The pastor I am talking about is not an arrogant man. He is actually quite humble, all things considered. But what he is not, is confident. He only looks confident. A person who cannot admit their faults is afraid, is insecure, and leads from the belief that if they make a mistake, nobody will follow them. A confident person would admit mistakes freely, because they really don’t need you or I to approve, they would get that from Jesus, and they’d teach us to get it from Jesus too. Instead, they teach us that they do not make mistakes, and so they are selfish.
Nobody in scripture is perfect, save Christ. And God has no trouble airing the dirty laundry of his followers. Peter denies Christ, but God leaves the incident in the text, Moses is a murderer, but God leaves the story in the text, David cheats on his wife, Lot offers his daughters, Thomas won’t believe his friends who saw Christ alive, and so on and so on. There are few good marriages in the Bible, and fewer good fathers. Throughout the ages, Christians have been more than comfortable admitting their humanity, almost as a reference to God’s goodness. Until, that is, western civilization and, perhaps, the commercialization of our culture. Now Jesus is a product, and we sell him, and if we are selling a product, the product better work, so we just make things up about how great we are.
A pastor friend and I were having lunch recently and he asked for advice about writing a book. He is a terrific guy and had terrific stories. But I told him many of the Christian authros I read make the same mistake the secular authors do, though to a greater degree, and that is the writer gets in the way of the truth. The truth is in there, but so is the writer. The writer wants you to know about his message, but also that he or she is smart. The writer wants you to know about their message, but also that he is tough and you better not mess with him, and that you area coward in comparison. The writer wants you to know about his message, but also wants you to know he is a good writer! The trick is, even if you are talking about yourself, to get out of the way. Tell the truth. Of course, because we are fallen, we aren’t going to nail this, but we have to try.
I heard an interview a long time ago with the folk singer David Wilcox, in which Wilcox was asked how he managed to be so vulnerable and open in his songwriting. Wilcox answered that, when he sits down to write a song, he tries to share something he is afraid to share, something that, to him, might be embarrassing. He does this, he said, because in giving the audience something they can use against him, they create a trusting relationship. It’s as though he is taking his pistol out and handing it to the person across the table.
I’ve applied this technique to my writing, and it is scary stuff, but it’s true, it does create a trusting relationship with your audience. 1 out of 100 people use it against you, and it does in fact hurt, but it’s worth the other 99 relationships that are authentic from the beginning.
As Christian leaders, we will be tempted to surround ourselves with yes men, and we will be tempted to get rid of anybody who doesn’t agree with us. We will cloak this under “God’s will” or “we weren’t on the same page” but this can only go so far. If you keep it up, you’ll find yourself alone. I’ve made this mistake many times, and had to learn the hard way. At The Mentoring Project, I now have to submit to my board, and to our Executive Director. I frequently get vetoed, and it’s clear I am not top man on the totem pole. In fact, I am simply seen as an advisor. Oh, the days when I once had power! (and more than a little dysfunction)
I’ve noticed healthy children often have parents who sit down with them and explain their short-comings. A parents admission that they weren’t perfect frees the child to learn from their parents mistakes rather than cover up or react to family issues. But parents who, in neediness and selfishness, will not admit fault, in an effort to control their children, often have children who feel they cannot be safe with their parents, and sometimes react. Authenticity works in all forms of leadership, I think.
Yesterday, Robert S. McNamara passed away. MacNamara was President of Ford Motor Company before going to work at the Department of Defense. He was instrumental in the bombing of Japan in World War II, and is often called the architect of the war in Vietnam. But toward the end of his life, MacNamara began to reconsider his actions. He even wrote a book confessing what he felt were his wrongs. He left the Johnson administration and ran the World Bank, some believe, to make up for the many lives lost under his command.
I don’t have a strong opinion about the war in Vietnam. War is messy, and I tend to believe we had good reason to be there, though it certainly didn’t turn out the way we would have hoped. But hindsight is twenty-twenty. I am more interested in MacNamara, though. I am more interested in a man with a distinguished career suddenly coming out and admitting he was wrong. It is so rarely seen by a government leader.
Perhaps it was the haunting memory of the soldiers who passed, or the protestors, one of whom, a married Quaker, burned himself alive outside McNamara’s window. The mans wife would later write McNamara, after he admitted his mistakes, and forgave him. In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, McNamara broke down crying as he read her words.
McNamara’s tearful confessions can be seen in the Academy Award Winning documentary The Fog of War. It is a gripping film, revealing the confusion any leader faces during war. But what is more fascinating is that the film captures a man who decides his reputation is not more important than the truth, and the clearing of his conscious.
And did it cost McNamara? It didn’t. Those who support the war, still support McNamara, and those who protested it, see him as another kind of hero, a man who laid down his ego so history could learn from what he felt were mistakes. He was an arrogant man, and he was more consumed by his ego than troubled by the war he ran in which hundreds of thousands were killed. But in the end, perhaps, he did a thing that was noble. I don’t know why else he would apologize, or admit fault.
In my opinion, the most important thing a leader can do is admit his mistakes. He or she should be competent, and should have integrity, and some mistakes really do disqualify you from leadership, but so should deceit, even if its self deceit.
Rest in peace, Robert McNamara.
Donald Miller’s new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years releases this fall. You can pre-order it here.
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