Our modern generation often displays a profound misunderstanding of the real nature of leadership. Our culture sometimes prefers to elevate entertainment idols or rhetorical phenoms to positions of leadership, regardless of their qualifications. We tolerate deeply flawed, immoral men as our leaders because they manage to accomplish some good or they can “bring people together.” We fail to count the cost of the ensuing long-term cultural rot when we tolerate immoral, unethical leaders who answer to no higher power than themselves.
This is not a modern problem. In January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, ushering in the Third Reich. Just two days later, a 26-year-old theology professor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Eric Metaxas describes in his book Bonhoeffer that the radio broadcast was disrupted before Bonhoeffer could finish — it is unclear whether Hitler’s henchmen were responsible — but it addressed, almost prophetically, the yearning of the younger Germans for the wrong qualities in a leader. Having been raised under the boot of the Weimar Republic, a society in which “religion” had replaced true Christianity, the youth sought an idealized version of a leader:
The group which produced him now sees him already bathed completely in the light of its ideals. It sees him, not in his reality but in his vocation. It is essential for the image of the Leader that the group does not see the face of the one who goes before, but sees him only from behind as the figure stepping out ahead. His humanity is veiled in his Leader’s form.
Bonhoeffer explained that real and true authority structures — the family and the church — had broken down in German society and that the younger generation sought to replace them with a charismatic leader. He contrasted this with a true leader:
The Leader must lead his followers towards a responsibility to the orders of life, a responsibility to father, teacher, judge, state. He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads. He must limit himself to his task with all soberness.
He serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly in his place. Temporarily, the Leader takes over responsibility from the individual, but he must always understand this as being temporary, and must always draw the attention of his followers to this.
Now, I’m not in any way comparing serial genital tweeter Anthony Weiner to Hitler — considering his Jewish faith, it would be completely offensive to do so. But I think there are applications that all leaders — including Anthony Weiner — can draw from Bonhoeffer’s advice to young Germans. Leadership is not the same as celebrity or fame. Indeed, those qualities can work against the concept of the “soberness” with which a leader must serve. Certainly this quality has been lacking in Weiner’s mayoral run. In addition, Weiner — and many other career politicians — ought to take to heart Bonhoeffer’s admonition that leadership is a temporary responsibility and the leader is ultimately accountable to God. As Bonhoeffer said,
The Fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of the Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority. … The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish. Only the Leader who himself serves the penultimate and the ultimate authority can find faithfulness.
Bonhoeffer perhaps had in mind the biblical qualifications for an overseer in the church, described in 1 Timothy 3:
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignitykeeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
Of course, a church leadership position is not the same as an elected position in the civil government, but the principles are an extension of God’s grace to humanity — timeless truths that transcend the church and benefit all who apply them.
If voters took Bonhoeffer’s biblical principles seriously, we wouldn’t be choosing “the lesser of two evils” election after election. We wouldn’t have to weigh the positive outcomes of a Kennedy or a Clinton presidency against the moral failures that could have put the country at severe risk and behavior that wreaked havoc in the lives of their families and those who covered for them. Immoral men like Weiner would be disqualified from office, not made into celebrities with a shot at becoming mayor of one of the most important cities in the world. Character should never be an afterthought or a quality we hope a leader can develop after we assess his charisma or ability to rouse a crowd — it should be the first quality we seek in those who would lead us, lest they lead us to a toleration of cultural rot.