The political season is upon us. About 20 people announced their candidacy for the office of president of the United States, and by this time next year, the battle for the White House and for many other local, state and federal offices will be raging. What should we look for in the people who present themselves for our consideration as leaders?
Daniel J. Elsener, president of Marian University in Indianapolis, frequently speaks about the three qualities that define true leaders. He says they are: 1) intelligence, 2) experience, and 3) character. Whether we are speaking about health care professionals, educators, business people, church leaders, civic leaders or politicians, these three characteristics must be present if good leadership is desired.
Intelligence is critically important, but it’s not enough. Smart people can fool themselves and deceive others if they don’t balance what they know intellectually with what they have experienced firsthand, and what they believe about the world we live in.
Experience says a lot about a person’s abilities and his or her performance under pressure or in crisis situations. But experience or skill alone isn’t enough for leaders who must guide us through unknown territory. A real leader must be able to “cast vision” and imagine scenarios that are untested. That requires intelligence and a profound sense of what is right and true in challenging circumstances.
Faith grounds leaders in a system of values that go far beyond practical day-to-day experiences and intellectual pursuits. It affirms that there is more to life than what we find on the surface of things. To be women and men of character, leaders must be able to anchor their policies and programs in a set of beliefs that define who they are as human beings.
Elsener says all three characteristics are needed. Without any one of these, the three-legged stool of leadership will collapse under the weight of office. Unless our leaders are smart, skilled and trustworthy, they will be unable to exercise wise leadership when we need it most.
Wisdom is not something we hear much about in political discourse, but it is a powerful indicator of an individual’s capacity to lead, especially in times of crisis. Authentic wisdom is found in the integration of intelligence, experience and faith. Each of these leadership virtues informs the other two, creating a synergy that makes sound judgment possible.
So, we need to ask ourselves during the coming year: “What should wise leaders do about poverty, religious freedom, life issues, immigration, the economy, terrorism and all the cultural issues facing individuals, families and communities today?” Is candidate John Doe or nominee Mary Smith wise enough to deal with complex issues in ways that are prudent and productive? Is he or she capable of offering more than political lip service? Will she or he actually deliver on promises made in front of television cameras after the latest polls and focus groups have been consulted?
Elsener frequently observes that while all three virtues are necessary to make leaders wise, character is the most important of all.
Would you willingly consult a smart, skilled surgeon who regularly lies to patients? Would you do business with a highly successful CEO who fixes prices? Would you entrust your children to a teacher or a coach who drinks or gambles or cheats on his or her spouse? Would you cast your vote for a politician who says one thing to get elected, and then does something very different while in office?
We need leaders who are smart, experienced and trustworthy. We need women and men whose ability to lead flows from, and is reinforced by, their character. Above all, we need our leaders to be agents of change who are “doers of the word, not hearers only who delude themselves” (see James 1:22-25).
During the coming year, let’s pay close attention to the candidates who present themselves as leaders. Let’s ask how smart they are, how much practical experience they have and how solid their character appears to be. It’s true that looks can be deceiving, and politicians are often brilliant show people with dazzling smiles and soothing words. But are they wise enough to be leaders, especially when the going gets rough?
Retired Pope Benedict XVI has written that what distinguished Jesus from every leader ever born is the fact that there was never any disconnect between his words and his actions. What he said was what he did. Always.
Jesus Christ is not running for public office this year, so we have no choice but to select candidates who are less than perfect. Wisdom does not demand perfection, but it does require intelligence, experience and, above all, good character.
This editorial first appeared in the The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. It is distributed by Catholic News Service.