Online Conversation | Character and Leadership
in Chaos and Conflict with Robert Franklin and Michael Lamb
On Friday, July 31st we hosted an Online Conversation on ‘Leadership and Character in Chaos and Conflict’ with two scholars of moral leadership: Dr. Robert Franklin and Dr. Michael Lamb. Drawing upon their experience and scholarship, Drs. Franklin and Lamb explored the nature of and need for moral leadership, the challenges to character and the moral exercise of authority and influence in times of chaos, conflict, and polarization.
The painting is ‘Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport’ by Martin Johnson Heade, 1862.
The song is “Thaïs: Méditation” by Jules Massenet.
How Is Virtue Cultivated?: Seven Strategies for Postgraduate Character Development
Mentioned by Michael Lamb in the conversation
- Habituation through practice
- Reflection on personal experience
- Engagement with virtuous exemplars
- Dialogue that increases virtue literacy
- Awareness of situational variables and biases
- Moral reminders
- Friendships of mutual support and accountability
Michael Lamb, Jonathan Brant, and Edward Brooks, “How Is Virtue Cultivated?: Seven Strategies for Postgraduate Character Development,” Journal of Character Education 17, no. 1 (forthcoming 2021).
Dr. Robert Franklin’s Recommended Reading List
Mentioned by Dr. Franklin in the conversation
- How to Be an Anti-racist, Ibram X. Kendi
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
- White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son, Tim Wise
- From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (9th edition), John Hope Franklin
- The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Mike & Julie Brenan
Sam & Betsy Funk
Transcript of “Character and Leadership in Chaos and Conflict” with Robert Franklin and Michael Lamb
Cherie Harder: Our topic this afternoon is extraordinarily important, increasingly urgent, and somewhat unfashionable. We’re at a time when public interest in what might be called ‘soul craft’ or character formation seems to be in decline. The institutions that once formed character have in many ways been stressed or strained. Families are often increasingly unstable, church attendance is declining among the young, and the schools and universities have largely shed the character-formation focus that was once considered central to their mission. Even the vocabulary used to describe character and moral leadership has demonstrably declined, crowded out by the language of advancement, gain, winning, and domination. At the same time, we’re experiencing increasing conflict in the public square over what is right and increased confusion over what is true—both of which have moral dimensions. Our interest in moral leadership may, according to some indicators, have waned, but our need for it only grows. So, it is a great honor as well as a pleasure to introduce two renowned scholars of moral leadership who have cultivated much of their lives to not just the study of character, but also its wise cultivation. Dr. Robert Franklin is a scholar, author, education leader, and leadership expert. He currently serves as the Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory University and previously served as the president of Morehouse College and the president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He’s the author of several books, including Crisis in the Village, Another Day’s Journey, Liberating Visions, From Culture Wars to Common Ground, and his latest book, just out in April, Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, and Imagination, which we’ve invited him to discuss today. In addition, we’re delighted to get to host Professor Michael Lamb. Dr. Lamb is a professor of politics, ethics, and interdisciplinary humanities, as well as the Executive Director of the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University and a Research Fellow at the Oxford University Character Project. A former Rhodes Scholar, Michael’s scholarship focuses largely on the ethics of citizenship and the virtues of public life, and he will soon (at least next year) be releasing a new book, entitled A Commonwealth of Hope: Reimagining Augustine’s Political Thought. Bob and Michael, welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Robert Franklin: Thank you. Good to be with you.
Michael Lamb: Great to be here, Cherie. Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So, as we start off it’s always good to start just by defining our terms. Certainly ‘moral leadership’ and ‘character’ are terms that have been bandied about quite a bit with different meanings. Bob, since you have literally written the book on moral leadership, I’d love to start with you on this. What is moral leadership, and what is character?
Robert Franklin: Thanks, Cherie. And to Michael, good to be with you and all those viewing today. I define moral leaders as women and men of integrity, courage, and imagination who serve the common good while inviting others to join them. That’s my short definition and thereafter, I offer examples of moral leadership that we can talk about later.
Cherie Harder: That sounds great. And Michael, I know you have done a lot with character. Are there any additional definitional nuances that we should think about when we think about character?
Michael Lamb: As Dr. Franklin said, I think those virtues of courage, integrity, and imagination are very crucial to what good leadership is. I do think there are other virtues, too, that are quite relevant. I think about justice as being a virtue that’s especially relevant in our current moment. Humility to learn and to understand people who are different from ourselves, as well as empathy as being a very guiding virtue for our contemporary moments. I think ways we think about moral leadership really require understanding how the virtues might inform who we are and how we lead.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. There seems to be a widespread, even growing sense that not only is character in leaders in decline, but perhaps, surprisingly, that it might not be necessary after all. And the reason I say this, I’m quoting a study that found that evangelicals, which formerly more than any other religious group or any demographic group really in the country, used to believe that character and morality was absolutely essential to wise leadership. But the Public Religion Research Institute found that actually that [the belief of character and morality are essential to leadership] has declined from over seventy percent of evangelicals to just thirty percent who believe that it is essential now. Michael, what would you say to those who don’t find character necessary to leadership? Why does character matter?
Michael Lamb: It matters for many reasons. One is I think leadership is not only about getting results, it’s about how we treat other people. Leaders are those who have followers. Without having followers or teammates, there’s no leader. And so, the real way to really understand leadership is, is a relationship among people in a group. And so, I think in that sense, having the kind of relationship that does embody trust, and care, and compassion is crucial. I think character really captures those core virtues of what a leader should embody and how he should practice their own leadership.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Bob, I’d love for you to jump in on this, because I know you’ve made the point several times in your book, which is a point that the founders made as well, which is that democracy requires virtue and character. So, what is the link between our character and our national security?
Robert Franklin: Well, I really appreciate Michael highlighting this concept of relationship in the context of leadership and character as a defining feature of leadership beyond mere competence, or technical expertise and rationality. The importance of integrity, and of character, and of trustworthiness is a quality that has an interesting effect, because it not only makes the leader more effective at what she or he is doing, but also transforms the lives of followers. That’s James MacGregor Burn’s wonderful insight in his thick book on leadership and distinguishing between transactional leaders and transformational leaders. And those transformational leaders have through the course of their relationship with their followers— actually elevate and transform the kind of motivations that people have as they go about their work together. I think ultimately that’s what we’re looking for, and to hear you cite those statistics about how many evangelicals seem to be making some compromises and adjusting their ethical principles to rationalize, or defend, or recruit certain kinds of leadership is really quite troubling. I mean, Gallup has been telling us for years that nearly half of the American public is worried about the decline of moral values. And as you said from the very beginning of the republic— I mean, we think of John Adams, you think of Abigail Adams, and so many others across the decades. They have been concerned that our republic requires a certain amount of virtue, character, and integrity.
Cherie Harder: Both of you are at university, and I see both of you are surrounded by books. I want to ask you a little bit about literature and literature’s role in forming character and forming leaders. I think back to C.S. Lewis, who introduced us to the character of Eustace Scrubb. We knew right away that he was bad news when C.S. Lewis told us that he had never read a book about dragons but only imports, exports, and plumbing drains. And when he was actually confronted with moral evil, in moral danger in the form of a real-life dragon, he didn’t know what to do because he’d never read books, great books about dragons. I’d love to hear both of you comment. Maybe Michael, we can start with you on the role that you find literature playing in terms of developing character and then any books that you believe are particularly helpful— stories that are particularly helpful in fulfilling that function.
Michael Lamb: I love great literature, and I think it is very crucial to how we think about who we become. Literature gives us a chance to really understand complex characters over a life and how they relate to other characters in a novel. It helps to expand our moral imagination to think about new ideas or new contexts. It also helps us think about our empathy and help us develop that. Research has shown that reading great literature compared to nonfiction or even to airport novels has a big impact on our capacity for empathy and imagination, so I think it really does matter to how we think about who we are and how we lead. When I was in Oxford, we helped start a group called “The Ethics through Fiction Film Reading Group”, [in order] to understand how fiction film of the same story, but through different genres might affect our moral imagination. So, I might read twenty of Morrison’s Beloved in the way the film and the book might help us understand that moral complexity. One book I’m reading right now for a project ‘wake discussion’ at Wake Forest on literature and character is Frankenstein which often seems to be this Halloween horror story. But actually look at the novel. It’s formed as a real character story, the story of the monster’s formation of character in relation to the communities he encounters along the way and how different people treat him affects his character fundamentally. And so, we can imagine that kind of formation. We understand how we’re being formed and perhaps reform our own characters in ways that make it more empathetic, more just, and more humble.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Robert Franklin: I think the ancient Greeks offer us an important insight into the power of imagination, of drama, of literature, and performed arts as an invitation to reflect on the nature of the good life, the good person, and the good community. And just following Michael’s important insight there, great drama has always pointed to these virtues, the complexity of human character. I think about Robert Coles at Harvard University and the way in which he really almost became an evangelist for moral leadership in the medical school, business school, and divinity school. And then, he sort of impacted the entire university, one professor. Part of it was he was asking people to read excerpts or entire works of great literature and talk about the character traits, the virtues, the flaws, and the complexities, what a genius in terms of methodology. People really got into it. And as a result, it really took off, and I think serves as an important model for today. I was just thinking of how much my students appreciate Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and reading the character Jean Valjean. Communities and students who are first generation students in college coming out of poverty, who had lived every week with the temptation to behave badly in order to survive, not just to acquire and get ahead— to survive. And when they meet Jean Valjean, they said, “I know this guy. I am this guy.” Or today, as we reflect on the tragedy of George Floyd and the nation, the world– I mean, for God’s sake, even the pope mentioned George Floyd in his general audience comments in June. That never happens. But the life of George Floyd, the parable of George Floyd, is in many ways sort of anticipated by great authors like Ralph Ellison in the book The Invisible Man. I hope people will read that, use that in classes and discussion groups, or of James Baldwin’s work, or Richard Wright’s Black boy. There are a number of important texts that invite us into the life world and cultivate and inspire a sense of empathy and understanding.
Cherie Harder: So, of course, I’m thinking was there a story that particularly influenced your character as a young person?
Robert Franklin: You know, I begin my book, Moral Leadership, not with an excerpt from literature, but from the study of a life, my grandmother’s life. She really inspired me in an incredible way because I watched her one day. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a time when Chicago street gangs were world famous, and there were two groups of young men about to have a conflict right in front of our house. My grandmother—not my mother and father—my grandmother was in the kitchen preparing a meal. She ran out and stood in between these two groups of young men about to go to war. And she said, “Young men, no one is going to fight here today. I know what it’s like for a mother to receive the phone call. Your child has been injured, or wounded, or killed. I received that call when my son served in the US Army in Italy during World War Two. And I have fed most of your families from that little garden next door, and I know your mothers and how this would break their hearts.” It was fascinating. I was all of eight or nine years old. She was ruining my reputation right here in front of all these tough guys. I watched them look at her and look at each other and then look to their own groups and look back at her. They slowly backed away. I said, “Oh, my God, that’s the power of one person of courage and integrity, of compassion to turn things around.” And we, of course, have seen examples of this even in more recent protests and uprisings in American cities. So Cherie, I don’t have a particular story from literature, but it’s a story from practical life. That’s why I wrote the book.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Michael, what about you? Is there a story that influenced your character as a boy?
Michael Lamb: Well, I think Robert’s views are right. We have different exemplars in our lives. And those can be fictional, or they can actually be actual. And my parents for me were my exemplars growing up. My dad taught me how to work and to sacrifice. I’d see him come home after a long day at the factory, making engines for trucks, change his boots, and go back on the farm for several hours to work some more, all to support our family. And he still made time somehow to coach a Little League team, and serve on the school board, and also lead our local Lions Club. My mother taught me how to serve. She was one of people in our town who was always collecting food and clothes for families, often without anybody ever knowing what she was doing. When I was in Memphis in college, I was tutoring kids in local schools there, and she heard they had no school supplies. She spent a month gathering pencils, markers, crayons, notebooks to bring a whole truckload literally to Memphis for those kids. I think her example of service was something that actually really grappled with my very first years on this planet. In her very first words to me, my baby book, she wrote a letter to me. She wrote, “Dear Michael, hope you become a kind person, a compassionate and forgiving person, who helps those who are less fortunate than yourself.” Those are her very first words to me, her first hope for who I would become. And so I think her example, her vision for me, and my dad gave me the kind of text, the kind of model to live in to that life of character in ways that I still find meaningful today.
Robert Franklin: I want to add a quick observation, because we both now talked about these extraordinary familial models and examples. I think our viewers today, all of us need to think about who were the women and men in our lives that embody moral leadership, embodied the virtues in a way that really challenges us, and holds us accountable. The one story I just mentioned in passing was that, until high school, I didn’t know this story existed. I had never heard of the author, but I got into a little trouble in high school, let’s say was related to organizing protests. I think John Lewis would say it was good trouble, but it was a little ambiguous. But the story—the principal said, “Look, we’re going to have you go home for three days, but I want you to read this book.” And that’s a fascinating sentence. Give me a reading assignment while I’m in trouble and suspended from high school.
Robert Franklin: The book was The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, and I read the story of this young wanderer who is so promising, who is going to earn lots of money in his life. But he grew he grew disenchanted with that life—not unlike the Buddha by the way— and just walked away from it and began to travel. He travels the world and has these incredible stories and experiences and ultimately lands in a fascinating place. So that became the notion of the ‘travelogue’ as moral literature that I know Michael has also worked with that theme.
Cherie Harder: That’s great, you know, Bob, your story of your grandmother and her courage makes me want to ask you a little bit about its opposite, fear. And we’re in fearful and anxious times right now. There’s lots of studies showing that people are feeling much more fear and anxiety as we’re in the midst of, you know, really sort of crisis in triplicate, a public health crisis, a financial and economic crisis, and a crisis of the commons. I wanted to ask—we’ll start with you [Dr. Franklin]. Just how do leaders deal with fear? Fear tends to bring out the worst in our characters and behavior. So many leaders have said the worst thing to fear is fear itself. That’s what we have to fear. How do leaders, moral leaders, both deal with fear in their own life, but also deal with fear among those that they are leading?
Robert Franklin: That’s an important question for all of us during these times when there’s so much uncertainty and as you say, I mean, we don’t know what COVID-19 will do, how it will impact our lives. For most of us on this call today, many of us know people who’ve been directly affected. So, the fear at that level and then so many other dimensions of the economic crisis to tensions around racial injustice, et cetera, I think in a word, Martin King would say you deal with fear honestly. Admit that this is frightening. Try to understand intellectually and emotionally why—What does this threaten and then begin to draw on the inner resources of hope and faith to move forward, encourage. He had that wonderful moment in a speech that said, “Cowardice asks, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks, ‘Is it right? And there comes a time when we must do and act not because it is popular or politic or safe, but because it is right [sic].” And I think as long as we align ourselves with the higher virtues of what is right, and good, and just, we’re standing in a good place in history, and I think history will embrace us. Right-thinking people will embrace us, and those of us who are people of faith certainly believe that the Almighty will embrace us.
Cherie Harder: Michael, I wanted to ask you about some of the contradictions that moral leaders face in that most people when asked would say that the very virtues that your mom inscribed to you in your baby book, you have to try to call forth your name and call forth those qualities. I mean, wisdom, empathy, and humility. Most people would say that those are central to moral leadership, but when you look at times at political behavior, it seems like often people actually vote for or support leaders who are domineering, self-promoting, and narcissistic. This is across parties. As a scholar of leadership and character, what makes us gravitate towards unworthy leaders? And what counsel would you give to help citizens discern moral leaders from the self-impressed?
Michael Lamb: It’s a great question Cherie, and I think importantly for our current moment, you look at our larger culture. We often celebrate the bad examples that we have. Shows about Lucifer, for example, or Breaking Bad are kind of lifting up these characters in our own popular imagination that are really complicated. And morally, I think culture obviously has a role to play in that. I think what’s important to recognize is that it’s easy for us to castigate our current leaders or other leaders across various sectors, but often we choose them. And so, it’s up to us as citizens to think about what our virtues are and how we form ourselves to choose that kind of leader. I do think that one crucial aspect of character that I think is relevant for leadership is the way it connects to trust. We find in the research on trust is that people trust others who are competent and also have good character. Those are crucial components of what trust is. We see now that we have leadership at lower levels of trust across the whole society in politics and government, in the clergy even, at lowest number since 1977 the Gallup polling about how people trust their clergy or not. I think across society we have a real crisis of trust now. I think character is one way to think about how we can really foster trust again and why that’s important for having a community that is not so divided. I think right now Americans are very divided. I think we’re also very tired of being divided, and I think it’s really opening for us now. I think about how trust might help unite us in light of this division.
Cherie Harder: Bob, I’d love for you to comment on that, but I want to throw another internal contradiction into the mix, too, for you to comment on as well. And that is that you write a lot in your book about the importance of inclusivity for moral leaders. Again, the contradictions that we see is that really for the last decade or so, maybe fifteen years, it’s been a maximum within politics that you win by turning out the base, more so than appealing across different ideological lines. So if one is rewarded essentially for turnout as opposed to inclusivity, how does one cultivate the kind of moral leaders who will essentially go against their best interests when it comes to extending inclusivity in their leadership?
Robert Franklin: So glad you highlight that notion that sometimes moral leaders are called to act in ways that may on its surface appear to be against their own personal self-interest, and yet they do serve and advance a larger, higher call and purpose. I think we all expect moral leaders to be responsive to that note in the octave that there was something higher, something more transformative, something more than the immediate and satisfaction of winning— That calls us to behave in ways in which we’re willing to sacrifice, willing to share, willing to think about the challenges of the least advantaged members of the community. Recall that phrase from John Rawls’ wonderful and important, classic A Theory of Justice. The least advantaged members of the community, who cares about them, and who speaks for them in our political discourse today? I think that we really ought to call forth such leadership. We need to reward such leadership because often such leaders will lose elections. They will be tarred and feathered in the media. But those are the leaders who are embodying something important and inclusivity in the sense that we can, despite our brokenness, we can pull a community and pull this nation together. That’s where we all need to become students of Abraham Lincoln. [Cherie] you’ve had wise scholars in recent weeks on the Trinity Forum talking about people like Lincoln and others, but especially Lincoln. I mean, he really had the unique challenge of a nation, actually, Americans killing each other over ideas and loyalties. I think we are certainly in that zone in tone at this time. I pray not with respect to actual mobilizations. How do we find leaders who know that tone and can adapt it to this specific moment in history and not only in the presidential election coming in less than a hundred days, but also in state and local races? Let’s celebrate that. I mean, in the book, I talk about the Mount Rushmore and those four US presidents that are carved in the granite of the Black Hills in South Dakota. But I pose an exercise right there in the first chapter. What if you were to identify four moral leaders whom you would nominate to be carved in granite as the more moral Mount Rushmore, as it were. Who are the morally—the people act with integrity and courage and empathy and wisdom who serve the common good, not just their own constituents, their base, and also who are inviting, who are inclusive, who are trying to enlist a broader group of people? I wonder, you know, even as our viewers are listening now, I’d love to see during our Q&A nominations of people. Let me just close with the observations, the names that have emerged in my classes recently, both at Emory University and at Morehouse College. People like Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer at the Equal Justice Initiative, people like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and even interesting individuals, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, his effort, a failed and flawed effort, but an effort to start a conversation about race in the corporate sector. Fascinating. I write about that, that even those failures, we ended up falling forward. So, the Mount Rushmore.
Cherie Harder: So, Bob, who’s on your Mount Rushmore?
Robert Franklin: Oh, well, yeah. I always ask my class to think about people who are alive. It’s easy to sort of reify and glorify people who were passed on and are no longer around to make mistakes. I want living flesh and blood human beings who are struggling against the odds in this moment to do the best they can and to serve the common good while inviting others. Well, let me mention two young women. Malala Yousafzai is a young woman shot in the head for trying to promote girls’ education in Afghanistan, or Greta Thunberg and the way in which she’s challenged the world about climate responsibility and ethics. I would begin with those two leaders. And in the book, I also highlight Ella Baker, a name that not many know, but she should be known because I think she’s the patron saint of all young people who are protesting in the streets these days. Ella Baker, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and then Dolores Huerta, who is alive today and was one of the leaders with Cesar Chavez who helped launch what became the United Farm Workers.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, we’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second. But before we do, I can’t leave without asking you, Michael, at least one question about Augustine, since you have a book coming out. Augustine talked largely about virtue of what he called ‘the ordering of the loves’. And you can speak much more to this than I can, but my understanding is that essentially what we love most, the proper ordering of what we love is the basis of a well-ordered character and of moral leadership. In a sense, my question is, (Tina Turner) is what does love have to do with it and how do you encourage the proper ordering of loves in a young person?
Michael Lamb: It’s a great question. I think love, for Augustine, is the central virtue, the spring of all other virtues and emotions and affections, and I think for him, he even defines virtue in City of God as rightly ordered love. I think in that sense, I think there are ways to think about how we cultivate good loves and also how to recognize when we have bad love or disordered loves. Often, it’s loves directed towards self. How do you understand how our loves are being directed toward self? How are certain biases, perhaps directing us toward things we don’t even realize? So being aware of our own biases is very crucial for directing our loves in the right way. He also has practices of ‘unselfing’. For him, prayer is important practice of ‘unselfing’. Order yourself to someone else, to God but also service for him. He was very active. Augustine’s known for his big books; City of God is over a thousand pages. He wrote 113 books over his life and hundreds of letters and sermons. His life is a real example of properly ordered love. He was active in his own community. He was helping to advocate for those who are poor. He actually poured silver chalices to melt it down to free slaves in his own time. He was very active, actually taking the love and making it active in the world. It wasn’t just a love that was sentimental or private; it was public. I think the more public he became, the more he really embodied that kind of love. I would encourage current generations to think about how they actually love in public. How do they actually take their loves beyond their own confines in the communities who need their love and learn from those communities and really engage in kind of solidarity with them as an expression of that deep compassion and care? I think in that sense, ordering our loves really went beyond ourselves and opening ourselves to the other. We might be very different from who we are.
Cherie Harder: So many more questions to ask you both. Bob, we’ll give you the last word here.
Robert Franklin: I’m going to build on this in a different way to make a point about vocation. I love this reflection on love. This is a statement by Helen Vendler, who was a tenured professor at Harvard, who said that the role of teachers—and I would add parents as well—is to teach your students to love what you have loved. That is the ultimate goal of good teachers and good parents. Teach your young people to love what you have loved, the books, the music, the experiences, the travel, et cetera.
Cherie Harder: We’re grateful both of you are at universities doing that. And like I said, many more questions. We may have to have you all back at some point, but we’re going to turn now to questions from the audience, and we have quite a few of them. If you joined us just in the last few minutes, you can not only pose a question, but you can also like a question. And the more likes a question has, the more likely we are to be able to get to it in the next half hour or so. Our first question comes from Jenny Savage, who has a question for Dr. Franklin. She asks, “In your essay, Moral Leadership A Vocation for the Next Generation, you encourage living a morally exemplary life. How do we foster living a morally exemplary life in the age of American individualism?”
Robert Franklin: Wonderful question, what tension we all face living is a good life, a life informed by the highest virtues, whether it’s the theological virtues of faith, and hope, and love or some of the classical virtues, prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. It’s a real challenge, and we need communities to hold us accountable and affirm us even as we attempt to do so. I think the other point I make in making that claim about what it is moral leaders think and do in the second chapter of the book, I also note that as we all seek to live morally exemplary lives, we should do so undaunted by failure, that we all will encounter frustrations, challenges. It doesn’t all come out the way we had hoped, and that’s part of the challenge. That’s the power of tragedy from ancient literature. But bad things happen to good people, and so we live with that sense, whether in the life of faith, with that sense of grace, that it’ll all work out and get worked out or even in the sense of a kind of secular pragmatism. Okay, we didn’t get it right that time. We can try again. We can learn. I think that’s our challenge, not to be undaunted, but also to aim high. That’s our call today.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Our next question comes from Christopher Crawford. And, Michael, maybe we can start with you on this one. Chris asks, “How should moral leaders consider humility? Many people misunderstand humility. They think of it as a call to hold back our talents and gifts. For our black and brown brothers and sisters especially, the term humility can be used as a weapon for superiors to keep them in their place, so to speak. How do you define humility, and how can we express this value in a way that does not limit people’s capabilities or hold people back?”
Michael Lamb: It’s a great question. I think often humility is seen as self-deprecation or self-denial in some way, and that’s the kind of popular understanding of humility in certain discourses. I touch it quite differently than that. I think it’s a very important virtue, but it’s really about the proper self-estimation, recognizing who we are in both our weaknesses but also our strengths and understand how they actually form— How we act in the world. I think in that sense, it’s sort of a virtue between two vices. On the one hand, you have self-denial or self-deprecation. You also have pride or arrogance on the other hand. How we actually avoid both of those extremes is defining humility as the virtue goes between them in a way that helps us recognize who we are without denying the value we bring to the world, but without over exaggerating our own importance, our own ability.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Robert Franklin: I love—was it Prime Minister, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who said to her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, “Don’t be so humble–you’re not that great.” It’s always a way of keeping us in our place. I do think our viewer who poses this important question called attention to an interesting social dynamic that’s occurred in our history, especially in the US, but in all colonized nations where those who have been the oppressed have been taught to remain suppliant and not to question their calling in life, not to resist, but to simply accept that. I think that that’s why I like Michael’s focus on love because the love ethic that we find in the Hebrew scripture and in the New Testament. Jesus is calling people to stand up, to love themselves, to be who they are, to recognize their status in the presence of the Almighty, which is made in God’s image, and it’s to be respected. So at times, love prompts that person who might otherwise be inclined to be self-effacing, to really stand up, to speak the truth and love, and to resist injustice because God would not want innocent children to be disrespected and harmed. So even the quiet must get loud in those times, as John Lewis would say, get in the way, make good trouble. If you see something that’s wrong, say something. Do something.
Cherie Harder: Go ahead, Michael.
Michael Lamb: One more point on that, to echo Robert, I think one thing about the virtues is they all have to be related to each other. You can’t have one virtue without the other virtues. So, you need humility. You also need justice and need courage. And so, each situation requires different virtues. I think having some kind of coherent, unified character to me is very important. How we exercise humility properly in light of justice, courage, and other virtues.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Bob, I’m going to throw this next one to you first, at least, our next question comes from Brooke Sorenson, who asks, “In an increasingly pluralistic society, how do we balance our own moral ideals and sense of character with leaders who can adequately lead beyond tribal differences?”
Robert Franklin: That’s one of the great challenges of all leaders today, that is this complex relationship between particularity and universality is one way of framing that old question. I think that one has to be true to one’s particularity, but also constantly reaching, aspiring to find what the theologian Howard Thurman called ‘common ground’. We should ever be in search of common ground. And the best sort of public witness of my particular faith commitments, for instance, is to be true to that in such a way that I connect with those deep truths in other traditions. That’s abstract, but here’s a practical example. Martin Luther King Jr., reared in the Christian tradition, but he found in Gandhi, a Hindu, the method and strategies for social change, nonviolent social change. He said this is the best way to translate what it means to practice love in public space, where there is injustice and wrongdoing and institutional and individual racism is to not cooperate with it, to practice civil disobedience and in so doing, never to dehumanize your opponent. That’s what King always taught us. You may be angry. You may want to confront but never dehumanize. I think that is the challenge of being true to your own ethical principles. I think intellectual curiosity is also important. I write about this, so knowing that that love ethic might actually find a correlate in Hinduism or other traditions. And that’s one of the wonderful things I think the Trinity Forum is inviting us all to do more of know other traditions. Know your own and know at least one other intimately.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that, Bob. Michael, I want to toss this next question to you, and it comes from Anne Snyder and Ann asks, “Moral character, of course, draws upon universal truths about the way we as human beings flourish when we order our lives and loves in a certain accordance with an invisible law. But I’d argue there are aspects of character that are culturally conditioned, and that’s a beautiful thing. As the US grapples with a huge demographic unfurling and is currently facing the prospect of a historically dominant leadership class no longer holding the reigns of unilateral influence, what are the cultural competencies and sensitivities we might teach our young people in hopes of widening the aperture of what certain universal and classical virtues might look like in different cultural milieus?”
Michael Lamb: Great question Anne Snyder as always. I think to echo one thing Robert said, I think crucial virtues, there will be humility and love and recognize their own limits as we understand difference in ways that might surprise us and challenge us as we encounter people and cultures that are quite unique and perhaps even opposed in some ways, certain values we hold. I also think deep listening is going to be crucial to that. Listening is a way to really understand who we are, not just to hear people, but really to listen to them and engage them in a real way. And I think in that way, inviting certain expressions of values is really crucial. So, at Wake Forest, we use the arts to do that very well. We have a whole series starting this next year on leading and listening to about how music might help us be attuned to different voices, not only in jazz or classical, but also in hip hop and other ways. That sort of different ways of expressing our own deep values, our deep loves might have might sound differently, but might find concord. Augustine has a great image that he takes from Cicero. The commonwealth is being a concord. It’s actually different voices in harmony coming together to form something they couldn’t form on their own. I think right now we need a concord. We need that kind of commonwealth united around diverse voices but common objects of love that unite us together in this moment. I think those kind of sensitivities to the arts, to culture, to being open to new expressions of character will be critical, as we think about how we expand our own vision of what leadership might look like.
Robert Franklin: If I might add, I’m actually encouraged on this point about, let’s say, the children of those who have been relatively privileged and in power and in charge. I’ll tell you why I have hope because, of course, not only the diversity of those citizens who are in the streets demanding justice and fairness and equality and eradication of racism. Everyone has noticed that commented on it. It’s an amazing phenomenon. It’s good to see. There were elements of that during the 1960s civil rights movement. But we see it really flourishing today. And I think that’s important to celebrate. I spent a lot of time in local high schools and even elementary schools in Atlanta and a lot of inner city African-American predominant public schools, but also in some of the city’s premier sort of independent schools and private schools that are diverse but predominantly white. I find those young white students are raising these concerns. How can we be better citizens? How do we overcome the prejudices and racism of the past? And they want to be on the right side of history. Sometimes I sit— I have a voice in my head and say, “Oh, my God, this is extraordinary. This is so refreshing.” And I’m just feeling, they won’t let me go and follow me out to the parking lot asking for reading lists. And I think that’s the goodness of America. That’s the hope and promise of the future.
Cherie Harder: Speaking of which, if you have that reading list and you’d like to share it and same for you, Michael, we’ll put that in the show notes, I think we’d have a lot of listeners and viewers who would love to see that. Our next question comes from Joseph Sherrard. I hope I’ve not mangled your name, Joseph. Michael we’ll start with you on this one. And Joseph asked, “Conversation about moral leadership presumes that men and women of virtue are in positions of leadership. But our current situation, it seems as if those positions are increasingly difficult for people of character to attain. How should people think about the hazards of aspiring to leadership, those hazards being self-promotion, misguided ambition or compromise?”
Michael Lamb: There are hazards, and each profession has certain occupational hazards that might accompany that that profession. I think right now, one way we can actually resist those is being aware of them. Often it happens if we have a culture that actually embeds these assumptions within it and institutions that kind of encourage or incentivize that assumptions in ways that actually create people of character who might be deformed in certain ways, in their loves or their aspirations. So being alert to ways that biases and hazards actually form our culture, it is crucial to [understand] that, but also finding other examples that aren’t always public to be exemplars for us. In my class we have students watch Philosopher King, a documentary that won a few awards a few years ago about custodians in American universities that actually really do embody resilience, wisdom, courage, and humility and to help [students] them see that actually there are many kinds of examples that we can look to beyond those in public power, beyond those in positions of authority. I think other students realize that leadership is not simply a position. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of influencing people. You can be a leader in many different contexts and also a follower in a different context, helping us understand how we’re leading and then forget the ways in which that might intersect with our other commitments and values. I think that kind of self-awareness is crucial, that development of really ethical leaders in different parts of our society.
Robert Franklin: Sure. I think it also is a time in our history with a divided nation–a nation growing in despair about moral values. For leaders to step forth we don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be sincere and earnest as we reach higher. As Anna Julia Cooper said, so that we lift as we climb. Martin King wrote that in the past, leaders in the African American community who were trustworthy and hardworking and earnest have often avoided public leadership roles and not run for office. He said, we need to move to a day when those leaders—and at the time he named eminent scholars E. Franklin Frazier and Ralph Bunch—they need to get off the bench and get involved in the messiness, grittiness of politics, and I debated whether or not I would share this. You all don’t know this. But today, I mean, yesterday I attended the funeral of Congressman John Lewis. The governor of Georgia set a special election for September twenty nine, and the deadline for filing to be a candidate in that special election was today just before this call, and I filed to appear on the ballot. I mentioned that because I think this will be public by the end of the day and hold a good thought for me, whisper a prayer for me. But it’s in an effort to respond to Dr. King’s call. You can’t sit on the bench. I’m teaching ethics. Get into the game. So, I’ll let you know how that goes. Maybe that will be the next book.
Cherie Harder: I think this is the first time we’ve had a candidacy announcement on an online conversation. Thanks for sharing that Bob. Our next question comes from Marc Bridgham. And it’s a question for Michael. He asks, “How much do you think character is wired in more or less at birth? How much locked in early to young childhood, how much of the transition to adulthood, and how much is mutable as we age and mature? If mutable, how is change achieved either from within or without?”
Michael Lamb: Well, I do think it actually can be taught throughout our whole life. In fact, research now shows that character changes across a whole lifespan. For a long time, people thought that by the time you’re ten or twelve, maybe fifteen or sixteen, your character is kind of set. But research now shows that actually we continue to mature throughout our lives, especially throughout our early adulthood. There’s research now about emerging adulthood between eighteen and twenty-nine years old, where it’s a very important time of self-transformation because people are marrying later now. They are having more jobs, attending more education, moving more frequently. They’re very unstable in their own identity and their own commitments. It’s really important to give students a chance and people a chance to think about what is their vocation, what is their purpose, and how can they be beyond just themselves and serve the world? And so, I think personality can be wired in certain ways. We have certain personality traits that we emerge from birth, and we might think that personality is the same as character, but actually, I think they are quite distinct and how we think about the moral value of certain traits. We might be extroverted in a certain way, but that doesn’t make us courageous necessarily. And so, I think there can be movement there as well. How do you actually shape that movement in the right direction? We do research at Wake Forest on the different ways character can be formed, and there are seven ways that that really have been shown by the research and psychology, philosophy, neuroscience to be quite effective. One is habituating or through practice, like you would a skill doing it over and over again until you actually habituate that way of thinking or acting. Second, reflecting on your experiences, to understand how you might do differently going forward. Third is to engage exemplars, role models who actually embody good character, who perhaps sort of have certain virtues be their core identity. Fourth is have dialogues about what the virtues are and why they matter. Fifth is to understand our own biases and variables. Sixth is really to think about reminders. They help us call us to our best selves. And then finally, what Robert said earlier was having accountability, friendships, and community holds accountable to our best selves is really crucial to how we think about how characters form.
Cherie Harder: That is a rich list. Thank you, Michael. Bob, you look like you have something to add.
Robert Franklin: Well, I think really a footnote to that wonderful observation in the book. The first chapter, I do utilize Erik Erikson’s important framework for developmental psychology and understanding how people grow and evolve over the course of the life cycle. It’s interesting that the very first sort of personal developmental challenge, or as he calls it crisis, is that of trust versus mistrust, developing trust that the young infant who sees a parent or caregiver who walks away and then returns and the child develops a sense, this confidence that the universe is a safe place because those who love me can walk away. I can be alone for a while, but they do return. I’m not abandoned. A lot of social psychologists have observed that people change through two things, through great suffering and through great loves. I think that this is a way in which a lot of people’s lives can be redirected. We’re going to suffer a lot. Many will suffer through COVID-19, economic crisis, with conflicts in our cities, and patient suffering is a category I think we need to give more attention to. What happens to the human spirit in the context of suffering? The other is, is that of love. Back to Michael’s topic. Michael, get the book out, please. We need more wisdom about love in the twenty-first century and how it can be a resource for both healing moral injury, but also building community. I’m worried about how a city like Atlanta—How it heals across various socioeconomic and ethnic racial divides. I think that the King tradition has a lot to offer that we’ve overlooked. Fortunately, younger leaders from Black Lives Matter to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who are trying to insist upon more responsible gun laws, are trying to challenge us to figure out ways to build bridges and coalitions.
Michael Lamb: To echo Bob, I want to share a poem by Alice Walker about teaching. I think teaching is so important. It’s called Told. “My teacher was told by her teacher–who loved her: You could not shoot guns, you cannot drop bombs, your fists are forbidden to you as are mean and hurtful words no matter how carefully chosen. You have one weapon & one weapon only: Use it. It is the ability to teach.” And all of us, as more leaders have the ability to teach, to combat injustice, to sort of challenge division, to promote the common good, and to educate the next generation and each other how to be leaders of character that our world needs. I think that is our duty and our calling in this moment, and I’m very heartened by so many people who are already stepping up to answer that call. I thank all of you for being among them.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thank you, Michael. Bob, last word.
Robert Franklin: Thank you, Michael. My last word, two quotations, my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou, and I was present in the crowd for the inauguration of Bill Clinton on that freezing January 1993 day. As she said these words at the inauguration, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” And finally, from Rabbi Maimonides, the world is equally balanced between good and evil. Your next act will tip the scales. Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Bob, Michael, it has been a delight and an honor to get to talk with you. I hope we can have you back at some point soon. To all of you who are joining us, thank you so much. Have a great weekend.