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Tihomir Kukolja Headshot

Leaders Worth Following

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Most of the media today feeds our imagination with stories of celebrity-type leaders associated with dubious morality, scandalous relationships, questionable prosperity and irresponsible leadership.

It is important today to have our minds focused on the memories of a different brand of leaders, such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an English parliamentarian who dedicated his entire life to abolishing of the slave trade on the British Isles. Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945), German theologian and clergyman, paid with his own life for daring to stand up to the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler at a time when most German Christians were applauding the Fuehrer. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), US Civil Rights leader led a movement that brought closer the American society across its racial divides. Mother Teresa (1910-1997), an ethnic Albanian nun with a global impact, brought hope and love to millions of the outcast in India and the world. Desmond Tutu (1931), a South African bishop, stood up against apartheid long before it was abolished in 1994. They were leaders of substance and character who brought hope, inspiration and healing to broken relationships, a taste of undiluted justice and a vision of a better world. They were the true "salt and the light of the world -- Matt. 5:13-16.

What set them apart from the celebrities of the moment was that they resolved to stand up, not for their own convenience, or social and material advancement, but for human dignity and the rights of others. They were the true heroes, armed with the attitude of service and sacrifice. By the power of example and action they gained the right to be the leaders worth following. Their vision and passion came from a higher source of authority than themselves. In the words of C.S. Lewis, they were the people who "did most for the present world precisely because they thought most of the next." Their leadership was a prophetic, and often a costly one.

Tragically the concept of what constitutes good leadership today has largely lost its prophetic focus and transformative power. For too many being a leader today means an entitlement to undeserving empowerment: a position they gain by walking shamelessly and ruthlessly over their political and ideological opponents. Destroying anyone at whatever cost who stands in the way of getting to the throne of power has become a standard way of advancing to the top. Lying, demonizing, defamation, character assassination, fact manipulation, gossip designed to ruin another's reputation, and shameless blame-shifting seem to be a blueprint followed by many rushing to the attractive summits of power.

Unfortunately, in the US much of ruthless power grabbing is pursued by leaders who take public pride in their faith and commitment to the public restoration of Christian values; often buttressed by expressions of hypocritical humility and concerns for the spiritual and moral wellness of the soul of the American nation. For example, while some leaders are selectively targeted for political euthanasia with merciless allegations about their sexual misconduct or "ungodliness", the "godly" leaders are yet to be seen dropping out of the presidential race for lying, scheming, intriguing, or deliberate facts twisting. And yet if the 21st century is not to sink deeper into moral hypocrisy, the world needs leaders who are more than religiously correct. It needs leaders whose minds, hearts and characters are thoroughly transformed in the way the characters of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu were transformed.

One certainly does not come into possession of a good character and transformed mind through political maneuvering or correct public utterances. The Old Testament account of Jacob's wrestling with God features an amazing insight into the importance of letting a divine influence sharpen the character of any aspiring leader (Genesis 32:22-33). Jacob, whose name meant "one who deceives," reached the point in his life one night when he was not willing to let God go until God changed him. The wrestling encounter with God became a defining moment in Jacob's life because that night Jacob wrestled with himself too. This was Jacob's statement that he wanted God to take away from him all deformities of his character -- dishonesty, hypocrisy, deception and the lying spirit.

For anyone who aspires to be a leader called to make a difference, or if one simply wants to be a person whose life counts, wrestling with God and oneself will become one's unavoidable and ongoing character pruning experience. This kind of character maturing starts with small things, such as -- Are you faithful to your spouse, children and family? Do you lie about other people for business or political gain? How do you treat the less fortunate than you? What do you do when no one sees you? In other words, do you find the Jesus' command to "love your neighbor as yourself" to be a guiding principle in your life?

Let's decide today to become leaders and people of integrity, decency and truth in all matters, whatever the cost. Do not be afraid to wrestle with yourself and God and you will become a leader your family, community, country and the world desperately need -- a leader worth following. For only the transformed leaders are equipped to transform the world. Others are in most cases mere careerists, opportunists or even parasites.

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