5 Things Leaders Can Learn From the Presidential Debates

By Daniel Darling

So the Presidential debates are about a week behind us. This election is heading toward it’s conclusion (Thankfully). Unlike previous election years, the debates have had a dramatic effect on the race. Personally, I have found them fascinating and interesting. And I wonder if Christian leaders can draw some lessons from these debates as we lead God’s people. Here are five things that were obvious to me:

1) Leadership invites incredible scrutiny. Regardless of your political persuasion, you have to give both President Obama and Governor Romney credit for stepping forward and offering to serve America in the highest office in the land. In this 21st-century, the scrutiny of public leadership is every so tight. You have journalists and bloggers paid to extract the most inane of details, down to what a candidate orders at Wendy’s and how that reflects upon what he’d do in the White House. Pastors don’t face near the scrutiny of a President, but are accountable to our people and to the Lord. And if you think the searchlight of our 24hr news cycle is penetrating, the searchlight of the Almighty is more thorough. But the good news about Christian leaders is that the Almighty knows all we do and are and still loves us. On a practical, leadership level, I think this means we should be transparent, real, and authentic in our approach to leadership.

2) Public Leadership is a Mix of Both Competence and Communication

Some of the debates got rather snippy, sharper than I’ve ever seen in a presidential debate. But candidates seemed to lose “points” in the public eye when they crossed the line and became overly aggressive or condescending. There is a really delicate balance, it seems, with projecting leadership without coming across as an arrogant know-it-all. In other words, you can have the right policies, but if your tone is off, if you’re demeanor and the way you carry yourself is off-putting, you will lose votes. In other words, the voters want to see a bit of humanity in their candidates, rather than seeing robots who spout focus-group-tested talking points.

For a Christian leader, this is important. There are things about which we cannot compromise, such as the authority of the Word of God, spiritual and moral issues, and the centrality of the exclusive gospel message. And yet, it matters not only that we have the truth, but how we communicate it to our hearers. In other words, we may turn off people who are willing to listen to the message by simply carrying the message in a way that offends. Humility, charm, graciousness, self-discipline–these are important traits for a Christian leader. They allow the good news of the gospel to go forward without a human barrier. People may indeed stumble over the cross of Jesus, but let it not be me they stumble over.

3) Mature, Adult Leadership Still Matters. We live in an increasingly shallow culture, where we reward the young, the sexy, the beautiful. We pay big money to celebrities whose only accomplishment is being famous, on a reality-show or some kind of moment in the sun. But there is still a yearning for adult leadership. During the presidential debates, there was much talk of “who looked the most presidential.” In other words, people might even be willing to bypass their political preferences to vote for the man who most looked like he could occupy the White House, who looked most real behind that famous Rose Garden podium. And this is good, because the President is supposed to represent the best of America to the world.

I think Christian leaders, especially pastors, would be wise to discern this need in the culture. There are very few adults left, it seems. Very few folks willing to stand up, be faithful, act wisely, know when to shut up and when to speak, and know how to offer calm reassurance in a crisis. Pastors, of all people in the community, should be among those kinds of leaders. There has been so much emphasis in ministry circles about being relevant and cool and hip. We’ve got pastors putting beds on top of their church, pastors who work hard at looking adolescent, pastors who pat themselves on the back for their “coolness.” I think this is foolish on the part of my generation. In a crisis (and that’s when most people turn to the church), suffering people need a father figure, a grown-up, someone who can calmly bring God’s Word to bear on their situation.

4) Thinking on Your Feet is Really Hard

After every debate, there were the super annoying fact checkers on every station, at every news site. I found them annoying because even the fact-checkers seem biased and it was often hard to separate what someone labels a “lie” and what may be, if you looked at it a certain way, “true.” But I also thought we are pretty hard on our candidates. We expect them to stand up for an hour or more, with no notes, and perfectly recite figures and facts. And for every discrepancy, we say, “You lied.” Imagine if you or I had to go through the same exercise? We’d likely fail as badly as the candidates if not worse.

The lesson? We are all human and frail. And if you parsed every single word I every spoke or wrote, you’d undoubtedly find errors. So perhaps we should go easier on each other? I’m not saying churches shouldn’t hold their pastors accountable or that Christian leaders should get a pass if they are not truthful. But, to the bloggers who spend their entire day finding fault with Christian leaders, who parse sermons and grab clips simply to criticize them: stop it! Leaders are humans. Preaching, writing, speaking is a difficult excercise. Most who do it do it because they want to edify God’s people. And most, I’d imagine, have the humility to admit when they’ve been wrong. So, let’s give them grace.

5) Our Version of Reality is Skewed by Our Own Preferences

After every debate, surrogates for each candidate go to the “spin room” and try to tilt the post-debate media coverage in favor of their candidate. But in reality, Twitter and Facebook is one giant spin room. I’ve got friends on both sides of the aisle. It was funny to see who their political ideology shaped what they saw happen in a given debate. I suffer from the same malady. Regardless of what happened, after the debate I thought my guy won.

Life is this way as well. In a way, our realities are skewed by our desires. We see what we want to see. Paul said it best when he wrote to the Corinthians: “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). So not only do we live in a broken reality, we also view that broken reality with broken vision. This is where we need Christ to continually reshape our vision. Only the gospel can change the way we look at life.

As Christians leaders, we must be careful to not rely on our own fleshly vision. In other words, we must not trust what our eyes tells us they see. This is why prayer and godly counsel are so important in the life of a leader. Good books, conferences, blog posts–new spiritual content that stretches and shapes our thinking. Most of all, we must cultivate that inner life with Christ through prayer and Scripture so that the blinders begin to peel away from our eyes. In this way, we won’t be living in an alternate world of shape-shifting spin, but in the reality of God’s presence. This helps us lead well.