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Leadership Studies?

July 18, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., and is a frequent contributor to The Wanderer.)

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Very recently, a professor — “Dr. Smith” — at a certain university contacted me by email to ask my opinion about a leadership program which that institution plans to begin.
Having taught leadership and ethics for a number of years, I was happy to provide whatever experience I have gained in and through those years of teaching and writing. At the outset, there is a critical question:


How can we teach leadership if and when it emanates from an ethically stricken society, one which the prophet Isaiah described this way:
“Justice is driven away, and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square, and honesty finds no place there. There is so little honesty that anyone who stops doing evil finds himself the victim of crime” (59:14-15 GNB).
With respect to leadership studies, if this is today’s “culture,” what can be done (cf. Psalms 11:3, 82:5)?
Three practical matters require study:
First, frequently what passes for leadership programs in various colleges amounts to a bundling of courses from various fields which are connected, if only tangentially, with the ideas of leadership and management. A burden of proof lies squarely upon curriculum innovators to show how a reshuffling of already existing courses, now branded as “Leadership Studies,” is likely to result in benefit to students. In other words, why not just maintain the major in English, or politics, or philosophy?
Second, newly instituted leadership programs sometimes claim that students will substantially develop their organizational skills and style, greatly enhancing their abilities to contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness (two favorite contemporary bureaucratic nouns) of their future businesses. One can reasonably question, however, whether a university major ought to be devoted to “skills enhancement.” If the development of “skill” is the premier purpose of a university program, how does the university differ from a jobs training site?
Third, there is, moreover, the corollary matter of whether the skill set taught at and by a university will satisfy the particular needs of the organization in which the graduated student finds employment. Every business has its unusual, or even unique, codes and rites of operation. Many skills are best developed as a result of “on-the-job training.”
University claims may be inflated, then, in advertising that students will learn skills immediately marketable and universally applicable in the worlds of business, medicine, education, and so on.


Warren G. Bennis (1925-2014), the well-known organizational theorist, said: “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.”
Well, no: Not exactly.
“Managers” do things as routinely stipulated by their organizations. “Leaders” do the right thing only if they know the right thing to do. If leaders are ignorant of what is right, they will default to doing what is stipulated, customary, routine, popular, or self-promotional.
This is precisely why university programs advertised as “Leadership Studies” must be rooted in the traditional liberal arts. If we want leaders who do the “right thing,” we must have colleges which transmit, not just “values,” but virtues. If right thought or action is not securely grounded in what is Right, then right is interchangeable with might; then right is fungible with “doing whatever is necessary to get the job done”; then right is compatible with obsequiously pleasing the boss and getting ahead in a dog-eat-dog world.
When we think of doing what is conventionally right, we may think of the Machiavellian idea of virtu and of libido dominandi; when we think of doing what is ethically Right, we may think of virtue and of the natural moral law (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1803).
Leaders who do the Right thing “see that justice is done” (Isaiah 1:17), and they “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21; cf. James 4:17). If the word right can be compromised and confusing, so can the word values. Everyone has values; not everyone has virtues (Wisdom 8:7, 2 Peter 1:3-8). In fact, “whoever lacks [virtue] is blind and shortsighted” (2 Peter 1:9). That includes, of course, institutions of higher learning whose “leaders” and faculty, for want of either vision or valor (or both), “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
Here, then, is the core of any program styling itself “leadership studies”: to develop men and women of integrity, capable of genuinely distinguishing good from evil, truth from lies, and beautiful from barbaric. But more: any “leadership” program which does not deliberately seek to inculcate virtue is the ally of vice. As Pope Leo XIII put it in Militantis Ecclesiae (1897):
“If they remember the saying of the ancients, that knowledge merits the name of cleverness rather than wisdom when it is separated from justice, or better yet if they meditate on the words of Scripture: ‘They are vain, those men in whom there is no knowledge of God’ (Wisdom 13:1), they will learn to use the weapons of knowledge less for their personal gain than for the general good.”
The good human being will soon master the necessary job skills; the corrupt human being will employ skill only in reprobate ways.
In Anton Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle, a warrior is told: “If it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being, try to be a good human being.”
There is the kernel of good sense which ought to be foundational to any program in leadership (cf. Hab. 2:4).
Catholic college “leadership studies” programs, then, must be devoted, first and foremost, to the formation of good human beings (see CCC, n. 2518) who are “educated in the moral law” (CCC, n. 2526), and not only or primarily immersed in learning banausic skills.
This requires that such institutions advertise, not immediate and lucrative post-graduate employment based upon students having (presumably) mastered certain marketable management techniques, but, rather, advertise and vigorously promote the development of Catholic character.
“Truth vandals,” to use Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s apt term, argue that “character education” is essentially a conservative enterprise. That allegation is, in fact, true. But while secularists mean this pejoratively, it is, in fact, an accolade, for the purpose of education is, at its heart, to conserve, protect, and revere what is true and to prevent the truth from being besmirched into fabrication and falsehood.
What St. Paul told Timothy, after all, he told us, too (including the presidents of ostensibly Catholic colleges): “Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20; cf. 2 Tim. 1:14).


In an age of relativism, nihilism, and hedonism, how are we to have college programs which insist upon teaching, not skills, but virtue; not servility to the boss or the organization, but fidelity to God first (Matt. 6:333); and not “doing whatever it takes,” if “it” demands sin as the price of success (Matt. 16:26)?
I suggested to Dr. Smith that leadership begins in our realizing the power of Philippians 4:8-9, which concerns our ability to think wisely and well and continues with commitment to “put [it] into practice” (v. 9). If we can’t think well, we can’t do well.
Leadership Studies programs must therefore be grounded in moral theology, philosophy and ethics, history, literature, and classical politics.
A leadership faculty must be at pains to have students think about what is Right, not just right; about the historical and moral precedents for situations; about the probable result of the result (second-order thinking) in any circumstance; about who must not know about what is being decided and why he/she/they should be denied such knowledge (this is, as they say, a “probing question,” and red flags should pop up if there is an answer to it!); and about what is the most dangerous, or the potentially stupidest, element of what is being decided.
Are those involved fully prepared, if necessary, to say “No” to their bosses? The short scripture here is Acts 5:29 (“We must obey God before men”).
Leadership programs must teach, then, that the health of one’s career is nowhere nearly as important as the health of one’s soul. Separate sound moral teaching from the academic enterprise and you have given birth, as did Dr. Frankenstein, to a monster — in this case, one masquerading as Mr. Chips.
As Pope Leo XIII presciently put it:
“If there ever existed a period which demanded abundant science and knowledge to defend the Catholic faith, it is assuredly ours in which the rapid progress in all branches of study often furnishes the enemies of the Christian faith with an occasion for attacking it.
“We must therefore commit the same forces to repel their attack. We must occupy the position first and snatch from their hands the weapons with which they are trying to destroy all links between God and man.”
Good leaders are prepared — in mind and spirit — to serve the cause of what is Right, and to inspire others to follow that path (cf. Psalm 119:33-48).
The key to this is perspective, meaning the ability to see through the present to the eternal; the ability to know the value of things, not just their cost; and the ability to choose what ought to be done rather than just what the crowd cheers.
These lessons come from university honor codes; from seminars rooted in the enduring literature (such as Antigone); and from professors not devoted to instructing about “skill sets,” but, rather, dedicated to guiding men and women to what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious. The university which imbues its graduates with knowledge of, and fidelity to, what is noble produces genuine leaders.
Leadership is the cultivated ability to inspire appropriate conduct beyond the expectable. Wise education enhances such ability, and, at least to some extent, it empowers and encourages leaders to galvanize others in the service of what is Right beyond what would otherwise be expected.
When a college — or its president and faculty — stand muddled, mute, and myopic before the great questions of our time (Are we God’s or gods? Do we know any Truth? Are life, love, and learning the property of the Leviathan State? Do we invent for ourselves or discover by grace the meaning of our years?), they are iniquitously contending that all which is holy is manufactured and manipulated by those who know the love of power but not the power of love.
These negative sentiments, though, are strikingly common today, even — or especially — on college campuses, where it is chichi to think that goodness is a matter of emotional commitment to whatever the glitterati applaud; that truth is a matter of taste; and that beauty is found in the latest fads and immodest fashions.
We need faithful Catholic education if we are to have faithful Catholic leaders.
One wishes “Dr. Smith” well. If it’s true that no effect is greater than its cause, then to have a great Leadership Studies Program, one needs a great university.
And a great university — especially a great Catholic university — must be countercultural in teaching future leaders the profound difference, not only between right and wrong, but also between Right and right.

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