After 30 years of pastoral work, one thing I learned about leadership is that leaders must sometimes make tough and unpopular decisions. While leaders should do their best to listen to those under their charge, they cannot be controlled by approval ratings. A helpful proverb warns that, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Proverbs 29:25).
During my training for leadership, I attended a church that had an annual vote of affirmation for its senior pastor. A couple of months before the vote, the pastor had to win as many points with the people as possible to get a high approval rating. But this annual popularity contest finally led the pastor to a state of exhaustion and cynicism. He decided that he no longer cared who liked him because he had a job to do.
By this point, however, the pastor had developed a reactionary attitude that was not good for him or those under his leadership. Ironically, he went from one form of looking out for himself to another, while considering his new outlook noble. Was the pastor’s attitude entirely his fault or was the system set up to hurt everyone? I found myself asking if it was the best way to inspire greatness in leadership.
I feel the same concern today when I see the endless approval ratings of political leaders. How do politicians refuse to allow ratings to control them when faced with unpopular decisions? Does it potentially hurt the people when their leaders are always looking over their shoulders to maintain popularity?
A large majority of Americans do not trust their leaders. Perhaps the leaders brought it upon themselves but, whatever the source, it’s bad for everyone. But have we the people become too cynical to inspire greatness in anyone? What happens to us when we expect our lawmakers to look after the interests of wealthy corporations and individuals who contribute to their election campaigns rather than the best interests of their constituents?
Sometimes I fear that we’ve adopted a system that cannot inspire leaders to courage, integrity and honor. The current tone of bitter partisanship between Democrats and Republicans certainly doesn’t encourage respect for leadership. And it’s hard to see how it serves the good of our nation.
I am not opposed to our system itself, but what many have turned it into. I’ve been guilty myself. If we’re happy to find dirt on a member of an opposing party or even willing to misrepresent a leader to advance our side, we’ve become part of the problem. It seems that we all could benefit from serious conversations about what it means to respect our leaders — particularly when we disagree with them.
At the height of President Bill Clinton’s scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky, one of our children heard a news report about the president’s behavior and said, “He’s a jerk!’’ I quickly corrected the comment by reminding our child that, although we don’t agree with the man’s behavior, he’s still the president of our country and should not be spoken of that way. I admitted how hard it is to convey honor for the office of a leader when the one holding it is dishonorable. Yet if we fail to preserve some sense of respect and dignity, we cannot hope to inspire our leaders to be honorable.
We all could benefit from asking if some of our reactions contribute to and encourage distrust for leaders. Perhaps instead of inspiring honor, our endless criticisms and polls encourage our leaders to look out for themselves above everything else. While it’s tempting to see leadership problems as one-sided, let’s be willing to work harder to create an atmosphere that inspires trust and honor in our leaders and allows them to learn from their mistakes.
The Scripture offers a model when it encourages church members: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Few would doubt that we need strong and wise leaders in these complex and challenging times. And most would agree that it takes a strong person to do what is right when it’s not popular. How, then, can we be part of a solution that encourages our young people to view leadership as an honorable calling for serving fellow human beings?
Steven W. Cornell is senior pastor at Millersville Bible Church. He also is a correspondent for Lancaster Newspapers Inc.