The Vulnerable Leader
Do you want to have authority or not? Do you want to be vulnerable or not? Are those the same questions put in different words, or are they different questions altogether?
Andy Crouch (Executive Editor of Christianity Today turned Templeton Foundation strategist) has done a lot of thinking about power. His first effort in that regard, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, left him unsatisfied. In some ways, writing a book is like writing the first draft of your philosophy. The best ones keep thinking even after the manuscript has been sent to the publisher. While the editors are editing, the thinkers are still thinking. While the printer is making the words permanent on paper, the good minds are making them obsolete through further development. And the really hard thinking doesn’t really start until the book joins the bustle of ideas, and people start reading it and taking shots at it or extending it into areas unseen by the original author. The book really isn’t done until, at best, a year or two after it’s published.
That’s what happened with Andy: He kept thinking about power and realized that he had left a dimension out of the power picture. He likes four-quadrant thinking: An X axis along the bottom, a Y axis running bottom to top. Two dimensions with two sectors each makes four quadrants. Two-dimensional thinking moves us away from linear thinking, literally. Two poles give you a line. Add another perpendicular line with two poles of its own and you get not a line, but a square. When it comes to modeling the complexities of reality, square thinking is much better than linear thinking. This works with lots of different problems. Take any problem you’re working on in which you’re wrestling with a continuum along a line, and see if you can add a dimension and create quadrants and you may well find that you’ve been limiting your options.
Crouch used this approach to rethink power. Instead of limiting the discussion to the choices ‘powerful’ or ‘not powerful’, he added a dimension: Vulnerable or not vulnerable. Where simplistic, linear thinking would tend to conclude that power and vulnerability are opposites, they are not. One can have power and vulnerability at the same time. MLK did. One can lack power but also lack vulnerability at the same time: Children do, at least in the First World. Being a baby is one of the world’s safest jobs, but I wouldn’t call it a high-achieving one.
The result of this re-think is Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing.
Here’s the image which captures the essence of the book:
Dictators live (if you can call it living) in the upper left. Babies (and sometimes retired centi-millionaires) live in the lower left. Bottom right is the zone for the victims of oppression, and upper right is where you want to be. You can get things done, but it might not work, and that uncertainty is what makes the achievement real. That kind of vulnerability is the difference between real life and a Star Trek: The Next Generation holodeck where nothing counts unless the safety protocols… Well, my nerd is showing, so I’ll stop there.
Crouch’s model for the upper right-hand corner is Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most influential leader of all time, who was tortured to death. That’s a lot of power and that’s a lot of vulnerability. The power and the suffering were not coincident, though. They are additive. The power is greater because of the reality of the possibility of suffering. Would MLK be a leader of the same magnitude of influence if he turned out to be bulletproof like the comic book hero Luke Cage? (Okay, I really gotta watch the nerd wattage; perhaps a Charles Atlas course…)
Life is supposed to be an arc from bottom left diagonally up to top right. Life, as it too often is in much of the world, is a small minority living in upper left off the extracted wealth of people on the bottom right.
Good leaders try to get themselves into the upper right. They avoid the temptation of the dictator quadrant. They avoid the temptation of cashing out and sliding back into the uterine cul-de-sac existence of a wealthy premature retirement. They keep taking chances. And the main chance they take is to depend on other people, their team, to trust them with power. They take the chance of moving their employees, suppliers, and other vulnerable participants from bottom right to top right, from powerless vulnerability to powerful vulnerability. They take chances on the people under their power and they let the people under their power take chances themselves (within the constraints of reality).
Crouch’s book is an important one. It’s the type of book that does not become the big blockbuster book that everyone talks about, but it is the kind of book that will tend to permanently change the cognitive layout of your mind. Reading books like this makes you vulnerable to change, but it’s the kind of change which grants you more influence over the long run.
Jerry: We’re talking with Andy Crouch about his new book Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. Andy is formerly the executive editor of Christianity Today, and now he is a senior strategist for the John Templeton Foundation.
What does a senior strategist for the John Templeton Foundation do?
Andy Crouch: Well, happily, I have a specific assignment, which is to help the foundation with communications. So this is a charitable foundation based outside of Philadelphia that, among a number of things, works on the interaction between science and religion, two deep important human affairs that have often been separated from one another. And my job is to help us tell the story of what we’re learning as we fund work in both of those areas, both scientific research and religious research, and how they actually can inform each other. So that’s my new assignment this year in 2017.
Jerry: Wonderful; great assignment. And this is started by the request of Sir John ‑‑ Sir John Templeton, the legendary investor. I want to honor him; he’s had a big influence on my thinking, as an economist and as somebody who’s involved in that industry.
Andy Crouch: Yes.
Jerry: We need more like him.
All right. So that’s what you do. But you also have another half of your life, which is speaking engagements and books. And the one we’re talking about today is “Strong and Weak”.
All right ‑‑ every book worth reading presumably has at least one great or scintillating insight. What would you say is the great insight, the thing that made you say “I’ve got to write a book about this”; what is that kernel?
Andy Crouch: It was actually a picture, or a chart, really, that actually explains something I had tried to say in an earlier book, my book called Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. That book was about the subject of power. And I hope it’s a worthwhile book, but there was an idea in it that I realized after it was out in the world I could have said so much better if I had had a picture.
And it’s a simple business school style two-by-two chart, where you take two different values. And I think two-by-twos are often most interesting when they involve two things we think maybe don’t go together, or shouldn’t go together, and actually show how they do go together. And so this is a two-by-two chart of two things that really matter in human life: authority and vulnerability, and how we can have both at the same time, and how good it is when we have both at the same time, and how damaging it is when we have only authority without vulnerability, or vulnerability without authority, or neither one. And those are the four corners of the chart.
Jerry: Two-by-two charts give you the opportunity to add a dimension, right? They’re two-dimensional as opposed to linear.
Andy Crouch: Yes, exactly. And often we think that authority and vulnerability sound like opposites. And I suppose there are some senses of those words in which they would be really opposite things on two ends of a linear spectrum. You either have authority or you have a lot of vulnerability.
But I try to make the case in the book that actually there’s a deeper meaning for each of these words, that we really need both in order to create real, flourishing families, flourishing companies, all the way up to in some ways to flourishing nations and flourishing communities.
Jerry: Well, I suppose in a world and in a culture of polarization, we will tend to approach everything in terms of binaries.
Andy Crouch: Completely.
Jerry: So adding a dimension, now we have four options, rather than just two.
Andy Crouch: Yes.
Jerry: And there’s a clustering of compassion, social justice, ‘all the refugees are good people’, ‘let’s give away healthcare’, and ‘spend without thinking about it’. Then on the other side there’s a cluster of tough guys, ‘all the refugees are mass murders’. And we’re forced to choose between these two almost idiotic options, right?
Andy Crouch: Right.
Jerry: But when you add a dimension now we’ve got four choices. And that’s better than two, right, in terms of if we’re trying to zoom in on truth, having four options is better than two options.
Andy Crouch: Wow, that’s so well put, and I think that’s exactly right. And I called this the false linear the axis of the false choice. On my little chart, my two-by-two, the place you want to be is in the upper-right corner, high in both authority and vulnerability in the case of my two-by-two. This works for lots of different things where there’s two values that seem to compete, and you really want both actually to have a flourishing world or flourishing life.
But the false choice is the one that says you either get one without the other or the other one without that one. And you’re so right that I think much of our media, much of our own hastiness in the way we process the world, reduces things to two false choices and then we align ourselves with one side or the other when, in fact, we need that kind of cognitive insight, which really comes from what we sometimes call paradox. That many of the most important truths in life ‑‑ in the book I start out with one about parenting. Should you be a strict parent, or should you be a warm and living parent? Well, we now have about four decades of research that shows you really have to be both; you have to both set very clear limits for your children, and you have to be very warm and emotionally available. And those aren’t opposed to each other. But if you can’t think paradoxically, you often tend to think it’s one or the other, and you pick one or the other, and both actually end up doing a lot of damage, both ends.
Jerry: So our current politics basically tell us we have to give up vulnerability in order to have authority, or we have to give up authority in order to have vulnerability.
Andy Crouch: Yes. Although, I think the tempting corner for human beings is almost always the quest for authority without vulnerability. And actually, I think often our politics are a choice, another kind of false choice, between two different versions of the same thing. I would say that in the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, each of the major party candidates, in significant ways, embodied authority without vulnerability and promised their followers, ‘if you follow me you’ll have lots of authority’ — by which I mean the capacity for meaningful action, the capacity to make a difference in the world — without what I think is the underlying idea of vulnerability, which is meaningful risk.
And even though Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are very different personalities and approach this very differently, I think each of them, in different ways, was actually stuck in that upper-left corner, at least in their public persona and their approach to their campaigns.
Originally published on Forbes.