In the face of heated division within both in our political and ecclesial spheres, Americans need good leadership. But what does it mean to be a good leader? Francis X. Maier discussed this question in his recent commencement address to students at Thomas Moore College. Maier is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to unpack his address.
Maier shares a few qualities that he believes are essential to true leadership: obedience, humility, and honesty. “You can’t lead other people until you have submitted yourself to the same kind of education, of learning from someone else or something else. Obedience and humility really are the first marks of a good leader. […] It’s very Biblical to place yourself second and others first in terms of concern for their welfare.”
“We don’t have that in our culture,” continues Maier. “There’s a huge amount of radical individualism—the placement of the self over the needs of others—and that has seeped into the church as well.”
Instead of obedience, humility, and honesty in our leadership, we often see dishonesty and anger, laments Maier. “If you’re angry with someone, you have an opportunity to condemn them, and in condemning them, you’re justifying yourself.”
What is the next step in promoting good leadership in the Church and in politics? We must ask where and why to lead, argues Maier, before we ask how. “How to lead is a matter of technique,” he says. “Why and where—they imply questions of vision, logic, and moral purpose that are more important because a technique does you no good unless you know where and why to use it.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Francis X. Maier share his thoughts on good leadership.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. People of faith now more than ever must know how to answer the most difficult and important questions of our age, and we need good leadership, but how do we equip ourselves and others to engage and even step up as leaders? And is it possible that now might be the best time to be a Christian?
Well, Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Senior Research Associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government. He recently addressed these important questions in his commencement address to students at Thomas Moore College and joins us today to explore his thoughts.
Francis Maier, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Well, thanks very much, Traci.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You shared that you carried around a quote from Mao Zedong, which might sound odd to a lot of people, but what is that quote and why is it so meaningful to you?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Of course, Mao Zedong was a pretty terrible excuse for a human being and did an awful lot of damage. But on the other hand, he was also a very skilled strategic thinker, and I’ve always had an interest in military history. So, I became acquainted with Mao Zedong by reading his Little Red Book, and there’s a wonderful passage in there from his essay on protracted war, which he wrote back in 1938. The text of the message is simple, it’s “weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor. It’s people, not things, that are decisive.”
And that struck me as really powerful from a Christian perspective because it’s people who make history. History influences the development of cultures and civilizations, but history is made by people. People are decisive in the course of human existence, and, of course, he took that fact and used it in abominable ways. But nonetheless, he was correct in understanding that the character people is what determines the outcome of history, and that’s the reason I’ve always carried it around.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, I find it interesting that you read people that you don’t agree with and that you have had the gall to pull a nugget of truth out of something that most people would find reprehensible. Talk about that a second, because I feel like that’s not something that many people in our culture are able to do.
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Yeah. I think if you only read people that agree with you, you’re heading for trouble because you don’t see a lot of what’s coming at you. I mean, evil people say smart things. That’s why they’re successful in some of the things they pursue. I think it was Hitler who said that if you repeat a lie often enough and intelligently enough, people believe it, and it becomes real. That’s just true. I mean, look what he did in the last century. So, you have to be aware of what a wide range of people are thinking in order to kind of perfect the way that you try to live your own Christian vocation in the world. That’s the reason I’ve always found a very wide range of thinkers useful.
Sometimes, you know Traci, people who are not Christian or not even religious have thoughts that are very congenial to a Christian worldview. I mean, Neil Postman said a lot of things about technology that I think are very useful from a Christian perspective. Christopher Lash, who was not a religious believer—he wasn’t hostile to religion—but as a historian and a critic of American culture, he was extremely useful. I mean, he has been one of the biggest influences on my adult formation, and he’s not a religious believer. I think people have to be alert to other points of view while remaining faithful and fully informed in their own Christian faith. If you do that, you can draw from almost any kind of resource to build the way you interact with modern life.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Interestingly, a very famous Christian author, C.S. Lewis, has written some things that I think some people would be surprised to find. One of them is that he described Christianity as a “fighting religion.” So, you talk about that some. What did he mean by that? And what importance does this idea have for us today?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Well, you know, J.R.R. Tolkien also said things that were very similar, and I think they were very influenced by the fact that both of them had been in the First World War. Tolkien was wounded, and of course both of them saw combat. So, that was very much in their minds as they were maturing as thinkers. But if you look at the nature of Christianity, you’ll see the idea of spiritual warfare, spiritual conflict goes back to the New Testament. It’s certainly hardwired into Paul and you have to use charity and justice—those are the so-called weapons of the Christian life—but conflict is part of human nature. And that’s just a reality that people need to accept and work with.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk now about leadership. I think most of us can look at least at our political leadership, and why not? Let’s look at our religious leadership, some of our major denominations. There seems to be a huge vacuum in leadership. So, how do we address that? And you also talk about why it’s more important to answer the questions of why and where to lead rather than how to lead.
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Yeah. Well, I mean, how to lead is a matter of technique. It’s the development and the learning of skills that help you lead other people, but they’re secondary to knowing why and where to lead, because you can have a terrific Maserati that runs at 200 miles an hour and really looks great, but it just sits there in your driveway until you know what to do with it. I mean, why and where—they imply questions of vision, logic, and moral purpose that are more important because a technique does you no good unless you know where and why to use it. That’s why I put the stress on the importance of learning where and why to go rather than just how to get there. How to get there doesn’t mean anything until you answer those other two questions
In terms of how to be a good leader, I’ve always been struck by a story that I heard from a friend of mine who was a combat officer in Vietnam. He was a Marine and he commanded an infantry company, and he told me that the Marine officers at the time would simply wait until all of their soldiers, all of the men that they were commanding, ate first. Officers ate last. That was an expression of their commitment to the health and welfare of their men. So, real leadership requires, obviously, it requires intellectual skill. You have to know a lot, but you also need to have a good experience of obedience and humility, because you can’t lead other people until you have submitted yourself to the same kind of education, of learning from someone else or something else. Obedience and humility really are the first marks of a good leader. I mean, you look at Jesus—he washed the feet of his disciples. It’s very biblical to place yourself second and others first in terms of concern for their welfare.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, speaking of those kinds of leaders, it seems like so much of our political process has beat that out of people. So, how do we become and how do we form good leaders, do you think?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: People learn from other people. I mean, they may intellectually absorb ideas, but the witness of other people is the way that most people learn. That’s the way the gospel is spread. The ideas of Christianity are very important, but the witness of believers is more important because people are converted by people, not by abstract ideas. So, in terms of how do you learn how to lead, you see it exhibited in good leaders whom you admire. The problem with the political and, frankly, the ecclesial environment in the world right now is that there’s so few good leaders. I worked for a great leader for 27 years, Archbishop Charles Shapu, first in Denver, and then in Philadelphia. And he was just a terrific, honest, committed leader who put other people first. That’s the sort of people that you learn how to lead from. We don’t have that in our culture. I mean, there’s a huge amount of radical individualism—the placement of the self over the needs of others—and that has seeped into the church as well. I’m not sure that I’m answering your question, but I mean, you learn mostly from other people, both good and bad. Good leaders form other good leaders, and the characteristics of a good leader, in addition to technique, are things like humility and obedience.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We do seem to, even as Christians and people of faith, have trouble recognizing good leaders. It sounds to me like we need to have a list of traits that we draw from the Bible, and we need to compare it to those people because we seem to put people in power that are not good leaders.
FRANCIS X. MAIER: There are people that have done studies of good leadership in the social sciences and stuff like that. One of the top four characteristics—and this is over a 25 or a 40-year period of study—is honesty. I mean, people need to hear the truth; even when they don’t like it, they will admire it. I think there’s an awful lot of mendacity in the American Church and also in the political culture that we’ve created. If you just spend an evening studying the commercials on TV, I mean, they’re filled with largely well-intentioned dishonesties. But nonetheless, the world isn’t about me or you. It just isn’t. I’m 73, and I have a limited time left and I’m not going to live forever. The world isn’t about me and my life will be forgotten, except by my family, pretty rapidly. That’s the reality. The reality is that the only person who’s going to remember you is God, and if you don’t connect that as a kind of core principle of your life, you’re really living a lie.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: In addition to this untruthfulness that we see to be so prevalent in our culture, we also see anger. Why do you suppose we’re so drawn and find pleasure in being angry about everything?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Well, people find pleasure in anger for two reasons, I think. One of them is it reminds you you’re alive because you feel things very powerfully. But the other thing is that—and probably the more important one—is that if you’re angry with someone, you have an opportunity to condemn them. And in condemning them, you’re justifying yourself. Jesus had righteous anger; anger can be an appropriate response to real evil, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is this sense of this kind of intense spirit of conflict and anger and resentment that informs so much of our politics. That comes from a combination of a feeling of personal powerlessness, a resentment of that powerlessness, and a desire to transfer our own sins onto someone else that we can then be angry with them about.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You’ve argued that now could be the best time to be a Christian. What do you mean by that?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Pressure clarifies. It burns out the dross and leaves the gold. That’s always been the case with the Church. It’s easy to be a bourgeois Christian because there’s no pressure on you. If you’re a comfortable, middle-class Christian and live a fairly righteous life, you’re going to—traditionally, in this country, because it was founded by Christians—you’re going to have a fairly easy time of it. But that also kind of drains the passion and the zeal out of one’s faith. Pressure does the opposite. It forces people who are not serious about their faith to either become serious or leave, and it makes real believers stronger. So, in terms of it being the best time, I mean, it’s a good time for a Christian when they have the opportunity to witness in a spirit of courage. I think we’re entering that period in this country for the first time in a very long time. Because this has always been religion friendly as a nation, and it no longer is. People don’t want to admit that, and that’s why it’s taking longer for people to wake up than it should.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: One of the reasons we decided to call you and talk with you was that commencement address that you did to the students at Thomas Moore College. Is that somewhere online that we can go and listen to that?
FRANCIS X. MAIER: Yes, it’s at the Catholic Thing; literally TheCatholicThing—just one big word—.org, and just type in my name and it’ll bring up the stuff that I’ve done for them, including that speech, which I really enjoyed giving. So much of life right now is just pablum and empty slogans like “love is love,” whatever that means. To get substance is hard, and it was just fun doing that piece because I needed to think deeply about what I was going to say on behalf of these students that were graduating, who were very, very smart students by the way. So, it was a pleasure to do it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thank you so much for doing that and for joining us today. Francis X. Maier with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
FRANCIS X. MAIER: It’s my pleasure, Traci. Thank you so much.
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