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Arrogance Is Worse Than Ignorance

In 1923 Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter confidently strode into naval history. He led a naval destroyer called the USS Delphy and a flotilla of seven vessels on a training exercise down the coast of California. Hunter was an accomplished man having been an experienced navigator and instructor at the Naval Academy. At the mid-point of their training mission a thick blanket of fog descended upon the ships making it impossible for Hunter to maintain his situational awareness. He made his calculation anyway and led his ship and the entire flotilla into Devil’s Jaw and the rocky Point Arguello shoreline. The force of the collision split the hull of the USS Delphy in half. One by one, the other destroyers followed Hunter’s lead and smashed into the rocks. In all, 22 naval men died and all seven ships were lost. It still stands as one of the worst peacetime naval disasters in history. What is interesting is that Hunter was known for his self-confident decisiveness and what others called his “magic infallibility” to guide his ship. Ascribing deistic qualities to fallible men may be the first sign we’re thinking irrationally but it happens all the time.

There is a great passage in Proverbs that says, “He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is safe.” Dave Barry humorously stated, “When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.”

Confident Leadership

Let’s consider leadership in an enduring institution in American history: the church. Like many kids growing up in the Bible Belt of the Midwest, my first exposure to other leaders apart from my parents was likely church. As a child I was raised in the Southern Baptist, Protestant tradition of Christianity. I was around many great leaders. In fact, my youth pastor growing up was J.C. Watts who was an excellent youth pastor for a bunch of headstrong, mischievous kids. In 2004 when I decided to pursue a seminary education in graduate school I learned that since its inception in the early 16th century, Protestantism has actually multiplied by division. It generally goes like this: A community of Christians comes together led by a pastor, forms a church and when doctrinal or personal disagreements arise as they always do a leader starts their own church or denomination confidently pursuing a better way.

Sidebar Observation

As a result, Protestantism over the years has produced a well-spring of very confident, entrepreneurial pastor-leaders who plant these churches under their own leadership. I’ve had some experience in churches having served as a youth pastor, college pastor, and adult ministries pastor. I’ve since returned to the private sector but in my experience I observed a variety of models. Some pastors determine that they will allow a plurality of doctrinal differences to persist amongst their leadership and remain physically together but one can argue whether they are fully of one heart and one mind with obvious theological disagreements. Still other pastors determine they will quit practicing some beliefs altogether because they are just too inconvenient.

The common characteristic is the pastor-leader’s absolute authority. Many may institute some minor accountability measures but if you really read the church bylaws, in practice and theory they install themselves as the ultimate decision-maker. This is unwise and it weakens the leadership climate of the team but since it remains very convenient for the leader in charge it does not change. It has occurred to me in recent years that this is the part of the protestant expression of Christianity that gives me the greatest pause as a follower of Christ and does not square with biblical Christianity. I’ve observed that Protestantism’s reformation theology and tradition has its roots in a rebellious, divisive branch of Christianity that stridently multiplies churches through division and leads people into the practice of happy-as-a-lark perpetual disunity.

Confidence Should Follow Competence

Overly confident leadership is tragic and viral. Whether it’s a commander of a naval destroyer confidently plodding his own course in pea soup thick fog and leading his flotilla tragically into the rocks or a church leader carelessly and cowardly installing themselves as the ultimate authority over their people. This unfortunate and arrogant trend is spreading and being passed down from generation to generation. We don’t have a confidence problem in America. We have a competence problem.

In a blog post I recommend reading, especially for parents, Lynn Meredith Schreiber observes,

“While 39 percent of American eighth-graders believe they do well on math tests, even the least confident student in Singapore outscores the most confident American student in this realm, according to the 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education. This skewed perspective was mentioned in the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, and is evidenced in schools and college campuses across the nation. “American kids plainly have more confidence,” says Timothy Deenihan, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and father of three daughters who completed the first half of their education in Liverpool, England. “That’s a cultural thing. Americans typically walk into any room – this is the stereotype, but borne out of a truth – and carry themselves as if they own it. Britons tend to apologize to you if you accidentally step on their toes when the bus lurches,” Deenihan says. “In school, it’s really hard to get British kids to speak their mind with any authority. American children, on the other hand, tend to speak with bags of confidence even if they are less knowledgeable.”

So What?

How confident are you? Do you place a higher premium on decisiveness than patience? Do you find you admire more the value of leadership that “makes the tough call” or the kind that reflects, ponders and waits? Do you react or rest? Are you plotting along and not considering that you’re moving in the wrong direction? Perhaps you have determined that confidence and not competence will guide you–don’t assume you’re doing just fine.

Maybe you lack confidence because you lack competence? Good! Gaining competence is easier than reigning in confidence. Make learning and listening a priority and seek venues to apply the things you learn and observe. We need more leaders to be the thinking kind instead of just the doing kind. God help us, we’ve got plenty of cooks in the kitchen that think they belong there and we get to taste these leaders’ delights in office buildings all over the country.

No, our problem in America isn’t leadership that lacks confidence; it’s competence. We can start in our own families, schools and churches by teaching kids to be competent thinkers that may or may not end up in leadership positions rather than assuming that by making them confident they’ll be competent leaders in their homes, community, nation and world.

Ignorance is much easier to overcome than arrogance.

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