Authentic Leaders Change their Minds

Now that the general election season is underway, we are beginning to hear absurd mantras like "True leaders don’t change their minds"; "My opponent flip flopped"; "My thinking on (fill in the blank) is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow." I find this certitude bordering on idolatry--and it’s frightening. No doubt we will also be hearing about "authenticity". That seems to be the "in" word regarding politicians. It’s a good word but I think it deserves some serious reflection. What does authenticity mean? I suggest that authenticity flows from life in the spirit, and is rooted in something deeper than the techniques and mechanics which are increasingly central to the leadership training offered today. While good management skills can enhance leadership, they are not necessarily equivalent to leadership. The authentic leader first gets in touch with the built-in law of the human spirit, namely inquiry. The non-curious are not good candidates for leadership. The authentic leader is attentive to the data of human experience and strives to be intelligent, to be reasonable and to be responsible in the face of the data. Some of you will recognize these qualities as the transcendental precepts of Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan. According to Lonergan, authenticity is reached by long and sustained fidelity to these precepts. It is a cumulative process and comes bit-by-bit in the formation of character. Of course the path to authenticity is not straight and free of obstacles. Like St. Paul, we often do that which we do not want. Lonergan says our biases interfere; Paul calls it sin. Whatever the name the condition requires conversion and our humbly beginning again and again. Most of us are familiar with moral and religious conversion, but for leaders another kind of conversion is enormously important, and that is intellectual conversion. Intellectual conversion enlarges our horizon so that more data can be admitted to our field of reflection, allowing for many more new possibilities. Intellectual conversion frees us from our own limiting expectations, and from the cultural and social biases that can drive personal and corporate life. The ancient Christian prayer, the Confiteor, can help in this regard. In the prayer we acknowledge that we have sinned in thought word and deed. Typically the "thought part" has been interpreted in terms of sexuality. But sinful thought means so much more. It encompasses how we regard one another. Do we, in our thoughts, diminish the worth of another? Are we silently belittling? Stereotyping? Do our biases dominate our thinking so that no amount of openness is possible? Have we closed off genuine understanding and responsible alternatives? Most of us will answer yes to at least some of these questions. Intellectual conversion begins when we recognize our many biases thus opening us to greater consciousness. Lonergan identifies four levels of consciousness, with each building on the preceding one. Theses four are experience, understanding, judgment and decision. At each level more of us, that is more of our humanity, is at stake. We enter into a way of knowing that is not simply looking at someone or at some situation but involves understanding and judging, important prerequisites for authentic decision making. Responsibility for authenticity does not reside only with leaders, however, but with the larger community as well. Lonergan writes, "It is not the individual but the group that transforms the culture. The group does so by its concern for excellence, by its ability to wait and let issues mature, by its persevering efforts to understand, by its discernment for what is at once simple and profound, by its demand for the first-rate and its horror of destructiveness." Dare we hope that in the next five months those who would be leaders and those who will elect them both demonstrate the qualities of authenticity, including a willingness to change one’s mind? Dolores Leckey

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