Featured Reviews, VOLUME 11

D. Gushee / C. Holtz – Moral Leadership for a Divided Age [Review]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1587433575″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/417YWfv7enL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”222″]The Vital Humanness
of Moral Leaders

A Review of 

Moral Leadership for a Divided Age: Fourteen People Who Dared to Change Our World
David Gushee / Colin Holtz

Hardback: Brazos Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Aaron Morrison


Moral Leadership for a Divided Age works best as an introduction to moral leaders who have made a positive impact through their deep conviction to work for the common good. Readers may wish other leaders would have been included, or they may be disappointed in the limited reflection on how moral leaders form us into better people. Nonetheless, David Gushee and Colin Holtz have designated a well-intentioned list of remarkable people whose lives have much to teach us about being good citizens in a divided polis.

Gushee and Holtz intend for Moral Leadership to “[deepen the] understanding of moral leadership and [strengthen the] ability” of its readers to “discern it.” (3) Their list is not meant to be authoritative, nor is it meant to draw consensus. Rather, Gushee and Holtz wrote their analysis in such a way because they regard “our society” oscillates between poles of near hagiography or pure incredulity towards moral leaders. (3) In reading their book, the authors hope to reform the capacity of their audience to see moral leaders as bridge builders across factions and as arrows pointing to transcendent moral truth.

Even as Gushee and Holtz write from a perspective derived from their Christian faith, they do not intend for their audience to be only Christians. Not all the leaders they selected are Christian (Hindus, Muslims, and Jews are represented as well), and their decision reflects their belief that “moral leadership is not the exclusive province of any one religion.”  (3) Gushee and Holtz argue that mutual recognition of moral leaders can act as “a starting point” for their pluralistic audience to dialogue. (3)

Moral Leadership was adapted from a course David Gushee has taught at Union University and Mercer University for the past 20 years. (ix) Many names were suggested to Gushee and Holtz as they wrote this book, and they chose the final list because they “simply had to start somewhere and stop somewhere else.” (348) All these leaders, they note, can be considered moral leaders who “led remarkable lives that left the world changed.” (3) Still, the authors wanted to make their list distinctive by including those who they perceived as “voices too often left out.” (348)

The book begins with an introduction to moral leadership, which they regard as “a species of leadership.” (4) Gushee and Holtz recognize their foray into discussing leadership may add to the cacophony of previous attempts to define it. Their acknowledgement of the vast literature on leadership may explain why they chose a simple definition of leaders as those who “unite followers around a common goal.” (4) From there, they identify three “clues” to recognizing moral leaders: “moral impact, moral character, and moral purpose.” (4) Gushee and Holtz confess they are “drawing a definition out of the imperfect lives of real people,” but they still contend that moral leadership “leaves hints as it works in history.” (7) The authors believe their readers will intuit these moral leaders “when they see them,” and that by reflecting on the lives of moral leaders they will be formed into moral leaders themselves. (6)

After defining moral leadership, Gushee and Holtz examine the lives of fourteen people in separate chapters. Each chapter contains the same sections: historical context, early & private life, vocation, legacy & criticism, and leadership lessons. Each chapter also ends with a set of discussion questions suitable for small groups. Gushee and Holtz selected leaders from the past two hundred years – beginning with William Wilberforce and ending with Malala Yousafzai. Most of the leaders come from Europe or North America–which Gushee and Holtz recognize as a bias–but not to the point of undermining the book’s goals.

Readers will derive valuable lessons on moral leadership from each of the fourteen leaders. One of the best sections considers Mohandas Gandhi as an example of how to hold a moral leader’s legacy accountable. Gushee and Holtz highlight the recent scholarship on Gandhi’s controversial views on race, caste, and sexuality. The authors admit they almost did not include him because of his views. However, they decided to keep him because of his importance to the American Civil Rights Movement and because Gandhi “is a cautionary tale” of how leaders can contribute to the public good and also force their followers to confront how much immorality they can tolerate from them. (149) This discussion of Gandhi’s legacy seems poignant today, as public scrutiny has risen over the record of moral leaders who abused their power in relation to gender and race.

Gushee and Holtz’s prose reads with ease and should be accessible to all audiences, regardless of previous knowledge. The authors sketch each moral leader through brief, but compelling biographies, which point out their virtues and vices. Gushee and Holtz mix both primary and secondary sources, and they also offer additional resources for further reading at the end of each chapter. At 356 pages, Moral Leadership may be difficult for a group to read together over a short period of time. While readers may not tire of reading about fourteen leaders, the authors could have accomplished their goals by focusing on fewer leaders and making Moral Leadership more amenable for popular intake.

Gushee and Holtz did miss opportunities–not only explain in further detail about what makes a moral leader, but also how a community both recognizes and receives the values of a moral leader. The authors have a theory of character development implicit in their writing but limit their explanation to “people will recognize it when they see it.” (6) Whereas some may find the simple description appropriate for inclusive definitions of leadership, an attempt to articulate more of how a community is formed to recognize moral leaders would have made Moral Leadership more effective in achieving its goal.

Gushee and Holtz’s Moral Leadership comes when other books featuring lists of notable leaders have appeared. Some prominent recent examples include Eric Metaxas’ Seven Men & Seven Women (2016) and Albert Raboteau’s American Prophets (2016). Many books follow this format: their authors select lists of historical figures and make an argument about why these figures should be considered for their audience today. For Gushee and Holtz, their choice to highlight lesser known figures (such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale) for their impact on building and changing institutions distinguishes their list from others. The authors could have focused on the most dramatic moments of their lives, yet they chose to include their more mundane actions in coalition-building as crucial aspects of their legacy.

Books on leadership are not in short supply in a world described by Gushee and Holtz as infatuated and desperate for it. Moral Leadership for a Divided Age might have difficulty competing for attention among many other books on leadership. Yet for those who do read all fourteen of its portraits, they will find a wealth of wisdom about how to be a moral leader in 2018. Gushee and Holtz have provided a worthy addition to the discourse on leadership; they have done so by describing the vital humanness of moral leaders as people who contain fallibilities while inspiring their followers to bend the course of history towards justice.

Aaron Morrison
is Adjunct Professor of Ethics at the University of Southern Indiana.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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