Leadership, Holy Men, and Lessons from Augustine

Article by   November 2006

We can now take this point a stage further: in this context, that of the god-like aspirations of leadership, sin becomes incredibly attractive. In the Confessions, Augustine makes it clear in relation to a trivial act of the youthful crime of stealing some pears from a neighbour's tree. It was not the pears themselves, he argues that made the crime attractive - he remembers that he had better pears in his own garden - but the act of transgression. He liked breaking the rules much more than he liked the taste of the pears; and we might gloss this by saying that he liked breaking the rules because, in breaking the rules he effectively declared himself to be god, the one who makes up his own rules and thus stands above the law. When we connect this to leadership, it is easy to see why the culture of leadership is one in which sin is not simply a danger because of the greater opportunities which leadership offers; it is also a danger because the culture of leadership is one where making the rules and enforcing them as and when desired, is part and parcel of how the leader operates. In his or her respective field, the leader has a sweeter, deeper, more intoxicating taste of a pseudo-divine freedom than that available to the ordinary person in the street, and given the self-directed nature of fallen humanity, it is inevitable that outwith the grace of God the results will be disastrous.

Self-love which is an end in itself is, of course, narcissism; and it is often noted how many narcissists make it to the top in their respective fields, driven by the need to feed their own self-image, to satiate, as Augustine might say, the insatiable: they love themselves, and that love, because it does not terminate on the infinite God, can never satisfy; and so it serves only to drive them on to greater heights of self-love, evidenced in everyday life by massive over-achievement. Hence, so the received wisdom goes, they tend to rise to the top.

In addition, narcissists' delusions of deity lead them to routinely break the rules themselves while imposing these rules with a ruthless efficiency on those under them. After all, narcissists thinks they are gods; and just as gods stand above their own laws, so they demand absolute obedience from those lesser beings who stand below them. As Augustine might have put it, everyone else becomes something the individual merely uses to achieve the ends of his or her own self-love, instruments kept in their place by subjugation to the law from which the narcissist considers himself to be free because of his or her superiority. Perhaps it is therefore not insignificant that a hallmark of Haggard's public presence was his outspoken opposition to gay marriage; given the nature of his fall, it is difficult not to be reminded of this classic narcissistic pattern of rigidly demanding obedience from others on a point where one indulges oneself routinely in transgression.

Given this tendency, the received wisdom - that narcissists tend to rise to the top - needs perhaps to be modified. The godlike pretensions of the narcissist and the godlike analogies of the nature of leadership itself are perhaps symbiotic, feeding off each other. Perhaps it is not narcissists who make leadership material, but leadership which capitalizes on human weaknesses and feeds and strengthens those tendencies which make individuals into narcissists. Given this, it is not surprising to see leaders fall frequently and spectacularly. It is not simply that leaders have greater opportunities to sin; it is that the very nature of leadership will seduce all but the most careful into believing that they are little gods, that they make the rules, and that they can get away with anything. Surround these leaders with crowds of uncritically adoring supporters and you have the perfect storm: self-deception followed by self-destruction are, humanly speaking, almost unavoidable.

It is perhaps worth noting at this point, almost as an aside, that one refreshing factor in the Haggard case was the way in which his followers dealt with him firmly and decisively. The self-love of the leader is so often paralleled by the self-love of the followers; and it is always amazing to see for how long, and with what vehemence, the followers of morally discredited and bankrupt leaders remain committed to their former masters. It seems the mutual ego-stroking of leader and disciple often pays dividends for the former when the toothpaste finally comes of the tube; as the Holy Man gives his followers vicarious charismata and importance during the good times, so the effect seems to last long after the grace has well and truly departed.

This brings me to my final Augustinian take on the Haggard affair: for Augustine, sexual union is the classic locus of self-love. This is why he believes that original sin is transmitted: even the very act of conception is perverted by self-love and thus the products of that union are themselves damaged from conception. Indeed, in Augustine's thought, the separation of sexual union from procreation is an example of self-love as and end in itself in action. Once the purpose of sexual union terminates on pleasure rather than on reproduction, the game is up as far as virtuous sex goes. On this issue, I disagree with Augustine and find, for example, Gilbert Meilaender's recent defence of sexual intercourse for purposes other than the reproductive to be persuasive. Nevertheless, once sexual union is divorced from the context of marriage, I believe that the Augustinian critique is basically sound: sex for ends other than the reproductive or the strengthening and nourishing of the marriage bond ends up as sex for self-serving purposes, whether personal physical pleasure, personal power or whatever.

Given this, the fact that sexual sin is so often the Achilles heel of leaders, even Christian leaders, is not surprising. After all, one would expect those who are drowning in self-love and thus self-deception regarding their status as little gods to be prone to give expression to that in their actions; and surely the ultimate expression of this is sex purely motivated by personal satisfaction. Even mistresses do not provide this opportunity for total self-directed self-love, as the lover's bond to the mistress might still involve some level of personal emotional commitment and hold open the possibility of procreation and family-life; but prostitutes, perhaps especially gay prostitutes, provide precisely such a nihilistic outlet for sexual activity where the focus is surely directed entirely at transgressive, anarchic behaviour which places self-satisfaction and personal fulfillment right at the center, any emotional or reproductive needs of the partner being totally excluded from the picture.


To summarise the arguments so far: leaders such as Ted Haggard are akin to the Holy Men of the early church. They are individuals of great charisma who symbolize the superiority of Christianity by outdoing the pagans in terms of the measures of success within the wider society; and such culturally acceptable success lifts them above criticism, giving them a quasi-godlike status. In addition, there is a certain parallel between the nature of human leadership in general as that which involves power and the nature of human sin as the transgression of God's law. Throw into the mix crowds of adoring followers and a culture which judges success by numbers, wealth, access to the media and to the great and the good in Washington or elsewhere, and you have a situation where the capacity for human self-love and self-deception can potentially spiral out of control. That this so often finds expressing in sexual encounters of the most transgressive nature should be no surprise, for such activity is human self-love in its most unadulterated form.

Where does this lead us? I close with just three points:

1.  Ancient church history, far from being a matter of only antiquarian interest can, when done with a properly critical eye, provide us with categories which allow us to analyse events in the present at a depth to which we might not otherwise have access. To respond to incidents like those involving Ted Haggard with responses which simply point to the fact that he is a sinner, or that his actions are foolish, is legitimate; but it does not really allow us to probe the psychology of leadership, and the peculiar problems such leadership brings within a culture such as ours.

2.  Leadership is a potentially lethal position. Those who are leaders are not simply given more opportunities to sin; they actually inhabit a place which positively fosters the kind of self-deception which lies at the very heart of what sin is. If routine sin allows us, even momentarily, to think that we are gods, then the leader lives in a world where that potential image of self can be reinforced again and again by power and by the adulation and/or obedience of others. Perhaps the people who we need to lead us, who we can really trust are, first and foremost, those who do not want to be leaders but have the role thrust upon them. Scripture tells us, of course, a good and noble thing to desire to be a leader; but perhaps we need to pay careful attention to how someone desires to be a leader, and how responsible they have proved in the small things of life before we automatically assume that the desire to be a leader actually confirms the call to leadership.

3.  Accountability is thus crucial in leadership. Choice of advisors and confidantes is critical. The tragedy of Haggard and of others like him is that they did not put into place the right men and women before the problem developed. If you want to avoid personal moral disaster as a Christian, you need to establish mechanisms of accountability before you think you have any problem; and for leaders this is even more imperative. Being surrounded by yes-men and lackeys might stroke the self-image; but it will do nothing to prevent self-destruction.

And I learned all this from critical reflection on texts written over 1500 years ago.


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