Why don’t we have good leaders? Why don’t we have a moral society? Why do the good, the true, and the beautiful seem so scarce in our society? Why do we have so few good men and women? What can we do about it?
By Mark D. Harris
The conscience that God has placed in the heart of each man, and the Law that He has revealed to His people, tell us how He commands us to live. We don’t like it, preferring to go our own way. As a result, we often despise anyone who keeps God’s commands. We pretend that universal moral standards do not exist. We scream and cry that no one can make us do what we don’t want to do. We resent and tear down those sent to help us. Finally, in our rejection of godly authority, and often any authority, we destroy ourselves, and cause terrible suffering to others.
The Authority of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, Indeed, has God said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:1-6).”
The Biblical story of how sin entered the world reveals a fundamental flaw in the nature of man. It was not good enough for Eve to be the mother of all human life on earth, or for Adam to be the father. They wanted to be like God. Just as had happened with Satan himself, when he had been thrown out of heaven for trying to assume the place of God, so Adam and Eve were ruined by their disobedience, rebellion, and pride.
Decades later, the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, presented offerings to the Lord. Abel’s was acceptable, and Cain’s was not. Cain’s thoughts turned to murder, and God warned him, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at your door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Genesis 4:7).”
The good is good, but has always suffered from the fury of evil. Cain could not strike back at God, but instead killed his brother, who had done nothing more than offer his best to the Lord. Abel had not harmed Cain in any way, but tasted an untimely death because Cain felt he had been placed lower than Abel.
For thousands of years of world history, the story has repeated itself. Pride, envy, resentment, bitterness, and sin of all stripes have poisoned every human heart. Some people strive to overcome their natural disposition towards evil. Others try little to master the wickedness which is “crouching at their door.” Many choose vice to accomplish their personal goals, and yet no matter how great their worldly success, they feel guilty when they encounter someone of virtue. We have no evidence that Abel boasted about his success to Cain, and yet Cain killed him. From Bishop Polycarp to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people without guile are attacked by their evil neighbors simply because good people, through their good speech and actions, make wicked people feel what they are…wicked.
Jesus’ moral perfection illuminated the thoughts, words, and deeds of all those around Him. Those trying to be good were drawn to Him, and those abiding in evil shrank away. When finally given the chance, black-hearted men pierced His mortal body and laid him low.
Though man may protest with every fiber of his being, certain things are simply true. Death is the ultimate end of physical life, and though we can delay it, we cannot defeat it. Our days are numbered, and time passes despite our desperate attempts to change it. In the Rubáiyát, Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) observes, “The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
Physical truths are legion. Sex, male and female, is a fact. No person can change his or her chromosomes from X to Y and back again. The sun will rise and set (from an earthbound perspective), and objects will fall from the sky towards earth. Water will nourish a human body, and alcohol will destroy it. The universe is full of physical truths, and each of us must decide how to live in light of them. We may not like it, but truth does not care about our preferences, is not frightened by our threats, and is not moved by our tears.
Moral truth is equally certain, and is found in the character of God. Bearing false witness, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and failing to support your family, though defined slightly differently, are considered evil in every society in all human history. Each generation people try to invent a new morality but only manage to rehash an old immorality. We have as much chance of rewriting moral truth as we do of stopping the expansion of the universe.
Beauty is only partly in the eye of the beholder. God is the source of all beauty, and the beauty inherent in His person and character will not and can not be denied. While cultures differ slightly on how plump they like their models, and which colors, tastes, sights, and sounds are most pleasing, the fundamental principles are the same. Destitution, despair, disease, deformity, and death are not considered beautiful in any culture. Observing natural beauty, such as streams, forests, deserts, and flowers, has positive health effects in every society at every age. The Red Effect, the Golden Ratio, and Symmetry are universally understood as powerful and pleasing. The beholders seem to agree on more than we care to admit.
The Authority Embodied in Leaders
Books on leadership multiply like rabbits in springtime. Everyone is told to be a leader, and promised that if they buy a certain book, attend a certain training, listen to a certain speech, or watch a certain video, they will rise above their competitors and succeed beyond their wildest dreams. As much money as this generates for the authors and speakers, none of this seems to have ensured sound leadership in any sphere of life. Americans cite poor leadership as the most important problem in the land. Military leaders lack trust from their subordinates. Only a small percentage of business leaders are rated as effective. Worldwide, commentators bemoan bad leaders and their toxic effects.
Why do we have such trouble with leadership in the world, trouble which often leads us to reject their authority?
First, people don’t want anyone else to have authority over them in any way, except when leaders do what followers want done and shield their followers from responsibility for bad outcomes. Jessica may want Joe to lead her business section, but only if he does what Jessica wants done. When he gives her more money, more time off, more accolades, and more benefits, she is happy. As long as he takes blame for failure and gives her credit for success, no matter where the blame and credit actually lie, she wants him as her boss. If he makes her feel exactly as she wants to feel at exactly the right time, all the time, she will support him.
Second, we distrust people who aspire to leadership. King Charles III of Great Britain is king, whether he likes it or not. He did not seek leadership, and has no palatable way to get out of it. Neither Charles nor his oldest son Prince William sought leadership. They were born to it, and they must do their duty. Charles call to his countrymen is not “please make me your leader” but rather “walk with me as I lead Britain to future greatness, and let’s work together along the way.”
In the US, by contrast, our leaders spend billions of dollars and thousands of hours begging their fellow citizens for their vote. Would-be leaders pander, persuade, and pigeonhole people into voting in a certain way. Candidates strut like Hollywood stars and compare attributes of their nether regions on national television. Right now, Kevin McCarthy, a congressman from California, is passing through a gauntlet of fire to try to be the Speaker of the House. He will likely leave far diminished and much less able to do his job, whether he becomes Speaker or not.
Should we then have a king? No. In the first place, the world already has a king…the Lord of the Universe. In the second place, God has worked through electoral politics to make the United States the most free, open, and strong nation in history. Strong, wise, and moral citizens will elect people who are like them. Weak, foolish, and immoral citizens will do the same. Republican democracy minimizes mankind’s inherent distaste for authority by spreading it amongst a large group of people. Republican democracy only produces a successful nation if good people elect good people, and then help those they have elected to succeed.
Third, in certain areas, we ask far too much from our leaders. The American president cannot give every American a job, ensure that every citizen is healthy and happy, protect every plant and animal, and keep peace in the world. Even the combined efforts of every governor, legislator, and bureaucrat in the country cannot accomplish these goals.
- I, not Joe Biden, am responsible for the safety and well being of my family.
- I, not Congress, must be held to account for my own health and happiness.
- I, not the West Virginia leadership, am required to protect the piece of the natural world that I can influence.
- I, not the United Nations, must keep peace in my corner of the world.
If each of us had the same commitment, these goals would suddenly become doable. The President and other politicians have some power to help with these problems, but final responsibility falls on each individual, family, community, and church. The more citizens expect government to give them the necessities of life, and to make them secure, the less freedom those citizens will have, and in the end, the less secure they will be. To paraphrase Reagan, government is rarely the solution to our problems. More often, government is the problem.
We expect our leaders never to say or do anything that we consider objectionable. In this world of ubiquitous cameras, video and audio recordings, no work, gesture, or even facial expression is lost. A ten second video clip will find at least one funny face, which is captured, emphasized, and described in the creepiest possible context. A misused word or awkward joke becomes grounds for opposition and even hatred. A disagreement is not a difference of opinion between well-intentioned, intelligent adults but evidence of moral failure and even subhumanity.
The legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin – the master must answer) makes the leader legally responsible for everything his or her organization does or fails to do. The avalanche of regulations falls heavily on managers, robbing their time from areas in which a leader investment would be better for everyone. The proliferation of ever more numerous and demanding stakeholders increases expectations of leaders exponentially. Failure is unacceptable and unforgivable, like a lava flow of molten rock that covers everything in ash and flame.
Fourth, in other areas, we ask far too little from our leaders. A leader should put the benefit of the county, state, nation, team, business, or other organization beyond him or herself. A leader should be honest, explaining his logic to the reasonable people who will understand, whether or not they agree.
Fifth, we give far too little to our leaders. We don’t give respect when it is not earned, but we also don’t give respect when it is earned. We denigrate those in authority just as fast as we give them that authority. The media delights in assassinating the reputation of people with whom they disagree. Most people in my experience give lip service to gratitude, loyalty, and forgiveness, but in many lives these virtues are merely a chimera. We all want second chances for ourselves, but reject giving second (or third or fourth) chances to others. Leaders’ mistakes are more visible, and often bigger, than mistakes of those less prominent. We expect our leaders to serve us, which is right, but we ignore our responsibility to help and serve them.
Sixth, we misunderstand leaders. Society states that society makes leaders. This is partly true but largely false. Society recognizes its need for leaders, tries to identify those with appropriate qualities, and tries to develop them into better leaders. However, the fundamental virtues that make a good leader do not come from society but from God working through the choices of the individual (Philippians 2:12-13). Schools cannot produce virtue, they can only provide instruction to encourage virtue, and direct the already virtuous to better serve the needs of others. Famed educator John Henry Newman said,
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view of faith. Philosophy, however, enlightened, however, profound, give no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;–these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge…they are the objects…I am advocating; I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless. (“The Idea of a University“ 91, John Henry Newman)
Society also believes that it can take away leaders, whether by removing a license, imprisoning someone, or even killing them. Like the first proposition, although this is partly true, it is fundamentally false. Leaders are made by God and taken away by God. God usually refuses to let wicked people have good leaders. Society equates leadership with money, fame, position, and power. The Church knows that real power comes only from one place, from being like the One with all power. Jesus had no earthly power at all, and society gave Him almost nothing. Yet He was the greatest leader and man in history. Society gave Paul a lot…education, position, and birth rights, but it did not give the apostle his innate intelligence, his drive, and his courage. When the Jewish and Roman leaders at the time tried to take away Paul’s leadership role, they failed. Paul impacted humankind more than Mohammad, Napoleon, or Shakespeare.
The Biblical Testimony
The word “leader” is used 69 times in 69 verses in the 1995 version of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The Hebrew is נָשִׂיא nâsîyʼ; or נָשִׂא nâsiʼ; from H5375; properly, an exalted one, i.e. a king or sheik; also a rising mist:—captain, chief, cloud, governor, prince, ruler, vapor. The word communicates the work of God in raising leaders, their reflected glory in serving as leaders, and their transience.
The classic example of leadership in Scripture is Moses. Like all leaders, all people in any role, and in the final analysis, all things, Moses was chosen by the Sovereign God of the Universe. Moses’ people, the Hebrews, accepted his leadership only after seeing the miraculous signs that God gave Moses the power to perform (Exodus 4:29-31). Moses and Aaron confronted Pharoah, and things did not go well for the Hebrews. The Egyptians retaliated, and the Hebrew leaders cursed Moses (Exodus 5:21). Moses tried to encourage his people with the word of the Lord, but they refused to listen (Exodus 6:9).
After mighty plagues, Pharoah released the Hebrews. Initially happy at the favorable turn of events (Exodus 12:33-41), as soon as the people were trapped by the Egyptian army, they opposed Moses yet again (Exodus 14:10-12). After more miracles of deliverance, which made the Hebrews happy for a little while, the people returned to their unbelieving ways. They demanded water (Exodus 15:22-27) and food (Exodus 16:1-7). The food wasn’t good enough so they called for meat (Exodus 16:8-21). The Hebrews made entreaties to Moses for more water (Exodus 17:1-7), and then for military protection against their enemies, the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13). Between each episode, the people turned on Moses again.
While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law that would make the Hebrews into a nation, the people rebelled against him (Exodus 32). Complaints continued (Numbers 11). Moses’ own brother Aaron and sister Miriam objected to his choice of a wife (an Ethiopian) and to his authority over them (Numbers 12). The Hebrews opposed Moses and even threatened to kill him when they were afraid to invade Canaan (Numbers 14). They rebelled again simply because Moses was their leader, and they did not like that he was exalted over the assembly (Number 16). When God opened the earth and killed the rebel leaders, the people accused Moses of killing them. The Hebrews complained about water again (Numbers 20:1-13). They complained about food again and were decimated by plague (Numbers 21:5-9). The people opposed Moses and committed sexual immorality (Numbers 25:1-9).
Throughout his life, Moses, who was probably one of the greatest leaders in human history, was cursed, opposed, threatened, disbelieved, abused, and rejected by the very people that God commanded him to help. Only after his death did the Hebrews, and later the Israelites, lionize him.
The Ultimate Authority – God
Everything mentioned above about the good, the true, and the beautiful refers in the fullest extent to God, the embodiment of goodness, truth, and beauty. What was noted about leaders is also similar to the relationship between man and God. The Lord is the final leader, and He is supreme regardless of what anyone thinks about it. God is the great I AM, the self-existent One.
When the people of Israel demanded a king, God told Samuel that they were rebelling against Him, not Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7-9). King David notes in Psalm 51, after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, that his rebellion was ultimately against God. The men who opposed the Son also and equally opposed the Father. In the same way, our rebellion against man is often a rebellion against God.
Cain killed Abel because he could not directly attack God. The Jewish leaders who killed Jesus did so because they rejected all that He stood for, and all that God Himself was and is. We hate the good because it holds us to account. We hate moral leaders because they show us what we could be…and aren’t. Ultimately, we hate God.
The farther we run from the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, the more desolate our lives become. The more we ignore or even detest our leaders, and the more urgently we reject God, the more ungovernable our nation and our lives will be. Our situation is dire. But because of the work of Jesus Christ, hope remains.
 William Lidwell, Universal Principles of Design, Rockport Publishers, 2003
 Americans are mostly worried about poor leadership and inflation, https://thefulcrum.us/big-picture/Leadership/trust-in-government.
 Opinion: The biggest threat to U.S. national security is a lack of trust in senior military leadership, https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/2020/04/07/opinion-the-biggest-threat-to-us-national-security-is-a-lack-of-trust-in-senior-military-leadership/.
 The Real Crisis In Leadership, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rasmushougaard/2018/09/09/the-real-crisis-in-leadership/?sh=1aafa09c3ee4.
 Global leadership is in crisis – it’s time to stop the rot, https://theconversation.com/global-leadership-is-in-crisis-its-time-to-stop-the-rot-64495.