Leadership, Religion, and Religions

You aren’t a leader if you can’t lead across cultures in a complex religious environment. . . .

This past week, in a study of a really different culture, I read through three years of the Harvard Business Review. Quite fascinating. I had expected some pretty dry reading about statistics, supply chain flows, automation of manufacture, and so on. What I found was issue after issue of Psychology Today for business executives. Because it turns out that the HBR is all about leadership. And leadership is all about human relationships and getting people to work together for a common purpose.

At one time cultivating leaders, and leadership, was the core purpose of the university. The liberal arts weren’t created to foster artists and authors. The studies of history, biography, literature, philosophy and language were just different ways of studying the human person and thinking clearly about human behavior. Things that people destined to leadership needed to do their job well. But eventually at least three things happened to change that. First many university professors began to think their job was to reproduce themselves, rather than to prepare men and women for leadership outside the university. Then in the egalitarian mood of the United States universities because tertiary vocational schools – something that in Europe and elsewhere was left to technical schools. And finally leadership itself became a special subject, divided unnaturally into the political and economic spheres, with the latter gradually concentrated in business schools and the former in poli-sci departments.

What has been lost in all this is the central truth that understanding humans, and how to lead them, cannot be reduced to political science, sociological surveys, economic analysis, and psychological assessments. The best way to learn about humans in the core of one’s being is to meet them, to meet them in great variety, and then to think clearly about those experiences. The liberal arts; the study of history, literature, and philosophy, are among the best ways to do this and are the necessary adjuncts to more technical and analytical approaches.

But something else has been lost as well. In the West the colonial period brought a rapid realization that humanity was defined by religious variety. Universities created departments to study religion as a human phenomenon. The study of world religions became a justifiable addition to a liberal arts curriculum. So did culture. Any leader in the colonial enterprise needed to understand the human as the religious human, the culture formed human.

And of course that is thousands of time truer in our post-colonial present, when all but the most isolated of humans live in a religiously and culturally complex environments.

Yet even as religious diversity plays a greater and greater role in human interactions of all types, the study of religions and inter-religious relationships has virtually dropped out of the curriculum in many modern liberal arts institutions. The incessant pressure to focus on immediately useful vocational skills turns many universities into the creators of technocrats of all sorts, rather than leaders in any meaningful sense of the word. Religious studies, with all the liberal arts, is increasingly marginalized.

And this has created a vast post-university industry in teaching business people (and indeed professional religious leaders) what they never learned in the university or while doing their MBA: that to lead people you must lead religious people, culturally-located people. Executives who never took a course in world-religions are now hiring consultants at hundreds of dollars an hour to teach them about relating to and managing multi-religious teams. Because any organization that wishes to prosper in the midst of globalization will need to understand inter-religious dialogue.

The rise of this, and other post-university consulting businesses might make universities pause and consider embracing once again the task of cultivating leaders and how to do it. Seminaries like my own should also consider this. On that more in the next blog.

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