Christian Worldview

The First Requirement of Leadership

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Does a leader’s private morality have anything to do with his or her public life? Read Chuck Colson’s response, taken from Answers to Your Kids' Questions: For years, secularists have said no. But when a person regularly lives a certain way and makes certain choices, over time that influences the way he or she thinks about issues. Consider a historical example: the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher. In 1762 Rousseau wrote the classic treatise on freedom, The Social Contract. But the freedom Rousseau envisioned wasn’t freedom from state tyranny; it was freedom from personal obligations: family, church, and the workplace. We can escape the claims made by these groups, Rousseau wrote, by transferring complete loyalty to the state. In his words, we become “independent of all [our] fellow citizens” only by becoming completely “dependent on the republic.” At the time Rousseau was writing The Social Contract, he was struggling with a great moral dilemma. He had taken a mistress, a servant girl named Thérèse. When Thérèse had a baby, Rousseau was, in his own words, “thrown into the greatest embarrassment.” He wanted to be received into Parisian high society, and an illegitimate child—by a servant girl!—would be an awkward encumbrance. So a few days later a tiny blanketed bundle was left on the steps of the local orphanage. Over the years, four additional children born to Thérèse and Jean-Jacques appeared on the orphanage steps. Historical records show that most of the babies in that orphanage died; the few survivors became beggars. Rousseau knew that, and several of his books and letters reveal desperate attempts to justify his actions. In later writings he recommended that responsibility for educating children be taken away from parents and given to the state. In fact, his ideal state was one where impersonal institutions liberate citizens from all personal obligations. Now, here was a man who himself had turned to a state institution for relief from personal obligations. Were his own choices affecting his political theory? Is there a connection between Rousseau the man and Rousseau the political theorist? In politics and in every other subject, ideas do not arise from the intellect alone but from the whole personality. They reflect our hopes and fears, longings and regrets. The fact is character is indivisible. Most of the tyrants of the modern world have knelt at the altar of Rousseau, from the leaders of the French Revolution to Hitler, Marx, and Lenin. So can we really say private behavior has nothing to do with public policy? Just ask the survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps. On the other hand, consider the following story of George Washington (adapted from William Bennett’s book Our Sacred Honor), which is a positive example of how character and leadership are inseparable. It was 1783, and the Revolutionary War had just ended. Many of the officers in the Continental Army had fought for years without pay. Rumor had it that the Continental Congress planned to disband the army and renege on its debt to the veterans. As the weeks passed, the mood of the soldiers grew ugly. Finally some of the officers issued an ultimatum: If they were not paid, they were prepared to march on Congress and seize control of the government. To head off the crisis, General Washington addressed the soldiers in a makeshift chapel in Newburgh, New York . Washington counseled patience and reminded the men that he, too, had served without pay. He urged them “not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will . . . sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.” The men continued to glare angrily at the general. Washington then began reading a letter from a congressman. But as he read, he stumbled over the words and finally had to stop. Washington reached into his pocket and pulled out something his men had never before seen, a pair of spectacles. He begged their indulgence, saying, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself going blind.” These words of humility instantly dissolved the hostile mood. The soldiers began to weep. After Washington left, they agreed to give Congress more time. Thomas Jefferson later remarked that “the moderation and virtue of a single [man] probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.” What the Founders understood is that character is the first requirement of leadership. It was Washington’s character that earned the admiration and trust of the mutinous officers. His humility, coupled with a reminder of the price he himself had paid for his service, drove his men on to greater sacrifice.


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary