I just cannot recommend enough the most recent episode of John Dickerson’s presidential history podcast, Whistlestop: “Recording from the Oval.”
Of course, this is nominally about the reality of what has been said, revealed, and decided inside the oval office and the parallels from today’s scandals to yesterday’s in the time of Nixon.
What the episode is really about—because it’s always grand to decide that for other people—is how presidents and their staff create a system or culture that nurtures the most important resource a president must jealously guard: decision making…or how, sometimes… they don’t.
Some central points that arise:
- Decision fatigue is real. President Obama famously kept it to gray or blue suits to try and focus his decision making energies entirely within his office and the issues that arise there. I tell you what, every Sunday morning I am thankful for a uniform. I’m trying to be present to 300 people and say something meaningful to them that won’t be entirely complete until it has been said… I am glad for traditions that get me off the hook in terms of what I’m going to wear or eat.
- Systems and structures are important because they can reduce this fatigue and focus decision-making. If an issue doesn’t rise to the level of the oval, it should be handled before it gets there. If it does, there should be structures in place that frame the decision and vet the possible implications so that those making the decision have the full picture present before them. (For churches this is often the big challenge: we are not well practiced in asking who should decide particular items, or what they need to know to make the decision well.)
- Finally, this one I’m going to add: connection to a central narrative or, in corporate-speak “culture.”
Grounding yourself in a narrative is a massive boon to leadership because it connects us with a whole host of decisions that may have already been made (or need a revisit!), but also it frames even novel challenges in a character and direction. For church folk, we may encounter all sorts of new situations the early church couldn’t imagine, yet we work hard to find in our practice of discernment the central character of Jesus to guide us: i.e. if you find Jesus cared very little about the purity culture of his time and more about full inclusion and justice for the poor… based on that, how shall we live?
For clergy, (and I hope lay-leaders, too!) this is somewhat built into the gig: ideally, we’re spending a pretty large chunk of our time with our hands wedged in the pages of our communal stories (scripture, tradition, congregation, or otherwise) as church and a people. This sometimes bears reminding so we don’t forget that our leadership falls in that great “generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus.”
For presidents, Dickerson clearly shows, a challenge is in thinking that you are *the fix*, the one person who can solve the unsolvable complexity of the office and the nation that others have not… to complete this thought, you have to cast out much of the narrative that has come before you. Some of what we are living with in our current time is a political class that has rejected any narrative of what their offices, roles, and even our nation have been… In the absence of that narrative, we sometimes see novel approaches, but not often well thought out—well decided—ones.