Albert Mohler. The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2012. 224 pp. $22.99.
In my first job out of journalism school, I contributed to the book The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham by Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley. At the time I didn’t lead much of anything. My office was a desk at the end of a hallway behind a bookcase. But I stored away wisdom gleaned from interviews with leaders who watched Graham in public and private. They observed how he surrounded himself with a team that compensated for his weaknesses. How he shared credit for his influence and handled criticism (sometimes deserved) with grace and humility. How he built enduring institutions, even if the public didn’t recognize him as the driving force.
Nevertheless, when the Lord calls him home, world-famous evangelist Billy Graham will not be remembered primarily as a leader. But one man who benefited directly from Graham’s leadership fits the profile of a consummate, competent leader. And he has recently released probably the most important book of his remarkable career. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, aims to fundamentally change the way we understand the practice leadership (15). And we dare not discount him, because Mohler probably hasn’t failed at anything he set out to accomplish.
Believers and Leaders
Mohler diagnoses a problem he has been uniquely gifted to address. He sees evangelicals divided between Believers, driven by deep and passionate beliefs, and Leaders, masters of change and organizational transformation (19).
“My goal is to redefine Christian leadership so that it is inseparable from passionately held beliefs,” Mohler writes, “and to motivate those who are deeply committed to truth to be ready for leadership.”
Mohler peppers his 25 principles for leadership with illustrations from a tumultuous and transformative tenure as president of Southern Seminary. We might be too close to appreciate the magnitude of his influence, but Mohler is already responsible for one of the most important developments in American Christianity during the last 50 years. He needed unshakable theological convictions to endure the resistance of faculty and students angry with his appointment. But he also needed exceptional leadership skill to effect the changes and keep his job by enlisting the support of such trusted authorities as Graham. Mohler’s example teaches us that you do not need to be popular to lead. But you must have the confidence of key decision-makers and the vision to imagine what no one else can yet see.
Many different kinds of leaders will benefit from Mohler’s insight. His position demands the teaching ability of a professor, the management acumen of an executive, and the moral character of a pastor. Leaders, Mohler explains, need to be credible thinkers, speakers, readers, and writers. You may wonder, as I did, how we’re supposed to be proficient in so many diverse skills. The omni-competent Mohler is a tough act to follow. When he writes about how leaders handle media, we’re learning from one of the best. He’s effective writing blogs and books, speaking in churches and with Larry King. But no matter your position or place, you’ll learn something from Mohler’s example and explanations.
Character and Calling
The best leadership books, like the widely read Good to Great by Jim Collins, can be adapted by Christians who see the common grace in a well-run organization. Mohler borrows from leadership wisdom wherever he finds it but grounds his counsel in the teaching of Scripture and the shape of the gospel. And he brings these views to bear on the broader cultural discussion about leadership.
“Fairly regularly, we see debates over the meaning of character in leadership and public life. Most of it is nonsense,” Mohler says. “We know that character matters when we hire a baby-sitter. How can it not matter when we are calling a leader?” (81)
The message of Jesus draws sustained attention from Mohler. But the example of Jesus, outside his mission as a teacher, does not supply so much material for The Conviction to Lead. Not only Christians can recognize Jesus as the most effective leader of all time. Mohler wisely cites Jesus the servant leader as a counter-cultural example in an age where we strangely treat unpopular Wall Street bankers and Washington politicians as role models (111-112). Even more wisdom from Jesus would have been welcome.
Learning from Failure
Only when we’re secure in the work of Jesus can we as leaders surrender the need to justify and protect ourselves amid the inevitable criticism and challenges. When studying Billy Graham, I learned most from his failures. Why did he need to be loved by politicians? Why was he tempted to butter up his communist hosts by downplaying persecution of Christians in places like the Soviet Union? By confessing his public sins in humility, Graham opened his life to allow the rest of us to learn from his mistakes. Mohler mentions some of his struggles past and present, such as impatience, but he rarely cites himself as a negative example.
In this I think he misses an opportunity to encourage the rest of us only too aware of how we have failed as leaders in the home, community, and church. I don’t mind advice on the kind of pen I should use when writing (171), but I’m more acutely in need of help in how to restore broken relationships and rebuild the trust necessary for successful leadership in any sphere. How did Mohler learn to balance the demands of leadership with the responsibility toward his family, church, and friends? What are the personal sacrifices leaders should expect to make when seeking the good of those they serve, especially when they are reluctant to follow?
Thankfully, we learn a great deal else from Mohler in this book about leadership that leaves a godly legacy. For few leaders in our day have been so effectively used by God to protect and advance a legacy of faithfulness to the gospel. May God give us many more leaders with passionate conviction to stand by God’s Word against every threat the future may hold.
“If my successor attempts to subvert the truths upon which this institution is established,” Mohler writes, “I will do everything I can to stop that subversion in its tracks, even if it means haunting my successor from the grave, by memory” (211).
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. You can follow him on Twitter.