On Bad Leaders: Thoughts from the morning after


Detail of Arnold Friberg’s painting Young Nephi Subdues His Rebellious Brothers

I was living in England and Scotland during the George W Bush years and his presidency reflected badly on Americans abroad. Eight years after the end of the GWB’s final term, we are still feeling the effects of his lack of foresight, insensitivity, and poor leadership. People in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places paid a high cost for interventions initiated by the Bush administration. From my point of view, it is hard to say that he left America and the world better off than he found it. It is hard to know when people in the Middle East will stop experiencing the negative effects of GWB’s presidency, even though we are now several election cycles removed.

The Book of Mormon, whatever you believe about it, has a lot to say about bad leaders and their legacies. Nephi’s lack of people skills, top-down leadership style, black-and-white thinking, and an inability to find common ground with others lead to generations of warfare and the destruction of his own people. He believed that his close relationship with God allowed him to lecture instead of listen, command instead of collaborate. His intent to follow God was good, but the execution of that intent was a disaster. Nephi painted himself as the victim, unwilling to see and accept his role in family conflict.

We need to hear what God is telling us through this story. I fear that we chose the wrong leader yesterday, a bad leader, someone who embodies the worst of Nephi’s qualities and the worst in America. I don’t know what the options will look like in four years, but I hope that we do a better job of finding resonance with stories of warning, envisioning an inclusive and just future, and distrusting what leaders say about themselves, preferring to evaluate their record for ourselves. Whatever happens, it’s on us.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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4 Responses

  1. Em says:

    Interesting take on Nephi. I’d often questioned what we might be missing by hearing only his side. That’s a good point — the divisions and tribes were as much his doing as Laman’s

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think a King Noah was elected, personally…I don’t know this leader ever even claimed to listen to God. That aside, interesting point about Nephi.

  3. Ziff says:

    Fascinating thoughts on Nephi, Nancy. And I totally agree with you about Trump. He is uniquely awful. I never thought I would say this, but I’m afraid he’ll make us miss GWB and the saner version of the GOP.

  4. I also see Nephi as a cautionary tale from scripture. Through his story, we learn that high principles are not enough. We also need empathy, humility, maturity, and diplomacy.

    Donald Trump has Nephi’s faults, minus the high principles, but I think some of the people who voted him into office are more like Nephi. I know many principled Republicans were upset that someone like Trump was their nominee, but since Trump was successful, I am afraid that the result will be that most will abandon their principles and we can look forward to a future with a lot more Trump look-a-likes in office, and no one upset about it at all.

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