The Conviction to Lead

Albert Mohler, President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The Conviction to Lead

Let me warn you right up front — my goal is to change the way you think about leadership. I do not aim merely to add one more voice to the conversation about leadership, I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is understood and practiced.

For the better part of the last three decades, leadership has been a major cultural preoccupation and a professional obsession. Walk into an airport bookstore and you will find the front tables filled with books promising to make you a better leader. Apparently, people passing through airports have a healthy appetite for books on leadership. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and you will find ample evidence of the same hunger.

If you are like me, you have probably read a small library of books on leadership, attended numerous conferences and seminars, and you likely read leadership newsletters and professional journals when you find the time. Hotel conference rooms overflow with people listening to speakers deliver talks on leadership and colleges and universities have gotten into the business as well, offering majors, degree programs, and even entire schools devoted to leadership studies.

And yet, something is missing.

I was born in 1959, right at the center of the golden age of American management. The "managerial revolution" was in full swing, and America’s corporate leaders were managers of the first rank, but no one considered them leaders. President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, assembling a cabinet of youthful and technocratic managerial experts, largely drawn from America’s leading corporations. Writer David Halberstam was later to call these men “the best and the brightest.”

Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, was considerably impressed by Kennedy’s collection of managerial expertise. When he gushed about them to former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, the Speaker retorted, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as bright as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

We get his point. Those managers were among the brightest of their generation, but they managed the nation right into the disasters of the 1960s. Evidently, management is not the same thing as leadership.

As a teenager, I was already looking for examples of leadership. I read about Winston Churchill, and I recognized that he was no mere manager – he was a leader of world-changing courage. When he spoke, a nation was given hope and determination to fight a war that simply had to be won – against odds that left even many of his own friends and family convinced that England’s future was already lost.

I cut my political teeth working as a high school volunteer in Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Early that summer, no one had to ask me twice to be part of the line welcoming Governor and Mrs. Reagan into War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale for a major speech. I got to shake Reagan’s hand, and then hear him speak. He did not talk about vague policy goals and political bromides. He spoke with passion about ideas and the possibility of changing the way Washington was run.

I recognized that he was a leader, and that his leadership was transformational. I knew that he believed what he was saying, and I could see that he persuaded others to believe with him.

Reagan did not win the nomination in 1976, of course, but he went on to carry 49 states in the 1980 presidential election. By that time, regardless of partisan identification, Americans were learning again to look for a leader.

In college, I studied political science before landing as a religion and philosophy major. If my exposure to political science was any indication, those folks cared very little about leadership. Every class seemed like a statistics assignment.

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