By Nate Adams
With a Presidential election looming this November, few of us have been able to avoid the debates and drama surrounding especially the Republican primary. As the nation and world look on, candidates Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul continue to duke it out for the honor of taking on President Obama in the fall contest. However there seems to be less and less “honor” in the way many leaders compete for our support and loyalty these days.
Take these candidates, for example. Passionate to win their party’s nomination, they and their staffs often engage in verbal and written attacks on one another that move beyond the arenas of policy and politics, and become quite personal.
All the commentators and experts seem to understand that there is a price to be paid for these tactics, because eventually one candidate will need to unite the party for the general election. Yet by then that party may be tattered and torn by the very attacks that helped bring the eventual nominee his victory.
It seems to me there are two basic types of “mathematics” that would-be leaders seem to employ when trying to gain support. The first is subtraction and division. In order to shake loose supporters from some rival or competing point of view, the would-be leader dishes out negatives designed to subtract from the other’s credibility. He seeks to shore up his own position at the expense of another.
This approach magnifies differences, and often creates conflict. By subtracting credibility, the would-be leader also brings division. Even if he and his rival agree on 90 percent of their positions, he knows he must focus on disagreements and divide supporters into camps, so that he can differentiate himself as the most worthy leader.
Leadership by subtraction and division does not simply occur in governmental politics. I have seen it at work in denominational circles, as would-be leaders vie for a coveted position. I’ve seen it in local churches, when someone feels the need to push one worship style, financial decision or theological nuance over another. And we’ve all seen it at work in Genesis 3, when the serpent subtracted the title “Lord” from “Lord God.” By removing God’s credibility in Eve’s and then Adam’s minds, he succeeded in dividing mankind from God.
To their shame and ultimately ours, Adam and Eve yielded themselves to a would-be leader who was willing to use the less-than-honorable tactics of subtraction and division to secure his own personal power. It’s no wonder attack ads and negative campaigning feel distasteful to us. Yet in today’s world, it’s no wonder they work.
There is a second type of mathematics that more honorable leaders tend to employ, however, and that is the mathematics not of subtraction and division, but of addition and multiplication. We see this when a would-be leader focuses on positive ideas, solutions, and vision for a preferred future. Rather than tearing others down or criticizing, he builds people up, first by caring about them and working hard on their behalf, and then by helping them see and believe in ideas they can work on together for everyone’s good. I see that kind of leadership in Jesus, and in the work of the Holy Spirit.
Most people I know would rather follow a leader that doesn’t care about his personal position as much as he cares about positive solutions and ideas, and about getting people working together and multiplying their efforts for good. That’s how I feel too. The leaders I want to follow are the ones who specialize in sacrificial addition and multiplication, not selfish subtraction and division.
That’s why I was particularly pleased a couple of weeks ago when the special committee appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright to study a potential name change for the Southern Baptist Convention announced its recommendation. In that process, it would have been easy to negatively label those advocating a name change, as well as those opposing one. Instead, the committee pointed to both the positive value of our national convention’s current name, and the positive benefits of blessing a less regional, informal name for those seeking to reach people outside the South to use.
I don’t know what messengers at the SBC in New Orleans this summer will do with the committee’s recommendation. But I do feel the committee did the best it could under the circumstances to avoid the negative, divisive leadership that is all too common, and to put forth a positive solution that could help further multiply our efforts carrying the Gospel to the whole world. I don’t know if they got the perfect answer. But I think they used the right kind of math.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.