Leadership in Uncertain Times – what does the future hold for us?

By Peter Corney

(This was originally delivered as an address to the teaching staff chapel service at Trinity Grammar School Kew in Melbourne in 2010)

During the American civil war and the battle to emancipate the slaves, the then U.S President Abraham Lincoln said he “often felt like a man standing on a burning platform.”

Photo by Michael Holden

Many people in leadership today, whether it is in politics, business, education, health or public administration feel like Lincoln did. The times are so uncertain and the problems so challenging. What does the future hold for us?

Just think of a few of the headline issues we face. Global warming and the environmental crisis, water supply and security, world population growth, the global financial crisis, which is really a crisis of greed and morality that may even herald the twilight of the dominance of Western capitalism. Then there is the clash of civilizations as massive people movements around the world force radically different cultures and world views into uneasy connections. The U.N estimates that there are now approximately 43,000,000 refugees and displaced persons around the world as a result of wars, ethnic conflicts, poverty, hunger and climate change.

In the West we are becoming increasingly disturbed by the fraying of the moral and social fabric in what have been for some time relatively stable societies like Australia and the U.K. Drug and alcohol abuse are at alarming levels, and while we have never been wealthier, the percentage of dependent children being taken in to state care keeps rising steeply each year. These depressing examples could be multiplied.

So, what does the future hold for us?

Can we predict it? More importantly, can we influence it?

We have of course always been fascinated by the future but particularly in times of crisis. Our artists and novelists have often prophesied for us – George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldus Huxley’s ‘Brave new world’, the prolific H.G Wells, a pioneer of science fiction, wrote many very prescient novels like ‘The World Set Free’ and ‘The Shape of things to come’.  In our own times when film has become the literature of the people visions of the future appear in films like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Gattica’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Akira’, ‘Mad Max’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Existenz’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, ‘The Children of Men’, ‘District 9’, etc. Then there are the natural disaster films like ‘2012’ where a giant tidal wave submerges the world in a modern flood narrative even with contemporary Arks! Then there is the recent film of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak but very moving novel ‘The Road.’

Interestingly these are mostly dystopian and pessimistic visions. That is probably because we tend to see the future through the lens of the present. In confident times we are optimistic and hopeful, in anxious and troubled times we become pessimistic even apocalyptic.

There are three alternative ways we can face the future:

(1) With Pessimism: Pessimism leads to resignation, loss of hope, the suppression of creativity, distraction and the growth of self interest.

(2) With Nostalgia: Nostalgia is a longing for the way things used to be. There is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, there are many good things to honor and preserve from the past, the past shapes our identities. But you can not steer your vehicle into the future by looking mainly in the rear view mirror, that’s a good way to miss a vital turn you need to make.

(3) The third way is with Creative Imagination: Creative Imagination is that way of thinking that sees the future in a new way and by its vision creates the future. In spite of the plethora of futurologist’s, we can not predict the future with any accuracy. Nor do we discover the future. In fact we create the future! The future is a decision we make now, an intervention in the present. The present is of course the only field of action we have.

To create the future we must first imagine it. Creative imagination, coupled with passion, sees, feels and dreams new possibilities. But to have the energy to create a positive future you have to have an inspiring and guiding moral vision. Whether it’s the dream to create a new vaccine to deliver millions from a debilitating disease or to free people from hunger or injustice, it requires a moral vision.

Hugh Mackay the Australian social researcher has made this point about the need for such a vision in Australian society. We have yearned for a guiding story that would help us make sense of what is happening to us, and to our society. But no such story has emerged, because no such leadership has emerged. (The Mackay Report 1997)

Nietzsche, that strange prophetic voice from the late 19th C., made many pertinent observations about the future direction of Western culture. He wrote:

When cultures loose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless.

Nietzsche had lost his own faith and he observed that as Europe was loosing hers, the culture was hollowing out. What had given it its energy, strength and moral vision was leaking away and it was becoming weightless. We are living in the remains of that movement today. Western culture is like an old neglected masterpiece that is fading, the paint peeling, mould growing on the canvass. What was it that gave our culture its weight?

Psalm 24 concludes with this shout:

Lift up your heads, O you gates;

Lift them up, you ancient doors,

that the King of glory may come in.

Who is he, this king of glory?

The Lord Almighty  –

He is the King of glory.

Glory is one of the most frequently used words in the Bible to describe the character of God. For us it conveys the idea of radiance, brilliance, light, but the Hebrew word Kabod also carries the idea of weight. But weight in the sense of heavy with truth, laden with love, loaded with justice and holiness – gravitas, the epicenter of reality.

It was this idea that was the defining source of Western cultures values, its energizing creative force, the origin of its sense of  meaning and purpose.

I recently read A C Grayling’s book “Towards the Light”. The sub title is The story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the Modern West. Although he is an atheist he makes it quite clear in his book that many of the most important forces in the human rights movement were Christian. People like Anthony Benezet the French Huguenot who became a Quaker and influenced many of the English and American leaders in the anti slavery movement including Thomas Clarkson and Wilberforce, all committed Christians. There is also a direct line out of that movement into children’s and workers rights and the modern labor movement and finally the UN Charter.

We are still living on this moral and spiritual capital but it is running down. Like money in the bank, if you only draw it down and don’t replace it eventually it runs out!

My point is a fairly simple one – you can provide an excellent education for the young people who pass through your hands, an education that will equip them with all the tools they need in our society to construct successful careers. But to what end? What will they build? What will guide them in how they build? What kind of society will they construct, with what sort of values? The answer to these questions lies in the spiritual and moral realm, where the real weight of a culture is measured.

We can and should provide our young people with an excellent education but unless we also provide them with a moral and spiritual vision we have not provided them with the most essential thing.

As a school with a long Christian tradition I urge you to keep going back to the well, back to that which gave us the best things we have inherited from our culture and its energizing vision. It is true that our Christian institutions have sometimes failed us and failed the Christian vision, but the vision has never failed. It may fade in our minds but its essential glory does not fade.

The New Testament picks up the Old Testament idea of God’s glory (the kabod) and in II Cor.4:6  Says: “God, who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness’ made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

This is the heart of the vision, this is where our attention should be focused.