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The Destiny Factor in Leadership

From the moment I began reading the lives of great men and women—until now, three decades of leading and training later—I have been fascinated by a force that seems to be always at the heart of heroic leadership: an unshakeable belief in destiny. After studying this dynamic for many years, I’ve come to a conclusion: A leader’s ability to understand the power of destiny and use it skillfully is a defining factor in how great that leader will be.

Read the lives of notable leaders from the past or listen carefully to effective leaders today and you will hear the tones of destiny echoing in their words and actions.

Examples are not hard to find:

  • Years after he became prime minister of England at the start of World War II, Winston Churchill recalled, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail.”
  • To white South Africans, Nelson Mandela once proclaimed, “We might have our differences, but we are one people with a common destiny in our rich variety of culture, race and tradition.
  • Abraham Lincoln summoned the best in a divided country when he insisted, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
  • Even Lady Gaga incites her millions of fans with sentiments like, “If my destiny is to lose my mind because of fame, then that’s my destiny.”
  • And support him or not, Barack Obama moves hundreds of millions when he declares, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have courage to remake the world as it should be

Most powerful leaders achieve because they believe themselves destined. They see themselves as moved by an invisible force. Many believe that God has determined their life’s path. Some have confidence in the forces of history. A few are convinced their lives unfold according to the will of their ancestors. What is import for our purposes here is that leaders with the power to change institutions usually believe that there is some prior determination about their lives and that this pre-determination comes with power to lead.

What this produces in a leader cannot be measured. Leaders who think themselves destined usually possess some remarkable traits.

  • They accept that they are unique. – They are not surprised when they have insight that others do not, when they enjoy exceptional privilege, when rapid promotion graces them or when suffering and tragedy touch their lives.
  • They see themselves as sent to serve. – The best leaders understand that they are blessed with gifts meant for the good of others.
  • They are courageous. – The great British religious leader George Whitefield said, “We are immortal until our work is done.” Destined leaders think this way. It is why Douglas MacArthur routinely exposed himself to machine gun fire to check on his troops during the First World War and why Martin Luther King Jr. marched openly before his rifle-bearing enemies. Destiny prevails, these men believed.
  • They see the issues of their time in mystical terms. – As World War II dawned, many world leaders spoke only of German rearmament and geo-political alignments. Winston Churchill spoke of the “Christian nations” answering the call of this “dark hour” to oppose “blackest paganism” and “win the world for our grandchildren and their children after them.” That is how great leaders think.
  • They see their followers as destined. – Wise leaders understand that most people yearn to fulfill their destiny more than they yearn for money, comfort or fame. Skilled leaders learn to summon the best from those they lead by appealing to the innate sense of destiny that resides in all human beings.
  • They frame objectives and vision in terms of destiny. – We aren’t just building a college for blacks students, we are building an institution that will change the God-ordained destiny of our race, said Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. We aren’t just at war, said General George Patton, we are engaged in a contest between good and evil that God has chosen us to win. Lincoln said Now is the hour. It is destined. Steve Jobs said This is why we are in the world. Pope John Paul II said I am destined to suffer and teach the world about suffering. This is also how great leaders think.
  • They see the future as their responsibility. – Leaders who believe they are destined and who are entrusted with great power don’t usually think in terms of their generation only. They look to the future and accept responsibility for the state of the world that those yet unborn will inherit. This makes them impatient with failure, devoted to planning, passionate about building, eager to act against evil and determined to leave a benevolent legacy.

This can all be summarized in the phrase The Destiny Factor.  I think it is one of the most important perspectives on leadership that we can acquire. I’ll be writing more about this soon. I’m already speaking about it around the country and finding leaders hungry to know more.

Tell me how The Destiny Factor is shaping your life and leadership. You can do this by following me here: @MansfieldWrites

Bad News for America: Religion Enflames the Syrian Civil War

Religion is at the heart of the Syrian Civil War and this isn’t good news. It means that old animosities will likely survive any negotiated settlement or military solution. It means that while the rest of the world thinks in terms of an army, rebels and contested territory, the combatants think in terms of righteous warriors, a holy cause and the will of God.

It also means that the U.S. government is likely to handle it all clumsily. We don’t usually “do” religion well when it comes to international crises.

Americans tend to think of most wars in terms of their own Revolution. There is an oppressive ruler. There are an oppressed people. The people yearn for greater freedom and democracy for all. The oppressive ruler must fall so that a brighter day may dawn.

If only it were true. Instead, in the global upheavals of recent history, the ruler is often corrupt but still a necessary restraint on greater evil still. The rebels do want freedom but in truth that greater freedom means more power and wealth for themselves and genocide for their enemies. It is all more complex, more shaded in gray, and more tawdry than Americans often understand.

In Syria, religion enflames the current atrocities, though few in the wider world understand it. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. They hold to the historic teachings of Islam, believe that the leaders of the faith should arise from the Muslim community, and they look forward to the return of a Mahdi, a “rightly guided one,” who will restore the glory Islam to the world.

A smaller number of Muslims in Syria are Shi’ites. This minority believes that the true ruler of Islam is not an approved member of the Islamic community but an anointed descendant of the prophet Muhammad. They also believe the Mahdi is already walking the earth but is in hiding and they are deeply mystical about most other matters of faith.

We should know this because within these Shi’ites—only about ten percent of Islam worldwide—there is a tinier minority still. They are called the Alawites. They are a secretive sect of Islam whose practices are considered so holy that knowledge of them is often kept even from uninitiated Alawites. Persecuted during much of their thousand-year history, they have a fierce animosity for their Sunni neighbors. Not until the end of world World War I did their fortunes improve, though their hatred for the Sunni Muslim majority continued to seethe.

This brief sketch of a religion is required knowledge for understanding events in Syria today. The Assad family is Alawite. Much of the Syrian military is Alawite. Though the Syrian government under the Assads is officially secular, the Sunni majority in Syria has long suspected that the state serves the oppressive Alawite objectives of the ruling family. This is particularly infuriating to Sunnis since Alawites number only about twelve percent of the Syrian population.

Rumor is an effective tool of war in the Middle East and the rumor now swirling throughout the Arab world is that President Bashar al Assad has chosen this moment to destroy the Sunni majority. Thus his brutality with his fellow Syrians—or at least those Syrians not of his faith. Sunnis in the region are being summoned to rally to their Syrian brethren and fight against Assad’s forces. The boiling point is fast approaching.

These must seem like overheated religious imaginings to the average American family trying to get through an evening meal without being sickened by the Sarin-gassed corpses grotesquely displayed on the evening news. The truth is that this religious hatred is real and has shown itself again and again in Syrian history.

As recently as 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the previous ruler of Syria and the current president’s father, ordered his air force to bomb and his army to invade a Sunni Muslim town named Hama. The president’s brother was in command of the invading force and later boasted of murdering 38,000 people, most of whom were fleeing civilians.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes that the number killed was more in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 but that the larger issue is what he calls the “Hama Rule” by which the Assad regime now conducts itself. Total war, genocidal war—a degree of brutality that stuns Western sensibilities and stifles Western response—is the Assad policy. It is a boast, a sneering attempt to expose the cowardice of the West. It is horror in the service of religion.

These things do not die in the Middle East. They live on for generations. I was flying into Amman, Jordan, some years ago and noted to a Jordanian friend the official name of his country: “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” My friend explained at length that the Hashemites had once ruled Mecca. He then said, “And we want it back.”

He was not smiling. Remember that the Hashemites have not ruled Mecca for a thousand years.

So it is with the religious tensions in the Middle East and so it will be when Bashar al-Assad is dust. We are not witnessing an American-style revolution in Syria. We are witnessing carnage that is fruit of a culture in which hatred is holy.

Guest Blogger: Booker T. Washington

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 7.59.01 PMI was paging through one of my books a few days ago and I came across a vignette that pierced me. It was from Then Darkness Fled: The Liberating Philosophy of Booker T. Washington. I remember that I took this title from something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: So from an old clay cabin in Virginia’s hills, Booker T. Washington rose up to be one of the nation’s great leaders. He lit a torch in Alabama; then darkness fled.” This little bit of Mr. Washington’s wisdom caused some darkness to flee in me the day I read it, and I thought I would offer it to you as well.



We should know our weaknesses as well as our strengths
if we would attain to the best in our civilization.

It is, perhaps, the most difficult challenge of a person, a nation, or a race. It requires the courage of a Churchill, the humility of a St. Francis, and the reforming zeal of a Wilberforce. Without it, the clouds of complacency blind the eyes and smother the conscience. Self-satisfaction is King, self-importance his throne, and self-congratulation Court Jester to all. Yet, when it is practiced and the hidden truths it unearths exposed in the light of day, it has a liberating power with which the great and noble are familiar but which the shallow and vain never know.

This vital tool of true freedom is self-examination, and Booker Washington knew it well. He lived by Plato’s dictum that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” for he believed that man was made for more than the immediate and the instinctual, more than mere existence. Washington knew that each man faces a choice: either give in to the “unbearable lightness of being,” living without consequence and depth, or pierce the veneer of existence through self-examination and, as Thoreau had written, “suck all the marrow out of life.” Washington chose the less traveled path and it did much to make him the man he was.

This capacity for self-examination marked the great strides that lifted Booker to the heights he achieved. Even as a boy, this ability to confront himself with who he was and therefore with who he was not made him realize the tragedy of his illiterate state. What he mined from the depths of his soul gave him the power to change, to teach himself to read. Then, as he worked in the bleak chambers of Malden’s coalmines, he saw his dreary possibilities in the stooped and haggard lives around him. He wanted more, knew that he had within himself the power to change, and it required little more than an overheard conversation about a school called Hampton to set him upon the path of his destiny.

What Washington practiced himself he also taught as gospel at Tuskegee: “It is a good practice for a person to get in the habit of making an examination of himself day by day, to see to what extent his thoughts have dwelt on those things which are high, and to what extent he has permitted himself to yield to the temptation of being low in his thoughts and imaginings.” This was little more than the historic Christian disciplines in practical application, yet for those who came from a near hand-to-mouth existence, the very idea of a “higher life” was a revelation.

Still, the principle had to be applied to more than just individuals if his people were to be set free and it is here that Washington faced some of the staunchest opposition of his life. When the slaves were freed, most black leaders wanted immediately to assume the status and comforts of white society. Washington took stock of the situation and concluded, “We aren’t ready yet.” The outcry against him was widespread and cruel, but Booker refused to probe his race with any less honesty than he did his own soul. “You cannot graft a fifteenth-century civilization on to a twentieth-century civilization by the mere performance of mental gymnastics,” he insisted. He knew that less than brutal clarity at the beginning of the journey toward freedom would only mean destruction and disillusionment later.

His people were behind, not because they were inferior but because slavery kidnapped centuries of progress. This was the truth and nothing could change it. They must acknowledge it and walk the path of “uplift.” To entertain lies from their own leaders or from manipulative whites would profit nothing. They must know themselves as they were so they could envision themselves as they could one day be.

It is an encouraging sign when an individual grows to the point where he can hold himself up for personal analysis and study. It is equally encouraging for a race to be able to study itselfto know its weaknesses as well as its strength. It is not in the highest degree helpful to a race to be continually praised, and thus have its weakness overlooked; neither is it the most helpful thing to have its faults alone continually dwelt upon. What is needed is downright, straightforward honesty in both directions.

No one is more irritating than the prophet. The prophet begins with a brutal vision of things as they are, and being a prophet speaks openly and crushingly of unvarnished reality. But having seen the present in its naked ugliness, the prophet is then empowered to envision a future of glory and, often, to describe the path from the one to the other. For this he is hated because most men live in the warm ooze of comforting illusions and bitterly resent those who disturb their peace. Still, because the prophet has himself been liberated from illusion by piercing self-examination, he tries, often in vain, to set at liberty those who least desire it. This was the lot of Booker Washington, and his call to transforming self-examination summons still a people bent on destiny.


Welcome To My New Website!

Winston Churchill once wrote, “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

Churchill might have been describing what it can be like to launch a website. Getting my new site ready for launch has been some work.  Thankfully, we’ve finally arrived at the moment to “fling’ this baby out to the public. I’m grateful.

Along with my friends at Skö, we’ve produced a site I think you’ll find fun and useful. Here are some of its features.

  • Blog/Video Podcast – I’ll be sending more teaching and commentary your way with an expanded Blog page and a soon-to-begin weekly video podcast. You can subscribe to both on the home page.
  • Featured Video – See the special “Featured Video” that appears on the home page. The videos shown here will usually be by me or about me, but sometimes they will just be for laughs.
  • Book Buying – On the Writing page, you’ll find descriptions of every book I’ve written as well as links for buying each book from any of a dozen online sites.
  • Press Room – Members of the media will find an enhanced “Press Room” that includes press releases, videos of my recent TV appearances, downloadable book covers and downloadable photos in a variety of sizes.
  • A Speaking Page – See video of some of my speeches, informal “Meet Stephen” videos, and links for booking me to speak at your event.
  • Guests – Along with these features, we have a lineup of guest bloggers and podcasters that you are really going to love.

In addition to all this, I’ll be launching a second website before long—a site designed specifically for leaders. More about this soon.

So enjoy the new site. And watch for some of the fascinating moments just ahead!

The Missed Opportunity of the Aslan/Green Moment

She is tall, pretty, and gifted. She knows her stuff, has had her struggles. She’s an African-American woman in a largely white male industry. She reports on faith in a news cycle dominated by the pressing and the hard-edged. She’s also smart. She’s a skilled musician, holds a graduate degree in journalism and she knows how to handle an interview—when to laugh and when to close in for the kill.

He is young, handsome, and accomplished. He is also a man of broader learning and experience than most. He was a Christian before he became a Muslim. He earned a degree in divinity at Harvard before he made writing his field and then completed a doctorate in sociology. He teaches writing but sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, writes books about the New Testament but advises U.S. leaders about the nature of jihad. His wife is a Christian; his brother-in-law is an evangelical pastor. He has a boyish smile and an irritatingly piercing intellect. He was born in Iran.

She’s eager to transcend the third tier of cable news. He’s prickly and addicted to the adoring look in the graduate student’s eyes. She’s from an African Methodist Episcopal background and is suspicious of smug scholars who make careers out of chiseling away at her faith. He’s saying nothing that hasn’t circulated in theological seminaries for a hundred years and yet the phrase “avant-garde thinker” dances seductively in his head.

And the interview begins. He has written a book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a light reworking of the higher criticism that has informed biblical studies at the university level since Abraham Lincoln went to Washington. There are some well-placed controversies. Jesus was a warmonger, he claims. And Jesus was crucified. Muslims don’t believe this. Some theologically liberal Christians don’t believe this. It might have been worth exploring.

But, no. Her first question had to do with why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus. Perhaps asked this for the sake of her audience. She surely knew that Muslims believe Jesus Christ existed, that he was born to a virgin, that he was a prophet and that he did miracles.
Perhaps she intended the question as a fat pitch to a first-time guest. Or, she may have intended it as the first blow in an online Ultimate Fighting event. Either way, it didn’t work.

He could have saved the moment, though: could have leaned into his teaching gift and helped a Fox News audience understand a Muslim’s interest in Jesus. He didn’t seem to have it in him. Within five minutes viewers had heard him give his resume three times. He just wasn’t willing to be bitch-slapped by a Fox-Babe who doubted his brilliance and assumed his duplicity.

It never got better. She asked him why he conceals his Muslim faith. He doesn’t. She read aloud the words of his critics having never meaningfully probed the words of his book. He was high pitched and thin-skinned and dared to assure, “I’m actually a fairly prominent Muslim…and well-respected religious scholar.”

It was among the worst ten minutes in the history of televised religious dialogue. It failed Fox News. It failed scholarship. It failed every faith in play at the moment.

Much was lost. As a Christian, Ms. Green might have noticed that her theologically liberal, Muslim guest unswervingly affirmed that Jesus Christ existed, caused trouble in the Israel of first century Rome and was crucified just as Christians have long declared. The man even called Christianity “the greatest religion in the world.” This in an age when a “New Atheist” movement led by men like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins suggests that Jesus Christ never existed and that the entire Christian story is a malicious myth. There was something worthy of gracious discussion here.

As a learned man, Dr. Reza Aslan might have summoned his nobler self, ignored the barbs and offered more than a list of his accomplishments. How had he—a member of a faith that denied Jesus was crucified—become convinced otherwise? Had he suffered opposition for his views from fellow Muslims? From Christians? And on what basis did he make the astonishing claim that Jesus Christ was a “warmonger?” How fascinating a discussion this might have been!

But, no.

And we should know that this embarrassment stems from a greater embarrassment still. We are a nation in which a student can progress from kindergarten to doctoral studies having never passed through even a brief survey of the world’s great religions, glimpsing the major faiths only from afar in history classes where teachers are urged to treat religion with embarrassed brevity, if at all.

It is why thugs in New York accosted Sikhs a few days after September 11, 2001, thinking them the followers of Osama bin Laden. It is why synagogues were forced to replace rock-shattered windows and a Hindu temple was vandalized during that same time–-Jews and Hindus being indistinguishable from Muslims to the patriotically enraged and religiously uninformed.

It must change. The world is too dangerous a place and religion is too much a defining force for the stupidity that tainted the otherwise noble days after 9/11—or the blundering and pride that made an international scandal of a simple interview about religion—to continue.