Moral Leadership for a Divided Age

Fourteen People Who Dared to Change Our World

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David P. Gushee, Colin Holtz
  • Ada, MI: 
    Brazos Press
    , October
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David P. Gushee and Colin Holtz begin and conclude Moral Leadership for a Divided Age: Fourteen People Who Dared to Changed Our World by observing that a fascination or obsession with leadership is a result of the rarity or absence of true leadership (4, 348). They state that leadership requires three elements: leaders, followers, and a goal (4), and that this text focuses on a specific type of leadership—moral leadership consisting of moral impact, moral character, and moral purpose (6). The authors give several reasons for studying moral leadership, including that it “continues a long tradition” (7), “connects us with history” (8), “is a better way to learn and teach ethics” (9), “is valuable in an interfaith world” (10), and “is a light in a moral wilderness” (10). Gushee and Holtz study moral leaders by: examining them in historical context; studying their personal background and vocation; exploring their professional trajectory; considering their character; examining their familial and intimate relationships; observing their social and communal affiliations; considering the criticisms, conflicts, and failures of the leader; engaging respectfully with the topic; and providing a practical application of the information (12-13). 

To create an engaging narrative, the authors have chosen 14 moral leaders as their subjects. Ranging from politicians and activists to pontiffs and philosophers, they include William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela, John Paul II, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malala Yousafzai. Gushee and Holtz concede that: not all readers will agree with the above selection; the work is intended for readers of differing faiths; and that it serves “as a bridge across the tribal chasms that divide us today” (3). 

There are several common attributes in the lives of these leaders. Similar experiences of childhood tragedy, a thirst for knowledge (education), a struggle to balance self and family with commitment to the cause, and faith that leads to and sustains social action are examined (350-351). Common themes include costly decision making in leading others to freedom, calling others to confession and repentance, circles of moral concern extending to all humanity, and persuading humanity to gaze beyond current possibilities (352-354). Other recurring attributes and themes in the lives of these moral leaders were the presence of discipline—both spiritual and or work-related—a calling to or focus on a specific cause, a team or collaborative approach, the formation of personal convictions, the presence of a spiritual or religious heritage, experiences of depression and traumatic events, engagement in social activism, and tenacity in the face of challenge. Each chapter ends with lessons gleaned from the leader under consideration. Gushee concludes the monograph with five questions that he attempts to answer: 1) Is it better to be a moral leader or a moral exemplar?; 2) Should we value solidarity or liberation?; 3) Can we disentangle leaders from their historical context?; 4) Has human bias clouded our vision?; and 5) What about violence?.

True to the authors’ warnings (2-4), this monograph both challenged and inspired me. I was “forced to discern my own level of admiration for certain leaders” (3) and found a few to be less admirable than others while learning to differentiate between a moral leader and moral exemplar. Concerning the role of violence, the question remains: is my stance similar to that of King and Gandhi’s non-violence; or Wells-Barnett and Tubman’s stance of self-defense against violent people and violent systems; or Mandela’s stance that evolved from non-violence to violence; or Bonhoeffer’s stance of “responding to exigent circumstances”? Through diverse representation in gender, race, faith, and time span, many lessons were provided—enough to keep this reviewer thoroughly engaged. The book’s goal of considering “great leaders who offer moral insights to us today” (2) through the insights of womanist scholars (89) is accomplished by way of the 14 moral leaders presented and is recommended to those with a keen interest in the discipline of leadership, specifically moral leadership. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a Postdoctoral Fellow at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David P. Gushee (PhD, Union Theological Seminary), a leading public Christian voice on ethical issues of our day, is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of twenty-two books; has served as a columnist for Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and HuffPost; and has been featured on Krista Tippett's NPR program On Being. Gushee serves as president of the American Academy of Religion and is immediate past president of the Society of Christian Ethics.

Colin Holtz is a writer and strategist at the intersection of church and world, is a ten-year veteran of issue advocacy and political campaigns. His writing has been published in the Guardian and HuffPost. He has led national campaigns on education debt and financial regulation, worked with CNN's Crossfire, and served as a senior adviser to Faithful America. He will receive his Master of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in 2019.




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