Why Mitt Romney shouldn’t hide his Mormon leadership

May 14, 2012

This piece is part of a joint On Faith - On Leadership series exploring the Mormon experiences that have helped shaped Mitt Romney’s leadership style, with pieces contributed by prominent Mormon writers and academics.

Even after numerous political victories, years of public scrutiny and gigabytes of press, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney remains an enigma to many. Is he a brilliant businessman or a ruthless capitalist? Is he driven by family values or by personal ambition? Is he a political moderate or a right-wing conservative? Just what kind of leader is he likely to be?

One of the reasons we can’t fully answer this question is that Romney doesn’t speak enough about one of the most formative influences on his leadership: his faith. Yes, he learned leadership theory at Harvard Business School and gained leadership experience founding Bain Capital, running the Salt Lake City Olympics and governing the state of Massachusetts. But fully unraveling Romney’s leadership identity requires delving more deeply into how he demonstrated leadership in his church.

As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can understand Romney's hesitation to talk in depth publicly about his Mormon faith. There exists a deeply held belief in Mormonism that pride creates a vicious cycle where success leads to arrogance, then selfishness, then downfall.

Moreover, I’ve seen such discussions about religion on the campaign trail revert to tautological theological debates and watched as the media, evangelicals or political opponents misrepresent or narrowly focus on isolated Mormon views that obscure the many good things about the LDS faith. In addition, Romney has faced scrutiny from some Mormons for alleged actions as a church leader. Little wonder his rare comments on his faith remain generic rather than personal. 

But Romney’s reticence to openly discuss his Mormon leadership experiences may leave the impression with some that he is aloof at best and hiding something at worst. Finding a way to open a bigger window onto his church service would help voters better understand him as a leader. Ironically, the very part of Romney’s personal leadership history that he seems to be playing down is the one thing that would help him come across as a more authentic presidential candidate and ease deficits some voters see in his electability. 

To be clear, he does not and should not use his presidential candidacy as a platform for Mormon evangelism — defining, defending or preaching his church’s beliefs. He should not be a spokesperson for Mormon dogma. But he should share how his Mormon experiences have influenced him as a leader. 

What candidate wouldn’t want to spotlight a story like the one I heard Utah State University business school dean Doug Anderson tell about Romney, in which Romney opened his home to the Andersons after theirs caught fire, arriving on the scene to help even before the fire department? Or make it part of his regular stump speech that he devoted 20 to 30 hours a week to serving his local congregations as a lay minister, all while holding down a demanding job?

After all, many of the traits and skills that make up the DNA of Mormon leadership — pragmatism, leading as part of a team known as a “council,” and doing one’s share of the dirty work — are universal values. Mormon leaders’ jobs are more about service than prestige. Church members who serve as lay leaders today — there is no paid hierarchy in the Mormon faith — will likely find themselves in less visible roles tomorrow. (After serving as a bishop for six years, and president of a mission for 3 years, I now teach Sunday School to 16-year-olds.)

But despite the fact that Romney’s Mormon leadership background could help to soften his image as a remote and wealthy businessman, he doesn’t seem to fully embrace it. Perhaps it says something striking about our national discomfort with religious diversity that a candidate would sooner pass as cold or corporate than draw too much attention to the religious experiences that underpin his leadership capacity.

As a Mormon, I understand some of Romney’s hesitancy here. I too worry that even when talking about church leadership experiences, Mormon practices could be taken out of context or misunderstood. But I worry more about what happens if someone competing for this nation’s highest office misses an opportunity to demonstrate how much one’s church provides a platform for leadership development. At an even broader level, I’m concerned about what happens if leaders in our country don’t take every opportunity to highlight the very experiences that shaped the best of who they are and what they have to offer.

Whether Romney wins the election or not, this ‘Mormon moment’ provides a chance for Romney to show real leadership — by embracing the idea that no asset, no set of personal values, no part of America that enriches our collective ability to move the country forward should ever be obscured.

Ulrich is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner with the RBL Group. He is also the author of, among others, The Why of Work.

Read more:

If Harvard Business School were a religion, it could be Mormonism

Man on a mission: Mitt Romney in France

How the Mormon church teaches priesthood holders to lead

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