One often overlooked leadership skill is to understand the environment or the culture a leader lives in. In acknowledging the many political and cultural environments that exist, a leader not only “connects” with other people but helps to truly lead others to right decisions in a world of confusion. And the world is confused. We have in this world, no real consensus about anything. We have so many groups that are pro-this and anti-that that; that it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong. This is not a new problem. All leaders throughout history have had this challenge- the challenge of connecting with the current culture (a culture that is constantly changing every few years) while seeing the big picture and understanding what the constants are; what doesn’t change. As leaders, I believe we can become adept at drawing distinctions between the current ever changing culture and the unchanging constants that help to clarify the path we should be on. I believe the first priority in doing this is to understand the difference between relativism and truth.
In order to lay some groundwork for dealing with this issue, I want to talk first about the situation. I think that looking for “The Truth” is the most important aspect of leadership when confronted with cultural issues in today’s world. Unfortunately, our current society wants us to be in a position where we cannot even agree on what truth is and what truth isn’t anymore. We are asked to believe that some lies are actually truths and some truths are actually lies. We are fed this line of reasoning so much that we begin to doubt that there are any truths. So instead of seeking truth, most people have decided to simply give up and allow for everyone to have their own truth. There is a name for this. It is called Relativism. With relativism, we decide to believe that truth is simply relative to each person and their situation and that lies really don’t exist.
So relativism is the thought that everyone has their own personal truth which is relative to their culture, where they live, who they were raised by and influenced by, their personality, gender their economic class and what group they want to be identified with. The thought here is that since we are not of the same culture, gender, ethnic, political or economic background that we cannot really understand each other. But this is an assumption that is really problematic. First of all, it is problematic because the idea that there are multiple truths is logically contradictory. Secondly, it means that stereotypes are the rule because men really can’t understand women. That Caucasians really can’t understand people of any other ethnic background. That opposite sex attraction really can’t understand same sex attraction. As such, this assumption calls for a truly segregated world without any unity. It can’t acknowledge the strength of individuals and asks everyone to be equal in all areas of life.
Instead of believing in a segregated world, I think that our underlying assumption should be that we can understand each other. As the Roman playwright Terence said, “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” If we take this premise that, we can all understand what it means to be human and all the complex experiences and emotions we have as humans then I believe we can come to a better understanding of differences. We need to stop thinking that we cannot understand each other simply because we are different. True unity celebrates differences and common ground and universal human experience. It does not accept others blindly in order to establish a utopia of tolerance that some mistake for unity
The Problem with Relativism
The big problem with relativism is that it doesn’t allow for any truth at all. If everyone has their own truth, then there is not one truth but multiple truths. Thus there are hundreds of truths in an athletic department, thousands in your town and millions in the world. These multiple truths are really not truths at all but simply opinions. Not that there’s anything wrong with having an opinion, but let’s not confuse opinion and truth. Relativism says that it is ok for one person to steal based on their relative situation. Relativism also says it is morally right for someone to kill and for someone to cheat because of their relative situation. It says this because at its root relativism, is not about truth but is about getting rid of objective authority. Relativism only wants to accept one’s own self as the sole authority. In doing so, no one can be wrong about their decisions. The world thus becomes void of any wrongdoing and responsibility. It becomes void of sin and thus any need for morality. It becomes void of judgment and thus need for any objective authority. Eventually it becomes void of any need for God. And when God doesn’t exist, then anyone can be led down any path the devil wants to take them.
So relativism, I believe, comes with multiple problems. First, as the philosopher Montague Brown says, relativism is “profoundly anti-community.” Since individuals can have their own truth, then the only true community you can ever form is one with people whose truth is the same as your own. Thus we are lead to believe that we have to choose what group we will “identify” with. This is a difficult position to believe in since on most teams and in most organization, there exists, representation from multiple ethnic backgrounds, economic classes and cultures. And if we can’t be a community then we also won’t be able to be a team or an athletic family.
A second problem with relativism is that it does not seek the development of a good conscience. While we all have a little voice in the back of our head that tells us right from wrong, relativism is void of the idea that a conscience needs to be shaped and developed or even listened to. Instead, it allows for individuals to determine for themselves their own self-morality. So based on one’s own situation from one minute to the next, someone can determine what is right and what is wrong based only on their own needs. Thus in effect, relativism pretends that each individual’s conscience is infallible. As such, relativism always understands that the end is justified by the means. In that sense it only empowers an individual to do what is necessary for that individual to come out on top. With relativism, nobody is ever empowered to do what is right, only what is necessary for their own good.
A third major problem with relativism is that it doesn’t produce virtuous people. If you believe that there is no right or wrong, then how do you become a better person? There is no real need for athletic virtues such as strength, persistence, good sportsmanship- unless you chose that orientation on any given day. Certainly, Christian virtues such as faith, hope and love are completely unnecessary. Sacrifice for others is only done for what reward exists in it for me down the line. Virtue is thus nothing to be grasped at for a lifetime, but only for a situation.
So what then is truth? If we reject the idea that my truth is mine and your truth is yours and that there are millions of different truths out there, then we should believe in some objective truth that is accessible by all of us despite our differences. This is the truth that comes from God. God is the author of all truth; the author of moral truth, scientific truth, philosophical truth and theological truth. And God wants us to find the truth by looking to Him. Real truth is not found by looking to ideologies contrived by politically minded people who have an agenda.
So how do you find the truth? I think there are several ways. First of all, most truth I believe can be found by the scrutiny of reason since God is the author of reason. Logic and philosophy are our initial guides to finding truth. We know without debate that a square peg can’t fit into a round hole. We know that mathematically certain things add up and other things don’t. We know that fallacies exist and that all arguments are not equal. While the relativist want us to throw out reason and rely on mere feelings, we all understand that some people’s opinions really are more valid than others- that is why we seek the opinion of an architect about building a new gymnasium and not the web designer.
A second way to find truth is to understand that we don’t create truth. As Jacques Maritain, the French Philosopher says, “The human mind does not ‘make’ the truth but discovers it.” In other words, there is a natural order to the world. There is a natural “law” that contains the truth. By asking what the natural law is, we can discover truth. The famous question in this regard is the Euthyphro Dilemma found in Plato’s dialogue. That is; Does God forbid things because they are wrong, or are things wrong because God forbids them? As Catholics, we believe that God forbids things because they are wrong. Activities that run counter to the natural law also run counter to God and the universe that He set up.
Unfortunately, most people assume that man-made political law is the truth. But of course we all know that just because something is legal does not make it right. Just because something is politically correct, it doesn’t make it right. There are too many laws that have been made for the sole purpose of establishing political agendas and not for conveying the truth. Real truth restores and redeems. When laws are made that take away the dignity of a person, they don’t restore people. When ideologies are put forth that contradict the natural laws, they don’t redeem people. When the cultures promote ideologies that are disordered they don’t communicate truth. God made order out of disorder and chaos; He didn’t just simply call disorder normal. And this is what true leadership is all about how we lead people to become to become more “ordered” in their lives. Leadership is not how we simply manage outcomes; allowing a few people to be sacrificed in the process by calling disorder “normal.”
A third way to find truth is found in challenging the status quo. While it is easy to think that following the pack and being a typical heard animal will result in truth because the majority usually rules, I believe that it doesn’t always work out that way. That doesn’t mean that the majority is always wrong and you should always go the opposite direction. It does mean however that we recognize that mere conformity does not rule. None of us are in athletics to promote conformity. Instead, we are here to promote transformation and transformation only comes from promoting truth. We want to transform teams and athletic departments and players. We want to build bigger and better, stronger and faster athletes. We want smarter coaches who build a culture of winning with compliance to standards. What we don’t want, is to simply be .500 in our season and say “we were competitive” despite being singled out for recruiting violations or losing players who got arrested in mid-season. No, what we want is to make more virtuous athletes and people in our institutions. The only way this is truly possible is by thinking critically. Challenging the status quo is not about rebellion but about making prudential judgements that come from making distinctions. While only God can judge hearts, we can and should judge actions and words. It is our duty to do so; not to condemn but to help others to get on the right path. Just as being merciful is concerned more about a person’s future than their past, justice is more concerned with putting people on the right path with more than just mere punishment.
Truth is also found a fourth way, by looking towards the Church and her teachings. The Church through its traditions has a track record of communicating the truth despite all the heresies and secular ideologies that have cropped up over the past 2,000 years. Yes, unfortunately, the Church has been embroiled in its own set of sins and scandals through the years but church teaching has always come back to affirm truth.
A fifth way to find the truth is to consult God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is not a blind leap of faith but rather a prayerful way of gaining clarity and understanding. One of the ways we gain that clarity is simply to look at the fruits of the Spirit and look at the fruits of what we produce. If we as leader preside over a team or athletic department that has produced rules violations and scandals then you can know that there is a lack of truth somewhere in the organization. If, on the other hand, we are presiding over a team or department that has made a strong positive impact on our student body, community and alumni then we can assume there is truth in the system. Thus we need to look at the good fruit vs the rotten fruit we produce to see the truth. And we should be able to look ahead as leaders in order to predict and anticipate the fruit of our decisions; prompting us to act in a manner that has a better chance of producing good fruit. The only way this is truly possible is by each one of us personally living in the Spirit and truly desiring what is good and true.
Finally, truth is Christ. Jesus says that “I am the Truth.” Anything we do that is oriented towards Christ can lead us to the truth. As Fr. Larry Richards from EWTN says, “always seek the truth, and that will lead you to God.” Of course the opposite is true also, Always seek God and His will, and that will lead you to truth. And for the Catholic leader then, Christ is the truth and also the authority. To find this truth, we need to spend some time listening to the Lord and living in communion with Him. The church is organized in a way that helps us with this. Through the church we are invited to the Supper of the Lamb. We are invited to reconciliation during confession. We are invited to a shared truth in our sacramental marriage. We are made sons and daughters of God through our baptism and have a more full presence of God in the Holy Spirit with Confirmation. Finally, we have an intellectual assent to the Lord through the church’s dogmas and teachings. In all of these ways, we are lead to discover the Truth in Christ.
The bottom line is that if we seek to truly be leaders, we must also seek truth. We are not called to lead people into self-destruction but to transformation. If we seek truth as leaders, then, and only then, will we have a chance to help others overcome confusion. So whether you are the team leader, the coach, the athletic trainer or the manager, seek what is true. Look for truth in situations based on reason and valid professional opinion. Seek what is true based on challenging the status quo to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Seek what is true based on the natural law, seeking the dignity of others in order to become a community, a team and a family. Finally, open yourself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and follow Christ; for he is the Truth, the Way and the Life.