The famous account in 1 Kings 3 about Solomon “splitting the baby” has worked its way into the memory of western culture. If a leader aspires to wisdom they often think of themselves dressed in red as in Poussin’s painting of the event: self assured, ruling as someone raised above the crowd. We seem to agree that a great leader is a hero, giving wise judgment that saves the day.
Christians, in particular, are so steeped in their principles and holiness that they, in particular, put impossible demands on themselves and often do nothing unless they are qualified to sit on some idealized throne. They question their secret, mixed motives. They let heroes lead.
Is the leader always a “hero?”
The word “hero” is used a lot these days. They appear to be everywhere. You can be a hero if you do your homework! The Black Lives Matter movement ran headlong into the post-9/11 hero proliferation when they stated the obvious: not all policemen are heroes, especially when they don’t have enough wisdom to avoid shooting people.
Deserved or not, everyone is supposed to be a hero in some way. Or how else does one explain “The Real Life Super Hero Project?” (below) Or how does one explain the summer box office (aren’t all the top ten movies about heroism?) — not to mention Heroes Reborn (coming in three days!).
I don’t think you are a hero if you wear the costume. To be fair, some people are trying to undo the brute force the costume often implies. But no matter. The transformation of the world does not come because we’re multiplying heroes. Jesus doesn’t meet the usual definition for one, after all.
Nevertheless, Christian leaders often feel bad about themselves because they are not “up front;” they are not a perfect example, or on a throne somewhere. I think their ambition or sense of obligation comes from a misreading of the Bible (but not a misunderstanding of Poussin’s painting or Trump’s posturing!). The Bible is not calling anyone to be Captain America.
Think again about Solomon. When he was presented with two babies, the new king was presented with a test of his capacity. A lot of his authority and reputation would ride on a difficult decision. Plus he might forever separate a family if he were wrong. He could have flipped a coin about the she said/she said argument that was going on in front of him. He could have faked it by pretending he could decide based on fact or law. Flipping or faking, wiser heads in his court would have known, and he would have been undermined as well as the system.
Fortunately, Solomon cared. He did not hide behind a show of authority or look for some legal technicality to dismiss the case. He was honest about his situation, his responsibilities and his ignorance. Instead of going for either/or, he dug down beyond the legal and factual issues into the truth in the women and their relationship. He looked for the love. To do so he recast the whole situation as a psychological test. As a result, one woman revealed her bitterness and detachment, the other her self-giving love. Deep called to deep, the deadlock was broken, the decision was clear and doubts about the king and system were dispelled. It is such a successful moment it made it into the Bible!
The success makes it look like Solomon had it all planned or was not much like the rest of us. He was certainly specially gifted to lead with wisdom, but Solomon did not have a clear target for a smart bomb any more than drone operators in Nevada do. His motives were mixed. He needed to hesitate and come up with more than the usual. He was cautious. He had to consider the true mother, the baby, his own job security — and who knows what else is not implied by the short paragraph? It is the same for all of us, especially when we are given leadership positions, but always when we take the lead. Our motives are mixed and our situations are complex. Solomon was realistic and brilliantly pragmatic. I admire that.
Mixed motives make sense in a complex world
I think the Republican candidates I saw in debate last week might suspect I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “When all else fails, lower your standards” as I write. Because they uniformly said they could make America great by leading better than the unheroic Barack Obama. They seemed to think they would do everything right because that is just what they do. I doubt it. Men and women who want to do the right thing in turbulent times need more than a soundbite about their high standards to succeed. Especially if you are among the 99% who have little power and less money, your motives will be mixed:
- how to survive — how to help;
- how to give one’s best — how to make it into another round;
- how to speak the truth — how to deal with people who don’t care about it.
In our complex circumstances, given our mixed motives, here are four things I recommend as approaches leaders need to consider:
- Think more about what you need to do than about your motives (or someone else’s motives). The game is complex and so are you – take your best shot.
- Don’t think you are disqualified from leading because your motives are mixed and complicated. Life is not on a straight path and many circumstances don’t fit into tidy, moralistic categories – do what you are moved to do.
- Trust yourself – even when your motives pull you in different directions. Conflict is always instructive and often a key to opportunity. You don’t need to crank up or calm down – learn.
- Before you lead in making things better, make sure you care. Your motives may not line up like you wish but, if you care, they are probably good enough and strong enough – get some skin in the game and make a difference. You are gifted by God, too.
Your mixed motives are probably appropriate for a complex world. Don’t count yourself out right when Jesus needs you! Even the “wisdom of Solomon” was acted out by a young, needy king who relied on God, not by a self-assured, narcissist determined to control the situation. You’ll do fine.
******************************************************************************************I like a book on this subject that is not about the church but, surprisingly, about middle managers leading business and government. It is worth a read: Leading Quietly by Joseph Badaracco.
Updated from 2015
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