No one has tried harder in leadership to move the dial away from glitz and towards good character than Preston Manning. It’s fitting that he’s sought a crowning moment in his career by writing a scholarly and practical book on pursuing good character in leadership: Faith, Leadership and Public Life: Leadership Lessons from Moses to Jesus, (Castle Quay Books, 2017).
It’s intriguing that he directs strong criticism at fellow travellers, that is, at Christians. He has worthwhile things to say as well to people of all faith backgrounds who crave more character in modern leadership.
First, let’s look at the book’s message to Christians. Unencumbered by political considerations, Manning squarely expresses his faith as the premier influence in his life. As he says, “while my secular advisors were always worried that my religious views and commitments would alienate potential political supporters, I was always more worried that my political positions and commitments would alienate potential believers from investigating the claims of Christ.”
Without apology to non-believers, he uses examples of leadership from the lives of key Biblical figures: Jesus, Moses, David, Daniel, and Esther. In a groundbreaking way, he addresses them not as religious icons but as political actors who had to cope with leadership challenges still common to us in the 21st Century.
Based on a lifetime of managing the tension between his personal faith and his commitment to grassroots democracy (he used to have a quote from US President Thomas Jefferson in his office about trusting “the people” with political decisions), Manning works with the reader to examine why the church has become increasingly stripped of political influence.
There are people who would keep public life out of the Church, and even more who would keep the Church out of public life. Manning deals deftly with the separation, then hones his argument for why there's a necessary overlap. More than conceding that the two must intersect, he believes that healthy society requires a commitment of secular leaders to protect faith-based institutions and of faith leaders to take a stand in the non-faith public arena.
Manning lays part of the blame for marginalization of Christianity at the feet of Christians who try to impose their faith on others, noting a, “tragic irony is that when well-meaning Christians advocate the use of the coercive power of the state to bring in the kingdom of heaven they are actually taking not Jesus’ side but the side of Satan…. So if there is one supreme test for distinguishing the expression of genuine Christianity in practice from spurious Christianity… it is that genuine Christianity does not seek to impose itself or its solutions on those who choose not to receive it.”
Christians, Muslims, and others of faith: don’t take Manning’s words lightly! As a Christian, and recently a Member of Parliament myself, I recall the stern warning from Fraser Institute Founder Michael Walker, echoed by Manning in Faith.
“People don’t fear your faith,” Michael Walker said, “They fear you might want to impose it on them.”
Manning addresses not only philosophical and spiritual matters but also pragmatic issues that bedevil leaders concerned with character. At the end of most sections is advice entitled “Implications for Us,” tips for leadership success that conjure up the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince.
The difference between Manning and Machiavelli is that the former consistently puts character above short-term success. Manning’s eternal perspective allows him to believe that virtuous decisions that entail short-term sacrifice will ultimately engender long-term success. He’s sparse on the personal anecdotes, however. One of the best personal stories he does relate is the description of decisions he made to promote democracy that ultimately cost him the leadership of the party he created.
Manning’s book is a work for our times, as citizens of democracies around the world stand aghast at the hollowness of our leaders. The “dumbing down” of political discourse fashioned by digital communications; the domination of money in American and other politics; and the overweening influence of special interest groups have all contributed to erode our trust in leaders.
Beyond that, this is a book of impressive scholarship. For example, the 511 footnotes provide excellent background. More, in a welcome break from current practice, Manning goes against the grain by presenting them conveniently at the bottom of relevant pages. He also ennobles the work by refraining from partisan potshots.
If there’s any disappointment in the book, it’s that Manning falls short in one of the two objectives he states in his preface: to help secular people understand better the “nature and implications of the religious traditions and convictions of citizenship who hold them.” This is not so much a criticism as an invitation for Manning to write a sequel.
His focus on advising people of faith how to lead - his other objective, in which he succeeds admirably - inevitably makes it hard for readers to appreciate his message if they do not share his faith convictions. That’s okay. By keeping his sights on a particular audience, he’s able to increase his impact.
However, he has a strong message engendered by his faith for people who are not Christians. While the leaders studied in the book are Biblical characters motivated by faith in God, history suggests that people touched by those leaders benefited, regardless of their faith. Similarly, many people touched by Manning have benefited from his leadership regardless of their faith.
Based on his life example, his impressive Biblical scholarship, and his vast political experience, Manning has the means to create another book targeted solely at persons who do not share his belief in God. Such a book could provide invaluable advice for the non-believer that would improve the governance of Canada, in politics, business, and other fields. The advice can be founded in Faith, but with more focus on the secular reader Manning could make an even more significant impact on that audience.
Faith, Leadership and Public Life could also have used more of Manning’s own lighthearted, easily triggered, quick wit. It’s so excessively sober that I could find only one purely humorous moment, and that in a footnote on page 82, which asks: “Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.”
And while humility is generally a virtue, Manning actually sacrifices valuable ground by sharing personal anecdotes so parsimoniously. The reader has to wait until well into the book to find even a trace of self-promotion, which again is found in a footnote mention of Manning Centre activities.
He continues to cherish privacy for his family but, again, the reader loses out by not learning more about Manning’s impressive wife, Sandra, and the influence she’s had on his life. He discusses the influence of Wilberforce’s wife on Wilberforce, so why mention Sandra only in the acknowledgements? A bibliography and an index would have further added to the book’s value.
Those points considered, there is no doubt that Manning truly believes what he writes in his book: “Character - the inner condition of the human heart - is not only something most important to God; it is the most important qualification for public office.”
And regardless of your faith position, you can’t argue with his underlying premise:
“Putting the interests of others - our fellow countrymen, our constituents, our colleagues, our families - ahead of our own selfish interests should constitute our highest ethical commitment.”
In sum, we can thank Manning for Faith and his many other contributions to good leadership. At the end of every James Bond film, there’s a recurring statement that “James Bond will be back”.
Let’s hope there is at least one more book in Manning; as with James Bond, we need to know that “Preston will be back.”
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