"Don't go left, don't go right, go deeper." This has been the longtime mantra of Jim Wallis and his organization Sojourners, a Christian social justice group that he presides over and helped found in the 1970s. Today Wallis is a leading voice on the intersection of faith and politics, one often known to counterbalance the religious right (though he himself doesn't identify as liberal).
Wallis is the latest interviewee in The Washington Post's ongoing "On Leadership" video series, which explores the personal experiences that have shaped prominent figures' character and views of leadership. Watch the video above, in which Wallis shares a story he usually never tells — that of growing up with an debilitating stutter before making a career as a public speaker.
The longer conversation with him on leadership, edited lightly for length and clarity, follows below.
Q. How have you come to define leadership?
A. You have to ask yourself, is leadership about power or is it about authority? They’re not the same thing. Pharaoh had the power, Moses had the authority. Pretoria had the power, but Nelson Mandela had the authority. The authority to lead is often outside the walls of power.
I think Nelson Mandela had such moral authority because he had 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Mandela went in full of leadership gifts, but spiritual formation I think is really essential to providing leadership authority. It’s not necessarily religious; it’s about being quiet enough, long enough, to go beyond your skills. Skills are less important than sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice for? What do you believe in enough that you’re willing to give your life to it and for it? That’s really what leadership is—changing the world.
I taught at Harvard. Students often want to start at the fourth rung on some ladder of success, with six figures. Okay, that takes skill. But it’s not leadership. Leadership for me is what’s going to make the world different and better. When I speak to students I say, don’t let people squeeze you into their mold by saying, “You’re so smart, you can run one of the niches of the world.” You’re smart enough to change the world, not just run it or manage it.
Decide right now one thing you’re going to do that’s going to cost you something. Because changing the world costs. It’s not easy. It requires sacrifice.
Q. What was your first job?
A. The very first job I had was cutting grass. I had a little grass cutting business in my neighborhood and I chopped logs for firewood.
Q. What early personal experiences shaped your views on leadership?
A. The most important things I’ve learned about the world are from being in places I wasn’t ever supposed to be — or being with people I was never supposed to meet. I grew up a white kid in Detroit. White world. White church. White neighborhood. I began asking, why do we live this way in white Detroit? I was hearing things in the news about this minister in the South named Martin Luther King, whom nobody wanted to talk about. I got kicked out of my white church over raising the issue of race, and I began to go to the black churches. The rest of my life came out of crossing those boundaries.
The first time you’re put in jail and the door locks, and all of a sudden you’re on the wrong side of the law for protesting South Africa or Vietnam or something, your world view shifts. I’ve learned ever since, the more I can put myself outside of the boundaries I’m supposed to stay in, the more I learn about the world.
Most leaders lead other leaders — elites lead elites. And most have really little idea what’s going on in the rest of the world, the real world where people struggle just to survive. That’s a lesson for leadership, because your world view is really important as a leader. And if your world view is shaped only by knowing what elites see and experience, then you won’t be able to lead in the world.
The view is very different when you’re looking from the bottom than from the top. And most leaders end up on top, the world thrusts us to the top. I was giving closing remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, and I said: “We’ve talked a lot here about the excluded, and I’ve been glad to hear that. But remember, we in this room are the most included people on the planet. How we the most included reach out to the most excluded is the moral test of our leadership.”
Q. How have you seen your own leadership style evolve over the years?
A. Of course when you start, you think leaders are the ones who come up with a new idea or frame something in a way that changes the conversation. For me, that idea was: God is personal, but never private. My vocation is about how faith is public. That was the big idea I had, and how Sojourners got started.
At first you think these are all your great ideas. Then as you get older, you realize that you have just found something that others have found before. I’m more humble now.
I have plaques and awards, and I used to have them in my bathroom so I wouldn’t take them seriously. Now they’re in my workout room in the basement. Those things are really dangerous to you. They’ll make you forget what your work is supposed to be about. When the world says, “You’re important, you’ve got influence,” you begin to be full of a sense of your own power and you lose this notion of moral authority.
Here in Washington, D.C., it’s all about access — who calls you, how fast they return your calls, who you know, the names you mention at a party. But access is illusory. It’s seductive. Access for what? That’s the question.
Q. I’m curious about the leadership challenges you’ve come up against while leading an issues-based organization in Washington that’s not clearly defined along Republican or Democratic lines. What trouble have you had getting people to follow you, and listen to your voice on topics, when there isn’t an easy shorthand for categorizing your work?
A. In this town, everything is left and right, liberal and conservative. But left and right are political categories, not religious categories. And when religion tries to fit itself into those categories, it gets distorted. This town is entirely short term, and moral questions are always long term. So I often struggle with how the left and right are political categories that even deny each other what their strengths are.
The most important conservative idea is personal responsibility. The best liberal idea is social responsibility. These ideas need each other desperately, and yet they are at war. The wars in this town keep us from seeing even the best intuitions of our opponents. Washington, D.C. has lost the idea of the common good. It’s about my party, my career, my money, my power. There is almost no sense of what is good for all of us.
Q. You've wrestled with handling controversial topics yourself. In the past, people have put pressure on you to clarify your position on issues like gay marriage. What do you think is the right way to respond when the public wants a declarative statement that a leader or organization isn't ready to give?
A. Often these issues are so controversial because very narrow perspectives are at war with each other, rather than looking for common ground. For example, I think the real issue is that we’re in danger of losing marriage, particularly in poor communities. That’s a serious question for the wellbeing of society, and yet both the left and right act like the most serious question about marriage is gay marriage. I don’t believe that’s true. I think the most important question is how we restore the idea of a covenant relationship between two people.
I’m supportive of same-sex marriages as a part of strengthening marriage, but I don’t hear the left or the right talking about it this way. So how do we find common ground for the common good when, on both sides, it’s just about winning and losing?
Q. Do you think that organizations should avoid controversy?
A. We shouldn’t avoid controversy. We should avoid falling into a framework that’s often unnecessarily narrow and conflictual. We need to look for the moral narrative underneath the political battle lines. The faith community has to not just take sides in Congress, but ask how we move beyond this stalemate and get to solutions that really make the common good better.
Q. Any suggestions for how business leaders in this country can engage in meaningful ways on social issues? A lot of companies seem to hesistate to do so out of fear of public backlash. For example, the CEO of Mozilla stepped down because of public outcry over his views on gay marriage.
A. Leadership out of fear often takes us in very bad directions. Leadership out of courage opens up other possibilities. I’m actually encouraged by a lot of CEOs I’m talking to these days. I’m hearing them talk about a values economy, and they’re talking more deeply than just about the minimum wage. For business to serve the common good is actually better for business in the long term. Without a moral framework, economist Joseph Schumpeter said, the market ends up not working and devouring even itself. So I’d say courage is an important leadership quality that has to replace our fear.
Q. What's your best piece of leadership advice?
Trust your questions, follow them to where they take you, and be willing to speak up for what you believe. In the end, your own integrity is the most important thing to your success.
Jim Wallis is the president and founder of Sojourners and the author of several books, including The Great Awakening and On God's Side (its revised paperback version, The (Un)Common Good, will be released June 3). He is also chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Values.
More conversations from the series: