Monday, June 17, 2013

Christian Leadership in an Authoritarian World

James C. Galvin, I've Got Your Back: Biblical Principles for Leading and Following Well

American society has a leadership fetish. Schools, business books, and seminars offer to instill “leadership qualities.” Employers claim to want “natural leaders.” With so much leadership, why isn’t anything getting done? James Galvin suggests that we need to reclaim “leadership” from the business gurus and return to an older model. Unfortunately, I like his ideas much more than his approach.

Galvin takes a two-part teaching tack. In the first part, four college graduates facing abusive leadership work with a mentor. They explore what it means for Christians to live under worldly authority. Must they passively submit to every leader, as many scriptural interpretations suggest? Not so, their mentor replies; by becoming more astute followers, they prepare themselves for eventual leadership roles.

In the second, Galvin translates his narrative “parable” into a theologically based treatise on Christian leadership and followership. He expounds on how leaders abuse followers, and how “follower abuse” arises in modern technological society. His thesis in brief is that everyone follows someone, and that skillful followers make the best leaders. He underpins this with a mix of business acumen and scriptural foundation.

Galvin differs from other business consultants through his emphasis on narrative. Nearly three-quarters of this slim book (barely 200 pages) is a “parable,” a novella of characters similar to his intended audience learning the lessons Galvin hopes readers will take away. This emphasis makes sense. Many youth starting their careers are bombarded by talky academic advice; simply telling them a story probably reaches them more effectively.

Supposed gurus like Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer present a very I-oriented world, where self-aggrandizement is our highest goal, and we achieve leadership to unlock our own potential. Galvin would rather have us lead for something. Whether to build our organization, improve our community, or serve God, Galvin presents leadership as a tool with a purpose. This makes a hearty antidote to today’s self-seeking culture.

This book suffers because Galvin uses characters to prove points; their challenges are circumscribed by Galvin’s message, their triumphs pat and weirdly concise. His characters don’t so much speak as discourse at one another. Galvin’s discursive passages run long, while his narrative examples run short. Characters spend entire chapters conferencing in the abstract, but their applications mostly run less than one page per character per chapter.

Not that Galvin says anything wrong. His spiritual take on individual roles and collective authority resonate with anyone who wonders what it means to be spiritual in today’s authoritarian world. Nicholas Wolterstorff and Obery Hendricks have written sagaciously on this topic. Galvin probably has a leg up on these more scholarly writers, in that he writes in plain English, not seminarian academese.

Unfortunately, Galvin isn’t an experienced storyteller. Not only do his characters speak in oddly complete paragraphs, explaining the author’s point in prose rather than dialog; he forgets important conventions of narrative. Characters hold forth in exceptionally well-developed peroration, tagged at the very end with “he said.” Galvin drops quotation marks and dialog attributions, forcing us to reread passages to understand what just happened.

Then, following his novella, Galvin restates his message in essay form. He reiterates everything we just read four students and their mentor discussing, sometimes verbatim. If Galvin could declare his points more briefly, in prose form, he should do so. This would free more page space for his characters to have nuanced encounters with leaders and followers, living out his principles in detail.

Jesus used parables to teach important spiritual lessons, which inspires Galvin’s narrative approach. But consider how Jesus told parables. He kept very short; even longer parables, like Lazarus and Dives, run only a few paragraphs. He focused on action and dialog, only explaining after he was done. When he needed to deliver a sermon, he delivered a sermon, not blurring the distinction between forms.

If Galvin delivered his essay portions as essays, then spent more time and detail on how his four students experience his principles, this would not only streamline his narrative. It would also allow readers, bombarded as we are today by self-appointed gurus, to see Galvin’s principles lived in real-seeming environments, not the friction-free neverlands self-help gurus apparently occupy.

Galvin makes solid points and backs them with robust evidence. Well done, James. But throughout the reading, his technique intruded on my learning experience. I wanted to like his ideas, but he never permitted me to do so. If he stopped talking about his principles, and showed us how they work, he would have had a more powerful book.

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