I am currently reading an interesting book by Harvard professor Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., entitled “Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.” Personally, I find many books on leadership to be far too punctilious and pedantic to be very helpful. This book, however, is different. Instead of preaching a particular style of leadership, the book simply invites the reader to explore various issues of leadership as they manifest themselves in portions of compelling literature. Badaracco, for example, uses Allen Gurganus’ “Blessed Assurance,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Love of the Last Tycoon,” and Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” as a literary backdrop against which to examine topics such as the development of healthy role models, the sustenance of a governing passion, and the balance of principles and pragmatism.
My favorite chapter thus far is the chapter entitled “Can I Resist the Flow of Success?” In this chapter, Badaracco uses Louis Auchincloss’ novel “I Come as a Thief” as a lens through which to explore several faulty definitions of success that is all too often embraced in contemporary leadership. In case you haven’t read “I Come as a Thief,” the novel tells the disturbing story of Tony Lowder, a forty-something New York lawyer with a promising political career who self-destructs by committing a “brilliantly undetectable” crime and then confessing to it. His self-destruction puts his family in great danger, both physically and emotionally.
According to Badaracco, Tony Lowder is a literary everyman who falls prey to the seductive and destructive “flow of success,” which, in Badaracco’s estimation, is little more than a consuming illusion, perpetuated by aimless busyness, chronic role-playing, and a debilitating commitment to facades. For Badaracco, in other words, the “flow of success,” illuminated by the character of Tony Lowder, is little more than a downward spiral into sociopathy. As Badaracco puts it,
Tony is living the life of a wind-up toy, going through the motions of being a good father, a loving son, a good husband, a charming politician, and a resolute friend. He can say just the right things in just the right way, but he often doesn’t grasp what he is saying…Tony is chronically busy…his life resembles the vaudeville act in which a juggler has a large number of sticks standing upright on a stage and tries to keep a plate spinning on top of each…His calendar is filled with meetings, and there are usually urgent phone calls to return. Tony is also accomplishing a lot, and success brings its own elation…By staying in perpetual motion, he is able to substitute a stream of successes and satisfactions for the hard work of grappling with bigger questions about his life. (pages 125 and 126 of “Questions of Character”)
Does any of that sound familiar to those of you who are involved in ministry leadership?
As I read the chapter, I was personally convicted of just how enamored I am of the “flow of success” that Badaracco describes. How often am I content with “going through the motions” of ministry (a particularly pertinent question as I make ready to “cram” for tonight’s sermon), instead of making myself available to the deeper meaning of the ministry that I am both offering and receiving? How frequently do I devote more energy to appearing busy (like a juggler with many plates) than I devote to discerning the spiritual value of the things with which I am busying myself? How many times have I been more interested in keeping my calendar well-padded than I have been in my own spiritual growth and the spiritual growth of the people I serve? On how many occasions have I said the right things without really meaning them?
I am not beating myself up here. I am simply repenting of my tendency to view ministry and leadership as an egocentric “flow of success” instead of recognizing the urgency of humility, servanthood, and Christ-centeredness in all areas of my vocation. I don’t think that I am in danger of committing any “brilliantly undetectable” crime. But, too often, I fall into the trap of losing my focus on the things that matter most.
I am finding “Questions of Character” to be a helpful read. Badaracco, though not writing from a specifically Christian perspective, helps me, as a leader, to refocus on the presence of the One who calls and sustains me. That, for me, is the heart of leadership.