Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Faith Leadership and Ethical Leadership: Absurd and Ethical Visions

Leadership under religious auspices can be distinguished from ethical leadership. The shift from ethical to religious principles is more involved than merely swapping one kind for another. The dynamics pertaining to faith are distinct. Kierkegaard makes this point very well in his text, Fear and Trembling. In short, an individual of faith must go it alone when the paradox of faith violates ethical principles.

In willingly facing the absurd in which sacrificing Isaac contradicts God’s promise that Abraham’s seed would spread like the wind among nations, Abraham cannot make intelligible to anyone else why he is to violate the ethical principle of duty to his son. That is to say, God calling Abraham to violate an ethical principle that is universal in that it is easily understood by people by acting on faith on the strength of the absurd, which cannot be explained or even communicated intelligently. This puts such “knights of faith” in an isolated, even terrifying, position, for they face the absurd alone and as unethical.

As applied to leadership, a knight of faith cannot make a vision that is absurd due to the paradox of faith intelligible to his or her followers. Hence, such a leader cannot tell his or her follows to follow in the sense of being like the leader; even as a leader, a knight of faith is isolated—hence the fear. A knight of faith willingly gives up the security and comfort of accepted understandings, such as duty and justice, and thus cannot justify his or her acting on faith. A leader of faith undoubtedly fears for his or her tenure owing to the impossibility of making the rationale behind his or her vision intelligible even to supportive followers. Such a leader is reduced to saying, in effect, Trust me in going this way even though it looks absurd. A corporate board having supervisory responsibility for such a CEO would obviously be in a tight spot, as would the CEO.

Making matters worse, an individualist (in terms of being above the universal manifesting as ethical principles) is suspect in organizational life. “There is a fear of letting people loose,” Kierkegaard writes, “a fear that the worse will happen once the individual enjoys carrying on like an individual.”[1] Clashing fundamentally with this mentality, “(n)o person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.”[2]  The clash between the collectivist and individualist ideologies renders a leader of faith all the more tenuous, and thus afraid as well as insecure. Yet such a leader can draw strength from the absurd itself because he or she feels an absolute duty to the absolute (i.e., to God).

This is not to say that the ethical leader is without value. As Kierkegaard puts it, the “tragic hero renounces himself in order to express the universal.”[3]  In prosecuting a son for murdering a stranger, for example, on the basis of justice—a principle understood intersubjectively, and thus a universal principle—a father acts above his own selfish pleasure and thus his particularity more generally. The sacrifice is praiseworthy. Similarly, an ethical leader puts a shared principle above his or her own advantage or interest.

A knight of faith renounces relevant universal principles “in order to be the particular.”[4] Hence, particularity as selfish pleasure lies below the universal while particularity on the strength of the absurd lies above the universal. A leader of faith is thus superior to an ethical leader, according to Kierkegaard’s account. As difficult (and rare) as it is to find an ethical leader willing to sacrifice his or her particularity, I submit that it is rarer still to find a leader act on faith in advancing a paradoxical absurdity even though as in Abraham’s case the absurdity collapses at some point and the leader’s vision is realized. In other words, Abraham got to keep Isaac after all, but only after suffering through renouncing the universal (i.e., the duty to protect Isaac) and embracing the absurd by faith.

Interestingly, a leader in the midst of the absurdity can only have faith that the absurdity itself is nonetheless possible, rather than that he or she will come out well in the end. For Abraham really thought he would have to sacrifice his son until the point in which God said that the ram would do instead.  So a knight of faith cannot rest on consequentialism or selfish pleasure as easy outs. Accordingly, I suspect that such a leader’s credibility stems from the deep suffering that is unavoidable and cannot be justified by sacrifice to a universal ethical principle. From the credibility, followers can have faith in such a leader even without being able to understand why such a leader would advocate for an absurdity.



[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Books: London, 1985), p. 102.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 103.
[4] Ibid.