Moral Leadership and Leadership Integrity

If you had to choose just fourteen leaders to feature in a book on moral leadership, who would you choose? Billy Graham? Rosa Parks? The Dalai Lama? Dorothy Day? Jean Vanier? All of these and many more leaders have so much to teach us. Choosing just fourteen would be a huge challenge.

Here in historical order are the names of the fourteen people included in Moral Leadership for a Divided Age by David P. Gushee and Colin Holtz (Brazos Press, 2018):

  • William Wilberforce
  • Abraham LIncoln
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Mother Teresa
  • Oscar Romero
  • Nelson Mandela
  • John Paul II
  • Elie Wiesel
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Malala Yousafzai.

Surprised? I have to admit I’d never even heard of Ida B. Wells-Barnett before, and the authors are quite upfront in admitting that some readers may wonder at some of their choices. That is actually part of the purpose of the book, to provoke thought on leadership and what it means to be a moral leader.

A brief introduction outlines the authors’ definition of leadership (“leaders unite followers around a common goal,” page 4), as well as reasons for studying moral leadership (including connecting with history and learning ethics, pages 8-10). Then fourteen chapters discuss each leader in turn, including some of their historical context, their legacy and criticism, and leadership lessons drawn from their lives.

In their introduction, the authors say:

There are no angels in this book, nor are there demons. There are only human beings–gifted human beings, unforgettable human beings, perhaps even great, saintly human beings, but human beings nonetheless. . . . We have made certain decisions about whom to include. You will have to make some too. You may come to believe that some of these leaders have no place in this book, and others were unconscionably excluded. That is okay. The point of this book is not to insist on a single authoritative list of moral leaders. Our hope, instead, is that this book deepens your understanding of moral leadership and strengthens your ability to discern it. (pages 2-3)

As you can tell from the leaders included in this book, the authors do not focus specifically on church leaders or even Christian leadership. And their definition of moral leadership centers on big picture social values with rather less consideration for personal morality. They say:

Most moral exemplars do not gather mass followings around a transcendent purpose. Moral leaders do. Some moral leaders are also moral exemplars; others, quite frankly, were a bit of a mess. Does this make moral leaders hypocrites, dispensing moral advice and failing to live up to it? Perhaps. But perhaps we are too quick to shout “hypocrite!” whenever human beings disappoint us by being human beings. (page 345-346)

Well I’m not about to shout “hypocrite!” and I realize that all of us are human and imperfect–even our leaders. But I confess I’m actually looking for both–for moral leadership in the sense of the ability to unite followers around a good goal, and for moral leadership in the sense of personal morality. I can’t help but think the two need to go together, that we need the kind of leadership integrity that embraces both.

I’m still reading this book, and given the authors’ purpose to provoke thought, I can certainly say the book is succeeding.

Thank you to Brazos Press and Graf-Martin Communications for sending me a complimentary copy of Moral Leadership for a Divided Age. As always, my opinions and the choice to review are my own.

Thank you for reading!

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Resident Author with a liturgical worship community. Author of Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

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