The Character of Leadership - Y Magazine
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The Character of Leadership

John Hancock By Robert Sloan Jr.

Our Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount, told us that we are to be salt and light in the world. Commentators and scholars debate over the exact background and significance of the words salt and light—particularly of the word salt: Is it a preservative? Does it provide seasoning? But whatever the precise meaning, the simple fact is that both salt and light extend their influence to their environment. When salt is around things, they become salty. Where there is light, things become illuminated. In many ways this is the essence of leadership. By definition, leaders influence those around them. They extend their influence and have an impact on others. If this is so, it’s very possible to be intelligent, accomplished, to have achieved things individually and to not yet be a leader.

So I want to challenge you today to take seriously the words of our Lord, that as his followers, as his disciples, we are to be salt and light in the world. We are to extend the influence, the example, the character of Jesus Christ through our own lives into the world around us. 

I draw upon that pagan oracle, the Oracle of Delphi, for the well-known phrase Nosce te Ipsum, “know yourself.” I use this as an exhortation to each of us today to reflect for a moment about ourselves. Reflect with me about some historical examples of leadership. In the process I ask you, I ask myself, that we attempt to know ourselves and see exactly what our gifts are and how we may apply our gifts, abilities, intelligence, and achievements in such a way that we extend ourselves and become an influence—that we become salt and light in the world.

Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to read David McCullough’s very popular biography John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). It is a well-documented and fascinating study of John Adams, the second president of the United States, but also of a number of other well-known characters in American history. It covers the life of Adams from his humble beginnings through his time as a diplomat and then, of course, his leadership as the elected leader of the United States. This book also recounts the processes, anecdotes, and incidents that led up to the creation and ultimately the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

So I want you to be, for a moment, a fly on the wall with me. Let’s go back to Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1776, and let me share with you just a few anecdotes about the characters who participated in the creation of the Declaration of Independence.

You can’t begin to think of the Declaration of Independence without first of all thinking of Thomas Jefferson. When the delegates of the Second Continental Congress met, they had already handed over a great burden of work to Thomas Jefferson. This tall, unassuming delegate from Virginia had sequestered himself for most of the month of June, had almost single-handedly drafted this magnificent document, which, after revision and official approval and authentication, became known to us as the Declaration of Independence. He stayed in an upstairs apartment at the corner of Seventh and Market Streets in downtown Philadelphia. It was his strength of mind, his vigor, and his ability to shape words expressive of great ideas that created the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a man of enormous vision. I’d like for you to think of Jefferson and associate the word vision.

Then, of course, there was Benjamin Franklin. In many ways, Franklin could not have been more unlike Thomas Jefferson. Franklin, by this time, was a rather quirky, eccentric, aged fellow. Never at a lack for words, Franklin was a man of humor, wit, and proverbial wisdom. He was from Pennsylvania, and Jefferson was from Virginia. Jefferson was a farmer and an estate holder. And though both were inventors and men of great intellectual capacity, Franklin himself was a printer by trade.

When the delegates convened and Jefferson’s first draft was brought out, the delegates began to pick over words and phrases of Jefferson’s monumental document, continuously critiquing and evaluating. It was a difficult process for Jefferson, but he bore it in silence. Benjamin Franklin took the chair next to Thomas Jefferson and on one occasion shared a story with him, perhaps in an attempt to comfort “a wounded author”:

[Franklin] had once known a hatter who wished to have a sign made saying, “John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” this to be accompanied by a picture of a hat. But the man had chosen first to ask the opinion of friends, with the result that one word after another was removed as superfluous or redundant, until at last the sign was reduced to Thompson’s name and the picture of the hat. [McCullough, p. 131]

Franklin was a man who was able to, on more than one occasion, take the delegates aside during that hot summer, give them some cold ice water, and get them out in the shade. This cooled tempers and emotions. Franklin was a man who understood the importance of people and relationships.

And then there was an interesting character by the name of Caesar Rodney. As the time for the vote drew near, Rodney, one of three delegates from Delaware, was not present. Delaware’s two other delegates were divided on the issue of independence, and it was politically very important to get all of the 13 colonies and would-be states on board. At the last moment Caesar Rodney, having ridden all night and having changed horses several times, came into the meeting mud splattered, weary, and suffering from a terminal illness. Caesar Rodney was able to cast his vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence. Stubborn persistence. A man who against all odds was determined to get to Philadelphia in time for the vote. And he got there.

The vote was cast and the declaration passed. However, for one month from early July until Aug. 2, there were only two signatures, but one main signature, on that draft while the official final document was being prepared. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, had decided that he would step forward, and he signed his name at the bottom of this draft document and gave it some authority and credibility. It seems so heroic to us now. It seems so magnificent and full of romance and the thrill of history. It was a dangerous act, and he, along with Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, signed their names to what could easily have been a death warrant. Men of courage.

Benjamin Franklin

By their courage, intellect, discipline, persistence, and vision, the founders were able to bring together a document and then, ultimately, a nation that have transformed the intellectual and political history of the world.

No survey of these great characters would be complete without reference to John Adams. Adams was a man who came from humble means but who, by virtue of his study and intellect, in many ways was “the colossus of independence” (McCullough, p. 163), as Thomas Jefferson later described him. For two years previous to the creation of the Declaration of Independence he had done the intellectual background work that made it possible for there even to be a Declaration of Independence. He had done this through his letters, his essays, his newspaper articles, his speeches, his productivity, and his rigorous commitment to intellectual detail. By the writing and rewriting and rewriting of letters and essays and speeches, John Adams produced an intellectual argument for freedom and independence. He was ultimately able to carry the day when it came time for political courage, rhetorical skill, and even warfare. John Adams: a man of great intellectual rigor, discipline, and excellence.

The story of the Declaration of Independence is a story of people who in some ways were ordinary, though also unusual. These were people who found themselves in extraordinary times and who, by their courage, their intellect, their discipline, their persistence, their vision, and their political shrewdness, were able to somehow bring together a document and then, ultimately, a nation that have transformed the intellectual and political history of the world.

Surely these are good examples of leadership. Thomas Jefferson was a man of vision, a man who could see the big picture, a man who could see the grand and glorious scope of the implications of freedom. At Baylor University we’ve recently gone through the creation of something that we call our 10-year vision. It was a very interesting process, and it was something that I personally learned a great deal from. I learned that there’s a big difference between a vision and a plan. It’s one thing to have a plan, which has strategies and budgets and incremental steps. But a vision is something even more than that; a vision is something that not only institutions can have, but individuals can have. A vision has not only intellectual content, but also emotional content. I challenge you to have a vision for your life. Don’t just live life one day at a time. Don’t just be reactive. I ask you to dream great dreams. I ask you to realize that you are salt and light in the world and that you are here for a purpose. You have been put here on missions. Your life is not your own—you’ve been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Somehow this accountability is far greater than any kind of accountability that is reckoned only in terms of individual achievement or in terms of dollars, incomes, or résumés. It is a responsibility to represent ultimately a stewardship before God. And so I challenge you to dream great dreams. Have a vision for your life. Have a vision for your life in company with others. Have a vision that means your life will somehow have a transforming influence on those around you.

I challenge you to be a leader. I challenge you to be someone like Ben Franklin. You’ve got to realize that people are important and that, along with the achievements and goals you may have and the visions and dreams you may dream, you must also learn how to relate to other people. The statement in the book of Genesis “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18) is not just about marriage. It is a statement about the constituent basis of human experience—we are made as relational creatures. When we think of the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, we find at the very heart of the very character of God that this notion of relationship exists. Ben Franklin somehow had the shrewdness to realize this, and he knew he had to keep people working together.

As Americans we have a strong individualistic strain in our experience. This is good because it makes us determined. It makes us willing to take risks. It can make us people of vision. But on the other hand, we must always remember that ours is not a lonely individualism. We must live in communities. The notion of the church and the fellowship of the people of God is that together, as God’s children and as followers of Christ, we are supposed to be salt and light in the world. As a leader you need to have people skills and relationship skills; you need to be able to relate to others.

You’ve got to be persistent. Don’t give up easily. The story of Caesar Rodney, the man who rode 80 miles over hilly terrain and changed horses several times before finally making it to that meeting, is only a tiny illustration of the kind of persistence represented in history.

For example, Jesus Christ, though abused, rejected, scorned, and humiliated, “was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philip. 2:8). That is the message of a discipline, a discipleship, and a lifestyle of commitment to the will of the Father that caused our Lord not only to be committed to the Father’s will in theory, not only theologically, but by the very practice of his life. Leaders are people who do not give up easily. Leaders are people who persist. Leaders somehow draw upon not only their own inner resources but also the resources of the living God to propel them forward.

I challenge you to be salt and light in the world, to be people of vision, to be people of persistence, to be people who know how to relate to others. I challenge you to have courage. I gave you the illustration of John Hancock, the man who put his name down first, a man whose name, save for the name of the secretary, was the only name on that document, and the one from whom it could have been exacted with his own life. It’s one thing to have convictions; it’s something else to act upon those convictions.

Sometimes people do things that appear to be brave, but when people don’t know the consequences of their actions before they do them, they’re not really heroes, even if what they have done sounds spectacular. When people count the cost, when people somehow have an inkling of the consequences, yet in spite of the consequences they are willing to make decisions that say, “I will attempt to do what is right and what is best, irrespective of the consequences for me as a person,” that is a mark of courage.

When we think of the life of our Lord, one of the theological questions we often ask is Why did Jesus die? And then we try to think of the theological significance of his death. But I’ll pose for you another question: Why did they kill him? Jesus in his own culture and his own experience revolutionized the Judaism of his day. Jesus ultimately and radically reread the scriptures: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time . . . But I say unto you . . . ” (Matt. 5:21–22). Jesus humiliated the religious leaders of his day in the public square. Sometimes the crowds loved him, but even when the crowds went against him, he stood by his convictions. This radical revision of Jewish tradition comes about in the life, theology, teaching, and behavior of Jesus. As the Son of God he is remarkable for any number of reasons, not the least of which is his courage in the face of enormous opposition, for it was because of his courage and his conviction that he was killed.

I challenge you to be a person who is committed to excellence. John Adams wrote and rewrote his speeches, essays, letters, articles, leaflets, and pamphlets, and he made the case for independence. I challenge you to be a person committed to going beyond mediocrity, committed to having an area of expertise. Be a person who is committed to knowing yourself and knowing what your gifts are and then exercising those gifts to the utmost. Paul tells Timothy to “stir up the gift of God, which is in thee” ( 2 Tim. 1:6). Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all of your might.


Jesus’ discipline caused our Lord not only to be committed to the Father’s will in theory but also by the very practice of His life. Leaders do not give up easily. Leaders draw upon the resources of the Living God to propel them forward.

Recently there was released again a movie by the name of Amadeus. It’s a remarkable piece. It’s the story of Mozart—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—but it’s also the story of a character by the name of Salieri. Salieri is the court musician, and he makes a deal with God that God will make him the great musical genius he wants to be. But Salieri realizes when he hears the music of Mozart that he is hearing music far superior to anything he could create. He’s hearing the music of a genius. Salieri becomes bitter and has an argument with God. He feels as though God has betrayed him. At this point there is a dialogue between Salieri and God in which the reason for the name Amadeus emerges. The name Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name, means “beloved of God,” and that’s what infuriates Salieri. Salieri thinks that God has put his hand on Mozart. Salieri wanted to be beloved of God, but it is Mozart who is beloved of God.

In the movie, whether this is the way it worked or not historically, Salieri begins to conspire. He holds Mozart down. He knows Mozart is a genius, and it’s in this that Salieri really misses his own calling, because Salieri does have a genius. He is able to hear the music of Mozart; others cannot hear the genius in Mozart’s music the way Salieri can. But Salieri is not satisfied with his gift—he wants Mozart’s gift, and he complains to God. He doesn’t live out the gift that he has to hear Mozart’s brilliance and become his benefactor and protector and promoter. Instead he holds him down. He conspires and ends up insane. Reflecting upon his own music at the end of the movie, Salieri says, “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you all.” But you know there is no absolution for mediocrity. There is no absolution for refusing to take the gift that God has given you—whether it’s 10 talents, or five talents, or one talent—and live it to the uttermost. Our Lord spoke some very harsh words against the servant who took his talent, hid it underneath a rock, and refused to have the courage to take a risk with the talent he had.

I’ve told you a lot about the qualities and the attributes of great leaders, but there’s one thing more that I must say or render this entire presentation an abject failure. In a sense you can have courage, intelligence, persistence, discipline, vision, and many of these attributes that I’ve mentioned—even the commitment to excellence—and still find yourself in the company of some of the greatest villains in history, such as Stalin, Ceausescu, or Hitler. They had a plan and a vision. They had the ability to galvanize people. They extended their influence to others. They had discipline, commitment, rigor, and persistence. In a sense, they were leaders, though they were evil. But, of course, we’re not called to be leaders like that. We’re called to be salt and light in the world, people who reflect the life of Jesus Christ and the character of God revealed through Jesus Christ. And so I tell you that if you are not a person of character and integrity; if you do not drink deeply of the 10 Commandments and the life of Jesus and the moral teachings of scripture, which reflect the very character of the living God; if you do not somehow allow that character to have its transforming affect upon you, you might be a leader, but you won’t be the right kind of leader.

I challenge you not to be a villain but to be a leader who extends influence with all of those attributes of discipline, persistence, excellence, and vision. Let these be extended out of the heart and mind and character of moral integrity. Without faithfulness, without integrity, ultimately, there is no true leadership to extend. Be salt and light in the world. Live your life after the model of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Robert Sloan Jr. is the president of Baylor University. This article is adapted from a forum address given April 2, 2002, in the Marriott Center.

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