind of leadership is dangerous, I want to focus instead on one simple aspect that it brings up: When you believe there is no overarching objective reality, you will inevitably spend more time on how to spin your decisions than on what decision to make in the first place. If leadership is nothing more than creating new realities, it is vitally important that you tell a good story. This is where postmodern thinking is so deceptive in terms of leadership. You can become so enamored with your vision for the future that you slowly become a master manipulator in order to achieve it.
Part of the joy and relief of being a Christian is realizing that we don’t have to create a new reality. God’s reality is what matters. For leadership, this fact is freeing. Instead of spinning our wheels trying to scheme and maneuver our way through life, we are called to faithfulness and obedience, ceding control of outcomes to God.
One of the tragic consequences of a social-media-driven society is that we are becoming increasingly cynical. When everyone’s told to present the best version of themselves and create their own reality, it leads to despair, because we see through other people’s facades and at the same time inherently know that we are doing the same thing. Let’s get off that treadmill. Christ calls us to lives rooted in Him that bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We have received immeasurable riches from Christ, and as Christian leaders, are called to live out of what we have received, not out of what we create.