All leaders are controversial. They invariably risk the ire of others. Because they stand for certain things, they necessarily stand against certain things. This causes them to stand out. It makes them more than a little peculiar in this plain vanilla world of smothering uniformity. G.K. Chesterton asserted, “A man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope. Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world. The man with a definite belief is sure to be the truer friend. Therefore mark the inequalities of the world and celebrate them as matters of definition and preciseness.”
In order to maintain a sense of equilibrium, a leader must keep several things in mind as he or she does what’s worth doing:
1. To affirm one thing is to deny another. It is not possible to take a stand without calling into question another stand. And that is invariably an offense. There is simply no way around it. A strong leader is always careful, tries to measure language, and seeks to moderate extremes. But no matter how hard he or she may try, someone, somewhere, somehow is going to be offended. Andrew Jackson admitted, “I know if I were to say the sky was blue, someone would take great offense, as if I had purposefully neglected the prerogatives of the multitudes of Chinamen then dwelling under the pall of night.”
2. Accept the nature of the struggle. Our world is inclined to polarization. People take sides. And since there are at least two sides to every issue, folks are going to hurry into opposite lines in order to oppose one another. You can be sure that there will be folks along each flank itching to pick a fight. That is just the way things are. It may not be particularly desirable. But it is reality. The good leader is able to assess the situation as it actually is—not as it ought to be or used to be or one day will be. John Quincy Adams confessed, “It is never my desire to fight but it is always my intention to do so. I am resigned to such a posture only because I know the nature of man is contention and not conciliation. Thus, the vast majority of the moral work which needs to be done will be accomplish only after the clash and clatter of conflict.”
3. If you have to fight, fight fair. All is not fair in either love or war. There are ethical restraints to which we must give heed. We may be forced into conflict against our wills, but we need not be forced into concupiscence against our wills. We can stick to the point. We can avoid personal attacks. We can avoid mud slinging. We can be accurate. We can maintain decorum, respect, and integrity. We can fight fair. If we are fighting for the right thing, the least we can do is fight in the right way. If we are fighting for justice, the least we can do is fight justly. If we are fighting for that which is good and true, the least we can do is use goodness and truth as the ground not only of our ends but also of our means.
4. Admit to the mystery and complexity of the world. Some folks want to reduce everything in the world to simple formulas. They want to be able to summarize everything in an easy to grasp shorthand. They invariably attribute the doings of history to this, that, or another vast right wing conspiracy. But the fact is that history is full of the indecipherable mysteries of providence, and thus any attempt to reduce the process of its legends, epics, movements, heroes, and villains to a mere mechanical or material science is destined to be more than a little ridiculous—as the sad legacies of Marx, Gibbons, and Toynbee so readily demonstrate. It is true that certain undeniably fixed milestones emerge—like the battles of Hastings and Waterloo, the regicides of Louis XVI and Charles I, the triumphs of Bismarck and Richelieu, and the tragedies of the Hapsburgs and Hoenstauffens—and we can, from them, build up certain vague rules regarding the onward march of civilization. But for the most part, the events of history have the habit of coming up out of nothing, like the little particles of ice which float to surface of the Seine at the beginning of a frost, or like the little oak trees that crop up everywhere like weeds in the broad fields of East Sussex. They arise silently and unpredictably. And that surprises us. It is too easy for us to forget—or to try to ignore—the fact that the doings of man are on the knees of an inscrutable providence. One of the most important and most neglected aspects of the story of men and nations is the fact that the story is not yet complete—and will not be until providence has run its resolute course. We can only truly comprehend the issues and events that swirl around us when we recognize them as part and parcel of the ethical out-working of that inscrutable providence. The irony of this is so large that it may be too large to be seen. To admit as much is the better part of wisdom.
5. Match medium and message. Leaders believe that how they communicate the riches of truth is no less important than what they communicate. As a result they will actually demonstrate the what in the how. Substantive messages should be communicated substantively. An appeal to history ought to be historical. An appeal to morality ought to be moral. Leaders want to effectively communicate. The question is what do they want to communicate? And how do they best go about communicating it? Hilaire Belloc once said, “If you ask me why I put Latin in my writing, it is because I have to show that it is connected with the Universal Fountain and with the European Culture, and with all that heresy combats.” And again, “Note that pendants lose all proportion. They never can keep sane in a discussion. They will go wild on matters they are wholly unable to judge. Never do they use one of those three phrases which keep a man steady and balance his mind; I mean the words (1) After all it is not my business. (2) Tut! Tut! You don't say so! And (3) Credo in Unum Deum Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem omnium visibilium atque invisibilium; in which last, there is a power of synthesis that can jam all their analytical dust-heap into such a fine, tight, and compact body as would make them stare to see.” In short, the medium ought to match the message and vice versa.
The battle rages. Leaders never relish that fact—but they always recognize it and then act accordingly.