EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview was first published in “Towers” and the interview was conducted by editors Steve Waters and Aaron Cline Hanbury, who talk with R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about his new book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters. This interview has been published here with permission.
You open your book saying, “I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is understood and practiced.” Why?
I think we have two cultures in evangelicalism concerning the issue of leadership. On the one hand, you have people who define leadership in pragmatic terms. We can, indeed, learn a great deal about the techniques and strategies of leadership even the talents and responsibilities of leadership but the big question is, “To what end?”
On the other hand, we have the development of a theologically directed, deeply convictional generation of young evangelicals. For many of them, their orientation toward doctrine and toward the gospel is so fervent that they disparage some of the actual tasks and responsibilities of leadership. And so what we have, in exaggerated terms, are leaders who don’t understand why they lead and theologically driven evangelicals who don’t seem to be concerned to lead anything. I see that as a problem.
I often think about it as if you take an airplane full of preachers going from one side of the country to the other. Half of them are reading John MacArthur and the other half are reading John Maxwell. And I want to tell them, “When you cross the Rockies, switch books.”
Now let me be clear: the big issue here is conviction. So if we’re going to choose one polarity or the other, we’ve got to side with the theological-convictional polarity. But Christ’s people are in desperate need of leadership. Leaders are gifts that God gives to his church. What I realized in thinking about this problem is that the definition of leadership is an error. I do not define leadership in merely pragmatic terms. What we need is a complete revolution of how we think about leadership, and leadership needs to be defined itself in convictional terms. The title of my book, The Conviction to Lead, gets to the heart of my argument: leadership should be reconceived in terms of putting conviction to action and inspiring and equipping others to do the same.
Howard Garner at Harvard writes about multiple intelligences. Human beings in general, and leaders specifically, need not only an analytical type of intelligence – a mathematical type of intelligence, even a relational kind of intelligence – but also an emotional intelligence. I.Q. isn’t sufficient to explain why some individuals are good leaders and others are not. What I noted looking at this theory of multiple intelligences is that conviction was missing, and that’s what I want to reestablish as absolutely essential and fundamental.
So, convictional intelligence means the operational ability to move from conviction to right action and, furthermore, the ability to inspire and equip others to do the same. It starts with the knowledge and affirmation of the truth, the embrace and celebration of the truth. But it leads then to the understanding that shapes every way we think.
Who do you look to as an example of the model you propose?
One of the major discussions about leadership in the 20th century has come down to the fact that some leaders seem to inhabit positions and others seem to want to get to those positions in order to accomplish some greater purpose. You have two leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – one an American president and the other a British prime minister – who were defined in terms of conviction. People knew what they believed, elected them because of what they believed and elected them to accomplish the ends determined by their convictions. You never had to wonder where these two leaders were going to come down on any major issue they faced simply because they were identified by their conviction and their leadership was completely saturated with that conviction.
How much more true must this kind of driving conviction be of Christian leaders, because conviction is at the very heart of the gospel. So Christian leaders need to understand that conviction is, at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters in terms of leadership. But leadership itself matters as well, and that’s why convictional leadership, I think, is one helpful way of thinking about how conviction in leadership go together.
To what extent are all Christians called to leadership?
One of the points I seek to make in my book is that everyone leads or ought to lead in some context, yet I don’t want to mislead by that kind of suggestion. For instance, in the New Testament, there are clearly those called to lead by teaching; the teaching office is actually given to few individuals, not to many. You also have clear references to this in the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and Titus. You have James warning that the one who takes on the responsibility to teach takes on a higher judgment. But then you also look and realize that leadership takes place in places where you might not expect. For instance, leadership takes place in the home continually. Leadership takes place in the context where even children gather themselves together: some child organizes what’s going to happen and negotiates the terms of the game.
And so leadership is basically calling out that conviction in another and helping that individual know how to live more faithfully according to those convictions. One of the things a biblical worldview helps us to understand is just how necessary such leaders are for human flourishing.
What are some challenges that today’s Christian leaders face that their parent’s generation didn’t?
Communication in the digital media age is an important area for the current generation of leaders. Communication is the leader’s exercise of leadership. Now leadership can be more than communication but it’s never less than that. One of the issues that I try to return to again and again in my book in different dimensions is the fact that leadership is communication. And as a matter of fact, if communication doesn’t happen, then leadership is impossible. And we, as Christians, should be the first to understand this. God made us human beings with the ability to communicate, and that ability we must utilize in order to do something as fundamental as share the gospel.
If you understand that leadership is communication, and never less, then the leader must look at every operative dimension of communication available. These days, that means digital media and social media. In terms of communication, there is simply no doubt that the only way to reach younger people, Americans 29 and under, is through digital and social media.
This should actually be seen as good news for Christians, because the cost of access to television and other media forms is huge and generally insurmountable. But the opportunity for entrance into social media is almost nothing. It’s a matter of creativity and intelligence and diligence and that’s good news for those who are intent to share the good news.
I think the issue of servant leadership has been so misconstrued that it’s almost an unhelpful category. That really came about in the last half off the 20th century in the wake of those who believed that authority itself was the problem. God has established certain authorities; that’s made abundantly clear in Scripture, and those authorities are responsible for the stewardship of their office.
Servanthood is a necessary biblical category, but we need to recognize that Peter served by declaring the truth, and the whole idea in the New Testament of the separation of the teaching office from the deaconal office is that there are some who are serving by arranging tables but there are also those who are serving by the ministry of the Word. The misunderstanding is that servant leadership often means no leadership taking place.
What do you mean when you say leadership is inherently moral?
The secular world assumes that morality is a category unto itself. Too many Christian’s fall into this same misunderstanding. The biblical worldview tells us that we are moral creatures. We never have a thought that isn’t laden with moral content. We never perform an act that isn’t in a moral context. Everything we do has a moral dimension to it. And for that reason, leaders need to recognize that there never is a decision we make, there’s never a message we communicate, there is never an action we take that is not pregnant with moral dimensions. The fact that we believe every single human being is made in God’s image, and thus when we make a decision related to other human beings, it is inherently filled with moral responsibility.
And our responsibility as convictional leaders on the basis of the truth and by God’s grace our knowledge of that truth is to aim at the right ends and to treat human beings never as merely means to those ends. And that means even when we have to make the hardest decisions, even when we have to say things that we know will be difficult to hear, we need to understand there is a moral dimension to everything we do. We need to remind leaders that nothing they do is without moral context and meaning, even if they think it is relatively inconsequential.
What are the dangers of someone continuing to lead, but not from conviction?
The minute you ask that question, you recognize that I, regrettably, have several leaders who come to mind, because the shipwreck of leadership is common. Leadership doesn’t always work; as a matter of fact, it can fail and fail disastrously. One of the ways leadership fails is the failure to arrive at the right place for the right reasons with the right convictions.
Every organization, every family, every congregation is either moving into strength or into weakness. Convictional leadership means the stewardship of that responsibility to move into strength. Out of the strength of conviction and into the strength of exercise and application.
What audience do you have in mind with your new book?
I wrote every chapter with an audience in mind like those who gather at Together for the Gospel. I wrote the book for Christian leaders and for leaders in any sphere of leadership.
Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian, said that every young person needs to have what he called a perpetual vision of greatness before himself. We’re living in a time in which the church desperately needs leaders who are known, visible, called out, committed, and ready to serve; and I hope to motivate a good many even by means of this book and to hold up a vision that would lead them to say, “I want to be a part of that.”