presidential debate

Speaking with Clarity and Courage: An Analysis of Character and Motive in Leadership

“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” – Proverbs 28:1

Everyone that I have talked to about this series of presidential debates has been irked. There is something disheartening, if not despairing, about hearing two people vying for one of the most important jobs in the world speak with so little meaning. The second debate especially was riddled with contradictions, hypocrisy, mud-slinging, avoidance, and incoherent arguments. We all get the sense of uneasiness from the kind of leadership demonstrated, but what is the source of it?

Perhaps a story from Matthew’s Gospel can bring some clarity to what also seems to be going on in our day. In Matthew 21:23–27, Jesus is being questioned by the high priests and elders about his authority. In his regular style, he asks them a return question and conditioned his willingness to answer upon their own willingness. Their utter inability exposes the slipperiness of their character. The question was simple: did John the Baptist come from heaven or from man? They felt the dilemma; if they answered “from heaven,” then would then have no reason to doubt that Jesus too came from heaven. If they said “from man,” they would face the disapproval of the crowds, who took John to be a prophet.

Their lack of courage and clarity is exposed on two levels: character and motive. The character defect comes from the desire to self-promote. This desire is at constant war in each of us. As Bonhoeffer grimly examines, each of us walks into a group of people with the instinctual motive of discovering how we are better than everyone else. This can even be done in round-about ways: “I’m the most humble” or “I’m the most authentic.” Oddly enough, our need for self-elevation is dependent upon the approval of the very people we want to be elevated over. We need them to see that we are the best in such-and-such a sense, and we will go to great sneaky lengths to maneuver that outcome.

The strong godly leader, by contrast, needs to base one’s self sufficiency before the eyes of their Father, “Who is in secret” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 17). As Dallas Willard writes,

If you don’t have this one down, you will drive yourself nuts. You will be torn between pleasing people and pleasing God. You will be torn between your own integrity and what people who don’t understand are saying about you. You won’t be able to lead like this. You will find yourself caught between two different driving forces, and your only resource is an internal sufficiency before the Lord.

The other flaw in the approach of the high priests and elders was in their motives. It was a result-based attempt. They weren’t seeking truth, they were seeking the specific motive of, on the one hand, humiliating Jesus, and, on the other hand, saving face. When these motives drive us more fundamentally than truth, truth will be compromised for their sake.

A godly leader, however, must be rigorously and persistently driven by a pursuit of truth. And this determination must then be combined with a faith in God that allows the results of that truth to play out, even if it changes the direction of their desired outcome.

Only when a leader speaks from a character grounded in a relationship with God and from a search for unadulterated truth can they speak with true clarity and courage.