The Echo Chamber of Leadership
Unless you were living under a rock (in which case I envy you, actually), you read, heard, or watched the brouhaha surrounding Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, a staunchly prolife candidate who conflated issues of rape with abortion. What he said on TV was not only horrific, it offended a lot of people and essentially the entire conservative movement has abandoned him.
There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in Mr. Akin’s fall. One is that it matters not simply that we have the right positions, but that we articulate them well in the public square. Words do matter. But there’s another lesson I think we can learn from Mr. Akin’s foibles.
My friend, Matt Lewis, a political writer for the Daily Caller, says this incident may not have happened had Todd Akin had some experienced political hands around him to prevent this sort of public debacle. But apparently, the Akin campaign is run by the Akin family. And so there is an echo chamber of leadership. Writes Matt:
It’s dangerous to live in a bubble — or be surrounded by “yes” men. No matter how important you are, you always want someone around who can tell you “the emperor has no clothes on.”
A little while later he writes of the value of having people who don’t know you and who are willing to criticize:
Qualifications aside, the problem with family is that they tend to love you. They might even revere and respect you. That’s good in a son or daughter or wife, but not in a campaign manager or adviser.
What you want is someone who is a little bit dispassionate — someone who can say: “Hey, I heard what you said during that interview taping. It was dumb. My candidate in ’04 said something similar. We need to clean this up.”
There’s a tendency in Christian leadership circles to sort of emulate this “family first” mentality. And on the one hand, it’s perfectly legitimate to have sons or daughters serve prominent roles in a ministry, if they are qualified. Typically ministry gifts and talents continue from generation to generation. And yet, like Matt, I’ve seen the danger in exclusively having family or friends surrounding the leadership. It just creates a dangerous bubble that prevents healthy introspection or organizational course correction. It also can blind a leader to his own flaws.
Better to have at least a few people in the leadership circle who are able and willing to sometimes offer constructive criticism, without fear of retribution. I’ve learned this with my work and ministry. For instance, I send every manuscript I write to a few people who I know will “beat it up.” Not only have I given them permission, I request that they do it. Why? Because I know back pats and smiley faces on my paper won’t get my writing up to the level it needs to be to inspire the reader.
I try to do this in my leadership at GLBC as well. I want my leadership team to offer healthy criticism. I like this for three reasons: 1) Sometimes my ideas are bad and need to be shot down. 2) I’m blind to my own flaws. 3) I don’t have all the good ideas or good judgement or good wisdom.
I’m guessing this wasn’t Todd Akin’s first verbal gaffe, but perhaps his being surrounded by family kept him from hearing from an aide, long ago “Hey, dude, you can’t say that.” Had he been challenged in a private conversation, he might have avoided this epic meltdown. And so it is with our leadership. The presence of those who disagree with us, who are willing to correct our mistakes saves us from large-scale mistakes down the road.