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Review of True Leadership, published by the Habinger Institute for Catholic Leadership at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota (Sophia Consulting, LLC, 2015; 183pp.).  Reviewed by Derek Rotty (Augustine Institute, 2015).

Another book on leadership?  Is it really necessary or beneficial?  Haven’t all the effective techniques and qualities of great leaders been hashed and rehashed for at least a couple of generations?  Not quite, indicates True Leadership.

Before examining the merits of this text, it is appropriate to note one detail that is conspicuously absent.  There is no author listed for the text as a whole.  Only Dr. Michael Naughton and Dr. Jonathan Reyes are listed as authors of the Preface and Introduction, respectively.  To anyone remotely familiar with the principles of leadership that are drawn from the teaching of Jesus Christ, this should not be confusing at all.  Recall that the Messiah commanded His disciples to take up the lowly places at banquets (cf. Lk. 14:10); and that they should store up heavenly treasures instead of earthly ones such as academic and publishing accolades (cf. Mt. 6:19-20).  Already, the reader gains a sense that this books presents a vision of leadership that is different from what one might find in national bookstore chains and corporate boardrooms.

From the very first pages, this different vision becomes clear.  Throughout its fourteen chapters, the text paints a vivid portrait of integrated Christian leadership, leadership that will transform the culture for the good.  With clear and concise writing, the book aims to convince readers that authentic, quality leadership “involves the whole person, from speaking skills and intellectual formation, to character and fundamental commitments.”  The perfect expression of this vision, of course, is Jesus Christ, who did not and still does not fit the expectations of the world around Him (x).  Like Jesus, effective leaders invite others to follow them on the journey, albeit a challenging one, toward joy and the common good.  This book seeks to orient would-be leaders toward their unique and personal imitation of that Perfect Example.

The largest portion of the book identifies “The Five Foundations of True Leadership.”  So that leaders might be cultivated and developed from the surest possible foundation, the book traces a clear trajectory through “five essential aspects” of leadership: Christian conviction, character, vocation, gifts, and skills (41).  In order for a person to become a leader, the book iterates, it is first necessary for him to know the Master whom he follows.  Next, he must submit himself to a process of transformation in grace and virtue.  After grace begins to operate, and while virtue is taking root in him, the potential leader begins to glean the purpose that God has for his life.  Beyond that, this developing leader must ask whom God has entrusted to his care, to accept those persons in charity, and to help them reach their own unique purposes.  Along this path of growth and development, the leader must obediently employ the supernatural gifts that God has granted to him for efficacy.  In this section, the book echoes a clarion call to a revolutionary conception of leadership.  It asks leaders and those who develop them to focus on those four critical aspects that have largely been forgotten in modernity.

Much, if not all, of the modern thought and literature on leadership development looks elsewhere to find its firm foundation.  The secular environment of corporations, governments, and even large universities focuses intently on the development of skills such as goal-setting, scheduling, and follow-up evaluation.  True Leadership, on the other hand, presents a lucid argument as to why these skills really are only finishing touches on the prior, more essential aspects of authentic Christian leadership.  A would-be leader might be misguided in her goals, schedules, and evaluations if she also has not allowed the virtues of humility, prudence, courage, and magnanimity, just to name a few, to be cultivated in her first.  Skills fall perfectly into place when the first principles of leadership are tended to in their proper order.

This book identifies one unique skill that quite likely sits well outside the realm of consideration for secular leadership development.  Thus, it deserves specific treatment here.  “Keep to a steady diet of well-written works,” True Leadership recommends (125).  Of course, modern literature can be well-written, but it is more likely that a budding leader will find more sustenance in the so-called classics.  That’s right: classic literature helps cultivate leaders, not only by the quality of its prose, but also for the virtues that it purveys through its language and character development.  With this point, it becomes clear why Catholic institutions rooted in the classical style of learning are at the forefront of developing the next generation of leaders for a culture that needs them so desperately.

In addition to the suggestion of classic literature, this text achieves its lofty purpose in two other notable ways.  First, each chapter begins with at least one quote (and usually more) from sacred scripture, ancient philosophers, and/or great leader-saints in the history of the Church.  A second effective method is the presence of pointed questions and statements that require the reader to examine her own life, to think deeply about the ways that the identified principles may or may not be incarnate in her daily activities.  These provide wonderful fodder for pondering the fact that leadership has both spiritual and temporal dimensions.  Perhaps more than that, pondering such quotes and questions will inevitably lead to personal growth and transformation.  Remember, the transformation of an entire culture will begin only with the transformation of individuals.

So, we are now able to see the book’s fundamental purpose, and its argument, with utmost clarity.  True Leadership lays out a plan for the formation of a new generation of leaders will have a broad and lasting cultural impact.  In the Introduction, Dr. Reyes writes, “The health of a society is directly dependent on the quality of its leaders” (ix).  The University of St. Thomas and its Habinger Institute has provided a text and a resource that will help to develop leaders of great academic and spiritual quality.  These will be men and women who will aid greatly in restoring our common culture to a healthy and robust status.