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WORLDVIEW: The heart of a leader

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, here. Listen to an audio version here.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The historic rise of Barack Obama to the presidency has rekindled an old question: Who is a leader?

Is a leader someone who inspires others to follow by the power of vision and example? Is a leader a charismatic individual who attracts followers with personal magnetism? Does a leader impose authority on others by sheer force of will, or persuade them with reason?

“The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa,” writes Joseph S. Nye, a Harvard University professor and author of “The Powers to Lead.” “Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war has led us to over-emphasize command and control and hard military power — and downplay other styles of leadership.”

In Nye’s view, we need to see leaders less in “heroic terms of command” than as people who excel in “encouraging participation throughout an organization, group or network.”

Doesn’t sound very exciting. But for all his charisma and oratorical gifts, Obama probably would agree with Nye’s definition of leadership. To succeed as a national leader, he must find ways to bring together many people with differing opinions to accomplish urgent objectives. Abraham Lincoln, the leader Obama often cites as a model, brilliantly co-opted his political opponents by bringing them into his cabinet — the “team of rivals” — during a time of great national crisis.

Lincoln, however, possessed other attributes in short supply among many contemporary “leaders”: personal honesty, moral courage — and humility.

“He was a strong man, and like most men quietly confident of their strength, without vanity or self-consciousness,” observes historian Paul Johnson. “He invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided. Of how many other great men can that be said?”

Not many — particularly these days. Eighty percent of Americans believe the nation faces a “leadership crisis,” according to a poll conducted in September by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.

The center, in collaboration with U.S. News and World Report, recently convened a panel of judges from various fields to select 24 of “America’s Best Leaders” from more than 100 nominees (see http://www.usnews.com/features/news/special-reports/best-leaders.html).

The panel defined a leader as someone who “motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things.” They rated nominees based on their effectiveness in setting direction by “building a shared sense of purpose” to make a “positive social impact”; achieving results of “significant breadth and depth”; and cultivating a culture of growth by “inspiring others to lead.”

Their choices, the fourth such listing published by U.S. News, recognized famous and lesser-known leaders, including educators, scientists, physicians, business executives and entrepreneurs, military officers, politicians, activists and artists.

Many of these leaders richly deserve recognition for their work. What struck me, however, was this: No religious or spiritual leader made the list of 24. Not one.

Did the panelists conclude there is not a single American religious leader motivating others to “accomplish great things”? Or was their perspective on leadership so secular that they didn’t even consider religious work worthy of consideration? I don’t know. But if they’re open to nominations for next year’s list, here’s mine: Eric Reese.

Reese, 42, a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Brazil, recently received the Pedro Ernesto Medal of Merit from Rio de Janeiro, named in memory of a renowned mayor who fought poverty in the city. It’s the highest honor conferred by the city on its citizens and foreigners.

Reese puts his life on the line daily to work with the poor in some of the most dangerous favelas (slums) of Rio, where shootouts, prostitution and drug trafficking rule the streets. He’s been threatened by drug dealers and paramilitary gang members, but he’s befriended them, too. Watch him tell his own amazing story at www.commissionstories.com/?p=25.

“I might be crazy,” the Albany, Ga., native admitted to a reporter. “But one thing I know: I know Jesus, and I’m gonna preach His name. I’m passionate about my work. Back when I was in the Army, fighting and jumping out of airplanes … I told God I’d do the same for Him.”

And he motivates Brazilians formerly trapped in misery to do it, too.

“There are people who have overcome fear,” Reese says. “There are people who have overcome the stereotypes of these communities. And they come in and they set up things and they tell me what to do. They lead out.”

People like Marcia, once a prostitute and drug addict. Now she goes into dangerous places with Reese to rescue others from darkness.

“If you could see her when we met her and see her now,” Reese says, voice cracking. “Only the grace of God can do that.”

Reese doesn’t risk his life in Rio for awards or recognition. He does it because he loves God and God’s children.

Still, U.S. News and Harvard, if you’re looking for someone who “motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things,” I’d match Reese up with all your academics, executives and politicians.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges