A Response to the Leadership Crisis

We live in an age of bad leadership. To judge by appearances, politicians today are mostly driven by partisanship and personal advantage. Business leaders are rapacious and indifferent to the welfare of their employees and customers, and to the value of their products. Artists, intellectuals, scholars, and journalists are more concerned with career and ideology than the good, beautiful and true, which they mostly don’t believe in anyway. And religious leaders make their way by manipulating language and symbols for the sake of comfort and worldly position.

In each case the vices seem similar: unrestrained ambition, loss of connection to those they should be leading, and lack of concern for the goods they are responsible for promoting. Those who aspire to high position make career a sort of absolute, and when they reach the top mostly think of increasing their glory by cultivating the esteem of other careerists, especially those in the media.

That way of life evidently does not violate their ideals. Our society has abandoned higher goods and settled connections to others in favor of the goals of the individual, whatever they may be. The result is that our leaders build their lives around advancement and self-assertion simply as such. When they look around for general principles to give themselves and their actions an aura of legitimacy, the ones publicly available have to do with universalizing the self-assertion and self-advancement to which they have always devoted themselves.

That is why the Supreme Court, a committee of lawyers who have reached the very top of their profession, believe themselves called upon to stand firm against marriage and for abortion. After all, marriage binds and abortion frees, and whatever unshackles the human spirit—whatever allows people to give themselves wholly to career and self-assertion—expresses the highest aspirations of our time. Others who have reached the peak of public life, and also want to be admired for their concern for humanity, do the same. They win the esteem of their peers by fighting for the abolition of anything that might stand in the way of universal careerism, for the principle that everyone can become a winner and live his dreams.

The current state of leadership and public ideals is a very serious matter. Man is a social animal who relies on others for what he needs for a truly human life. He doesn’t create individually the language he uses, the assumptions that orient him, the ideals he lives by, or the habits that join him to others. Those things form a system he picks up from others and most often is born into, and leadership is needed to maintain that system. If high-end artists don’t care for beauty, if eminent scholars deny the existence of truth, if Harvard and The New York Times are corrupt, if leading churchmen think following the world is prophetic and pastoral, how can the rest of us make up for that?

The responsibility of leaders has been accepted in all times and places. It’s why people say a fish rots from the head. It’s why Confucius told a ruler who asked about theft that if he were not greedy his people wouldn’t steal if he paid them. And it’s why a blue-ribbon commission set up by Pope Paul III in 1536 found that the catastrophic state of the Church at that time was the responsibility of popes who had used the papal office as a vehicle of their own will.

So we should pray for better leaders: a new Saint Augustine, Gregory the Great, Charlemagne, Saint Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, John Henry Newman. Still, it is wrong to pick on the higher-ups and blame them for our own faults. The head is never entirely corrupt. Some businesses are run rightly and well, some academics and journalists do good work, some church leaders are saintly, and even mediocre or ambiguous leaders have their good points. Also, the people are active as well as passive. Confucius commented that “you may rob the Three Armies of their commander-in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion.” We all have some power of choice, and if we habitually picked up on the best leadership available good leaders would be far more common and effective.

Good leaders are not enough. They’re children of their times, and their people form the times. Jeremiah and Jesus were good leaders who got nowhere because their people rejected them. That’s why Joseph de Maistre said that every nation gets the government it deserves, and St. John Eudes thought it obvious that when God lets his people “fall into the hands of clerics who are priests more in name than in deed,” it is a sign of His anger and intention to chastise.

So what should we do?

First, we will have better leaders if we are active good followers. We should support the leaders we have when they do well, and let them know our objections when we have good reason to believe they are doing otherwise. Flattery and happy talk are no service to anyone, Jesus said we should be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves, and when things need to be said someone well-informed should say them—normally in a respectful way, but firmly and clearly.

Beyond that, we should recognize that new growth need not start at the top. We are all leaders to some extent, because each of us shows others the way by what he says and does. We can’t know what will take root and grow, or what will turn out to be decisive, so each of us should join with those who are well-disposed and do the best we can where we are. The first Christians weren’t influential movers and shakers, the Old Testament prophets and the remnant they represented weren’t tenured academics, and Saint Francis started off as a young and extremely eccentric Italian provincial. They nonetheless remade the world.

In any event, the ultimate problem today is not this or that bad leader but general failure to act according to real goods and the responsibilities that connect us to others. So we should above all avoid those faults. Jesus told Saint Francis to rebuild His Church, and Paul told the Philipians “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We need to follow those words. If we do then we will have all the good leadership we need.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Charlemagne’s coronation in 800” painted by Frederich August Kaulbach in 1861.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • BillinJax

    My fellow convert, your drew the correct club out of the laity’s bag of bewildered sentiments and have maneuvered a Hole in One with this very thoughtful and honest assessment of our situation today. A must read for all Christians as well as American patriots. Thanks be to God.

  • Fred

    I struggle with this one Jim. In the case of government we obviously need
    people who take care of the basic shared functions of a community, however,
    even though we broke from King George’s rule we seem to live in an age where
    half of our society cries out for King like figure unaware of the dangers as
    Samuel so eloquently reminded the Israelites of the consequences of their
    desires. The contrast could not be more
    stark in the King returning in the body of Christ to the dismay of many being so
    humble. Leader’s like all of us are
    prone to the trappings of this world and pander to get reelected which is why
    we should all want the smallest government possible that serves the basic needs
    and no more. The same theme resonates
    here as well with many who point to the faults of our Bishops that seem to be caught
    in the trappings of this world. The good
    Samaritan Gospel today is probably the best reminder that we can’t look to
    others to do the dirty work while we keep ourselves unsoiled.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      So right, God came to be our everlasting King… as a small Babe one cold night at the small sleepy town of Bethlehem, with His Mother & St, Joseph at His side, near fields of shepherds. Who would’ve thought it?

      • Catholic pilgrim

        And the world would never be the same.

  • JP

    To this day I do not like the word “Leadership.” It conjures up images of and ideas that can be traced back to Graf Keyserlings “Fuherprinzip”.

    There is so much post-modern baggage associated with the word Leadership. It certainly is closely associated with military societies. However, the military often requires its soldiers to do extraordinary things (often life threatening and heroic deeds); the sporting world also stresses the word “Leadership”. Coach Rockne or Coach Lombardi were considered great leaders. In both the military and sports world the idea of Leadership is a masculine, aggressive idea.

    In the political realm, the “Leadership Principal” is a quasi-fascist idea. The ideas that Leaders are born and not made is derived from this idea. Max Weber wrote about charismatic leaders (leaders who are “graced” with the ability to attract followers and get them to do great things). In the business world, Leaders can be a mixture of all three types (military, sports, and political). However, in the realm of Churches, especially Catholic Churches, the idea of “Leadership” has to be very different.

    Christ often selects the most unlikely “leaders”. I don’t think Saint Francis, Mother Teresa, or Saint Peter today would have ever been considered for “Leadership” roles in today’s Church. Saint Peter was a coarse ordinary fisherman; Saint Francis was a carefree youth who didn’t take things seriously. Mother Teresa was an unschooled young woman with little to no education.

    In today’s world, there exist structures that educate young people, and prepare them for “leadership roles”. This system has been in place for decades. And it churns out homogenized, risk averse bureaucrats who know how to read balance sheets, but are generally uninspiring. There is no sure fire method of spotting the next Saint Francis or Saint Ignatius, or Saint Theresa of Avila; outside of prayer, that is.

    • Vinnie

      Jim Jones of Jonestown, Guyana fame was a leader.

    • DE-173

      “To this day I do not like the word “Leadership.” It conjures up images of and ideas that can be traced back to Graf Keyserlings “Fuherprinzip”.”

      There inherent assertions of “leadership” are that an elite cadre is uniquely posessed of a proper apprehension of the facts and circumstances of time and place and can grasp or conjure a great collective project that all individuals under their jurisdiction should then be persuaded or compelled to follow.

      “In today’s world, there exist structures that educate young people, and prepare them for “leadership roles”. This system has been in place for decades. And it churns out In today’s world, there exist structures that educate young people, and prepare them for “leadership roles”. This system has been in place for decades. And it churns out homogenized, risk averse bureaucrats who know how to read balance sheets, but are generally uninspiring. .”

      On this, you are wrong.The elite schools that prepare “young people” for “leadership roles” do NOT churn out “homogenized, risk averse bureaucrats who know how to read balance sheets, but are generally uninspiring”.

      Instead the product is a risk-seeking, morally deficient individual who is immersed in Keynesian folly. That we have mountains of debt at all levels of government is testament to the general indifference to, or ignorance of balance sheets and the presence of “leaders” who have the vacant charisma of the first lemming over the cliff. For them no cost is too great when pursuing some project that is little more than raiding the public treasury for private benefit; all wrapped in the political teflon on exigency or morality-the reap the rewards of providing conspicuous and immediate benefit; th costs are remote and indistinguishable.

      The penultimate example is the principal resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now. For him, everything is a campaign. Obamacare. the Stimulus Act, The bellus interruptis of IRAQ, enjoining NASA to be an agent of Muslim outreach. All of these projects were costly and stupid misadventures, to the extent that they offered any “benefits”, they were illusory. But hey, he has a Harvard JD, so we are all supposed to follow this man, regardless of his deficits of experience or education.

      • JP


        Great points. But I was thinking more of Church leadership. However, concerning political leadership, you hit the nail on the head.

        • DE-173

          Oh, I get it now.

  • God is raising up saints at this moment just as surely as He has raised them up at any other previous moment. It is our challenge and joy to discern these, the true leaders, among ourselves — unique products of God’s handiwork who are continually turning up in unusual places, doing unexpected things, and standing out brilliantly against the times.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Is it really a question of who is going to run this 24/7 Porn Palace Freak Show? The modern world demands complicity in sin as a membership card in ‘Post-Christian America’.

    • johnalbertson

      Cardinal Colan. Typo? Do you mean Cardinal Dolan?

      • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

        Typo and NO it wasn’t a ‘Freudian slip’.

  • Vinnie

    “…because each of us shows others the way by what he says and does. We can’t know what will take root and grow…” Toil (to engage in hard and continuous work; labor arduously; engage in hard and continuous work) in faith. That certainly is what faith takes even though I fail continuously at it. Have faith that the Holy Spirit will work through you though you never see the results in this world.

  • Dick Prudlo

    Mr. Kalb makes some good points, but here is the but part: We can continue to plod along as good Catholics must BUT must we continue to support the fools at the rudder of this ship? Mr. Martin exclaims in his article to dispose of the USCCB and this is in my modest opinion is a fine start. Further, the laity needs to have a line item veto on where our moneys are spent. I do not like seeing my meager donations to my diocese end up supporting abortion, democrats, sodomites, etc.,and other organs who despise my Faith. I say we demand the the bureaucrat’s be reduced at all diocesan sees to a secretary to take notes and pour tea and that’s it.

    • slainte

      Mr. Prudlo writes: “… Further, the laity needs to have a line item veto on where our moneys are spent…”
      I understand and agree with your concerns, but the Church is not a democracy..not even here in America. We laity don’t get to vote to change Church procedures. That would make us Presbyterians. : )

      That said, I would support a policy by the clergy to refrain from replacing retiring lay bureaucrats and to rotate existing bureaucrats from their existing positions to alternative and dis-similar positions at other dioceses. This would constitute a reasonable solution to reduce the control exercised by lay bureaucrats within their present parishes.

      A shakeup is needed.

  • James Toups

    I have great hope in the young seminarians, newly ordained priests, in young believers. They are keenly aware of the decay around us. They are awake while many sleep. We must engage in our Church with a well formed conscience. We must engage in the civil life on the same basis. Pray and fast, pray and fast.

  • languedoc

    “flattery and happy talk” – that is the smokescreen of so many failed leaders in the episcopate today. And the code word for it is “pastoral.” True reform requires addressing the machinery by which bishops are selected. At the most, we seem to be getting mediocrities – and mediocrity is the “lukewarmness” that the Lord abhors most. Consider the disaster in New York, the “capital of the world.” By what logic was Timothy Dolan placed there? It is of little encouragement to say that the next generation will be better. We have only one generation at a time and when the present one is gone, what will be left?

    • Tim

      By what logic were MANY bishops ordained and placed in influential sees. I’m thinking of the many who head up the dioceses wherein the staunchly pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-same sex marriage ‘catholic’ politicians reside. I’m thinking of the cardinal who presided over the funeral of one of these ghastly hypocritical ‘catholic’ politicians. I’m thinking of the bishop who publicly supported and actually gave the Eucharist at his cathedral to a ‘catholic’ governor who champions these liberal agendas. Maybe the dossiers for episcopal candidates that are prepared — by bishops — shouldn’t be used as the sole source of background information. I suspect they are biased and not well balanced.

  • johnalbertson

    On today’s feast of St Bruno, it is helpful to note how they handled things in the 11th century. (From the Office of Readings:)

    was born at Cologne and educated partly at Reims. He was head of the
    episcopal school there for almost 20 years. In 1075 he was appointed
    chancellor of the church of Reims and had to devote himself to the
    administration of the diocese. The bishop at that time, Manasses de
    Gournai, was impious, corrupt, and violent. Through the intervention of
    Bruno and others, the Council of Autun suspended Manasses, who
    retaliated by demolishing the houses of their accusers and confiscating
    their goods. In 1080 a final decision of the Pope, together with a
    popular uprising, deposed Manasses.

  • John O’Neill

    Nolite confidere in principibus ; this includes princes of the church.

  • Bruno

    An excellent article master Kalb, very uplifting. Pessimism/realism doesn’t keep us from acting, as long as we know what to do with it.

  • Michael

    Thank you for this inspiring and relevant essay. Your comments regarding the Supreme Court were so true and your timing (considering today’s punt) perfect!
    Please keep up the good work! Our country is in need of desperate help. Who will be our next great leader? Hopefully a reader of this great magazine.

  • I_M_Forman

    Just to suggest both sides of the aisle are the same is wrong. One side is much worse than the other, although there is not much good to say about the lessor of two evils. Let’s face it – as Churchill once said – “Democracy is the worse form of government, except for every other one.”

  • Tomacz Tesla

    The problem is too far advanced to be resolved by force and it will have to run its course. Even the Church is affected and one wonders not “what are we going to do if Christ returns in this age?” but rather “what are we going to do if Christ DOES NOT return in this age!” The error of Progressivism resides in rejecting the necessity of working for the implantation of a social order. In doing so they are obliged to accept the lay city, Liberal. Socialist, Communist. The root of their error and their deviation from Christian progress lies in seeking the alliance of the Church with modernity. I paraphrased Fr. Julio Meinvielle (1905-1973) quoted from his book (first published in 1970, this quote below is from the Spanish 2nd. edition of 1994, pp. 363-364) “From the Kabbalah to Progressivism” (original title: “De la Cabala al Progresismo,” PDF in Spanish.) From this passage I understand that the duty of a Christian leader is to prepare the people of the Church for the inevitable reconstruction that will soon follow after the collapse of the current “order” (rather “disorder”) instead of trying to lead the herd of cats that Liberalism leaves in its wake. We may be getting to that point in History.

    “It boggles the mind to attempt comprehension of how the promises of assistance to the Church by the Divine Spirit in this cabbalistic era are going to be fulfilled, and how it will come to pass that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail.” But just as the Church began as the smallest of the seeds and became a huge tree, in the same manner she can be reduced in size and acquire a more modest shape. We know that the mystery of iniquity is already at work but we do not know the full extent of its power. However there is no difficulty in admitting that the Church in public view can be conquered by the enemy thus converting from Catholic Church to Agnostic Church. There could be two churches:
    one in public view, a Church magnified in propaganda, with well advertised bishops, priests, and theologians even with a Pope with ambiguous attitudes; and another Church, a church of silence with a Pope faithful to Jesus Christ in his teaching and with some loyal priests, bishops, and faithful spread about as pusillus grex (little flock) all around the earth. This second church would be the Church of the promises while the other defects or apostatizes. The same Pope could preside both churches that would appear to be one in appearance. The Pope with his ambiguous attitudes would validate the confusion. Because on one hand — being the head of the Church of Promises — he may profess an impeccable doctrine while on the other hand, by sending confusing, even reproachable signals, he would appear to be advancing the subversion and pastoral message of the “public” Church. The possibility we propose here has not been studied enough by ecclesiology. But if we look at it thoroughly we shall see that the promise of assistance [by the Holy Spirit] to the Church is limited to [a] avoiding the introduction of errors in the Roman See and in the very Church and [b] that the Church shall not perish or be completely destroyed by her enemies. None of those promises contained in the Gospel is invalidated by the hypothesis hereby proposed. On the contrary both hypothesis gain feasibility if we consider the scriptural passages that refer to the great apostasy. Such defection will be complete but must coincide with the perseverance of the Church until the end. Our Lord is quoted in the Gospel asking “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8.) St Paul in 2Thessalonians 2:3 calls that defection of the faith a universal apostasy that will coincide in time with the manifestation of the “man of wickedness, the son of perdition.” That universal apostasy is the total secularization of public and private life that is
    proceeding apace in today’s world. The only alternative to the Antichrist shall be Christ, and Christ will dissolve the Antichrist with His Breath thus fulfilling the final act of liberating History. Mankind will not remain alienated under the evil one. It has not been announced that Christ will save the masses though He shall save His Church, the “little flock” (Luke 2:32) for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom.”

    Fr. Julio Meinvielle (1905-1973)

  • Thank you Mr. Kalb, for this important article. A word that continues to emerge in my mine and heart these days – louder and louder – is “lawlessness.” This (U.S.) Administration has taken license to adapt law to its own purpose and ideological meaning of justice. The Church seems to want to blend with the world to such a degree that secular lawlessness has been embraced as a kind of “sinlessness” in the ecclesial world. And the arts – to continue your list – reflect it in “valuelessness.”

    Which leads me to ponder the passage below:

    2Thess 2:9 The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders,
    2:10 and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
    2:11 Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false,
    2:12 so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
    2:13 But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
    2:14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

    The problem of our culture is a refusal to love the truth, and to prefer instead, “pleasure in unrighteousness.” This is indeed an age of unrighteous self-indulgence. For the Church – we are called to hold firm to the sacred traditions, to be true to the Truth. Simple indeed. As simple as the Cross.

  • Chris Cloutier

    “Business leaders are rapacious and indifferent to the welfare of their employees and customers, and to the value of their products.”

    Isn’t this a rather broad brush to be using? Maybe I’m wrong, but in the organizations I worked for, I found the leaders were the opposite of this characterization. I’m not naive enough to think that there aren’t people like this, but this seems a bit extreme to me.

    • You can’t say everything all at once, so the layout of the piece is first to describe the problem in broad strokes and bright colors, since that’s what we can see in the news (“to all appearances”), and then as the discussion proceeds add the nuances (businesses run “rightly and well”) and opposing considerations (leaders can’t be much better than their people).

    • DE-173

      “Business leaders are rapacious and indifferent to the welfare of their employees and customers, and to the value of their products.”

      This would be far more accurate if stated as follows:

      Political leaders are rapacious and indifferent to the welfare of their contituents and voters, and to the health of their countries.

  • bonaventure

    Bad leadership characterizes the West, except perhaps Israel. However, I do not live in Israel, and I am not aware about their leadership issues when it comes to domestic policies, etc. But I admire Israel’s uncompromising leadership when it comes to the Palestinian problem.

    Anyway, this bad leadership characterizes all the West, and the Western Church (i.e., the Catholic Church with all her rites, and the many Protestant churches) are part of the problem. Just yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court practically legalized homosexual “marriage” and most Christian leaders are (1) either silent or (2) rejoicing (but of course, those who rejoice are no longer Christian).

  • languedoc

    With all the talent in our nation in this moment of grave peril, we have Obama and Biden at the helm. Just as depressing is the state of the Church. There is weakness in all the high places.
    Who are the leaders on the backbenches who could come forward as Churchill did to replace Chamberlain? Hopes for the archdiocese of Chicago are dashed. They could have had a strong voice like Father Barron. In New York suffering under Dolan there is Father Rutler. Does it take a full fledged war to bring forth such voices?

  • Martin Corts

    Wonderful essay pointing to the eternals….the first things. Love the reference to the Council of Trent. Inspiring!!

  • Faithful under Fire

    “St. John Eudes thought it obvious that when God lets his people “fall into the hands of clerics who are priests more in name than in deed,” it is a sign of His anger and intention to chastise.” Ebola, enterovirus 68, ISIS, riots in Missouri, lawless politicians. Add a blood moon last night. Cue Creedence Clearwater Revival, we got bad times a’ comin……