Aaron Sorkin’s creations (“The West Wing,” “Moneyball,” “The Newsroom” to name a few) have a common thread. Their lead characters each possess a ‘transcendent ideal.’ That is, they each have been captured by a vision of what “could be” and can no longer tolerate the status quo. Therefore they fully invest themselves in what they are trying to accomplish.
For example, in “The Newsroom,” a fictional news anchor decides to simply tell the truth. He desires to report the news without compromise and allow his integrity to frame the public discourse. Here is an excerpt of NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross interviewing Aaron Sorkin.
SORKIN: I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that’s usually looked at cynically, the way journalism is now, you can get something fun out of it.
GROSS: Why do you like writing idealistically? Another example of that would be “The West Wing.”
SORKIN: Sure. It suits my style. I like writing about heroes that don’t wear capes or disguises. It’s aspirational. You feel like, gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world. Why can’t that be the real world?1
Sorkin’s shows are popular because his characters aspire to a transcendent ideal, calling people out of circumstances beleaguered by compromise, and into a higher standard of behavior.
Whom Shall I Send?
Of course, the transcendent ideal is just that, an ideal, without someone to carry it into reality. Sorkin’s lead characters are not afraid to speak boldly about their transcendent ideal. Their commitment to living out that ideal, and making a stand for what matters in their world, transforms those around them. Viewers connect to Sorkin’s fictional characters because we are moved by leaders who cast a vision, live it out, and lead others into that future. That calling toward a life lived according to a valued ideal is foundational to transformative leadership.
Transformative leaders exhibit courage, authenticity and agency driven by their inner moral character. They measure leadership success by their ability to be aligned with their inner character, not just by their external results.2 Anyone can get results. Hitler got results. There is a powerful distinction between a leader who gets results by any and all means and one whose leadership is infused with a higher purpose at every level.
Risk, Suffering, and Counting the Cost
Transformative leadership is difficult. It involves risk and suffering. Anything worth having does. It involves a certain relationship with the future, a relationship well-known by people who partner with someone for life, bring children into their lives, who farm, and just live life. Like Moses, transformative leaders drink from wells they didn’t dig, and lead to promised lands they do not get to see.
Church leaders have an enormous task. They are the heroes without capes who lead primarily volunteer organizations. That means clergy lead without the leverages of the corporate sector. They can’t fire those they lead. They do not have the option of demoting, giving a poor performance review to, or firing (can you imagine?!) their congregation members. They are taught all the skills for ministry and none of the skills for leading people toward a transcendent ideal. Seminary education becomes obsolete the minute clergy are faced with leading people through transition and change. There is a gap between seminary and leading the local church. Change leadership, group dynamics, power and conflict, culture, leader self-awareness, team building are just the beginning of what clergy need in their tool kit if they are to close the gap between what the church professes and what they live out. Imagine the possibility. Imagine the promised land. Imagine having the knowledge, skills and ability to make real the transcendent ideal.
1 Terry Gross and Aaron Sorkin Interview on Fresh Air, NPR.org. Accessed July 16, 2012. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=156841165
2 Kevin Cashman, Leadership From the Inside Out: Becoming A Leader for Life (Provo: Executive Excellence Publishing, 2001) page 21.