Saturday, August 20, 2011

Proverbial Thinking

I was looking at the first chapter of one of the leadership books we use in the seminary and it was going through the various theories of leadership that have dominated from one era to another.  So people used to function with a certain kind of "great man theory," that great leaders were "born not made," that great leaders had certain inborn traits.  But then there was an approach that focused on certain behaviors of successful leaders.  Then there was the situational approach, that different situations call for different kinds of leaders. It goes on--transformational leadersihp, authentic leadership, servant leadership, leadership and followership.

Have you ever heard anyone say with a smirk on their face, "Well, that's the way they thought about x in the 90s, but now scholars think/new studies have shown/etc.  Those with a short view of history can ride these waves to their grave without seeing the overall picture this way of thinking produces.  If this is really how it works, then we can never trust the current wave either.  If this is really how it works, then we have to know that the newest "in thing" we are sharing is going to blow away tomorrow.

"Truth upmanship" is annoying.  You know the type, the person who belittles you and glorifies him or herself by knowing the latest thing you don't.  And how annoying is the preacher or scholar who says, "Here's what's really going on here [and that no one but me has noticed]." I don't know who it is, but I heard several years ago that someone who at at that time was a leader in my denomination boasted that he never read anything that was more than 5 years old.  My reaction was that this guy must therefore be incredibly shallow (and of course, does he read the Bible?).  Imagine only to read things that will become "wrong" in such a short space of time.

A long view of this way of thinking leads squarely to the most pessimistic types of postmodernism.  There must not be any truth.  Or it can lead to a certain anti-intellectual fundamentalism.  Nothing but what my parents taught me is true (because fundamentalisms change over time too--the conservatives of my circles who have buns don't look like people in Bible times but the way people did when their movement was born in the early twentieth century).

The key is to begin to think proverbially.  The traits of leaders often are natural characteristics they haves had from birth.  Different situations often require different leadership skills.  Leadership is often as much about whether people follow you as about the leader's intrinsic capabilities.  We don't actually have to choose between proverbs.  It is rather the nature of a proverb to capture a snapshot of the truth that is limited in its scope.

New thinking usually does involve added insight and often does correct the excesses of the past. But there must have been something true about past thinking or people wouldn't have bought it.  It must have "worked" at least in some respect.

This kind of thinking would go a long way toward helping our current political rhetoric.  I listened in on a conversation the other day that ranged about topics like the Wisconsin walk-out, unions, and such.  It was a thoughtful Republican conversation.  One comment was that unions did a helpful thing when they started but they have come to be a hindrance.

Now whether you agree with this comment or not, I sat there thinking that most sides on these issues had a proverb that was true. "Unions can help their employees not get run over by businesses."  "If unions do not allow a business to adjust wages and benefits, they may go out of business."  "A company will just take its factories to Mexico because they don't have to pay their employees as much."  "It is horrible the conditions under which factory workers in other countries often work."

One of the problems with our political rhetoric is that we mistake our proverbs for absolute statements.  Many if not most of the things people say about politics and religion are true in some way.  The problem is that we treat our proverbs as if they are the only truth rather than a picture of one piece of the truth.

If we could learn to see our opinions on such matters as proverbs and be willing to see the truth in our opponents' proverbs, society would vastly move forward.

1 comment:

JohnM said...

I agree very much with your last paragraph but with reference to politcs the problems are:
1. Too many people can't recognize the difference between acknowledging a point and conceding the argument
2. Too many people don't care about about the difference, or even being right - they care about winning, and you don't win by being reasonable
3. In competetive settings such as politics being reasonable IS in effect conceding the argument, at least your opponent will spin it that way
4. Our culture rewards never apologize never explain aggression

So, how can we reward the reasonble and punish the unreasonably aggressive?