Moral Leadership: A Vocation For the Next Generation

Robert M. Franklin

“Spiritual, but not religious” summarizes the religious orientation of many younger Americans.  For years, those who care about theological education have puzzled over the declining interest by new college graduates in parish ministry and pastoral leadership. It has been a time of disruption and heartburn.  If future generations are likely to be less interested in church affiliation and pastoral relationships, will seminaries continue to exist and to what end?       

As a former college president who spent a lot of time with undergraduates, and now a seminary professor teaching ethics, I see an interesting phenomenon among today’s millennials:  There is a growing interest in the vocation and art of moral leadership. This makes me hopeful about the future of our democracy as younger leaders emerge with a passion for building a just society. These rising moral leaders may represent an imperative and an invitation to seminary leaders to generate curricular innovations that are responsive to their leadership needs. Although I’m calling this a new emphasis, for many years the Association of Theological Schools and numerous seminaries have explored and experimented with fresh and creative approaches to cultivating moral leaders who will work as free agents in a variety of settings such as nonprofit organizations and other public-private ventures.  The time is ripe for greater, directed commitments to such programming.

Moral leaders are women and men who possess integrity, courage and imagination aimed at serving the common good while seeking to invite others to join them

Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination, Orbis Press, forthcoming 2020.

I have just completed a monograph on moral leadership that draws from the work I have been doing at Candler School of Theology for the past five years. Moral leaders are women and men who possess integrity, courage and imagination aimed at serving the common good while seeking to invite others to join them

Throughout history, when human communities have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, we have seen examples of women and men with integrity, courage, and imagination emerge to help lead them forward. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah has observed: “In times of national difficulty, when the existing order of things appears unequal to its challenges, Americans have often sought new visions of social life. But when new visions have appeared, they typically have done so not through political parties, as in many European societies, but in the form of social movements…from Abolition to Prohibition, from organized labor to Civil Rights.”1Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton, et.al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 212.

Of course, many of those leaders were ordained clergy. Consider Reinhold Niebuhr, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Prathia Hall and William Barber. Although my undergraduate students admired these role models, they were drawn more to other courageous and imaginative leaders from their cohort who are not ordained clergy. Consider, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who are leading the “March For Our Lives” movement following the tragic school mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter; and Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist who has rallied millions to engage in climate strikes. 

These young leaders follow in the footsteps of Pakastani human rights and girls-education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And these young human rights activists follow in the steps of countless Civil Rights, Freedom Rider, and peace movement student activists who transformed America and the world. These are the moral leaders most likely to shape American public life and our collective future. Some are religious, more are spiritual, but all are searching for truth, meaning and a better world.

Unfortunately, we live at a time when the most visible global leaders espouse values that are at odds with the values of traditional religions and the norms of secular moral reason. Young people are observing politicians in the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea working to reverse the hopeful march toward greater human dignity, freedom, and justice. Some of the representatives of the adult status quo endorse myopic ideologies of ethno-nationalist supremacy, certainty, and control. As these and other adults disappoint, today’s youth are also stepping forward to provide alternative visions.

As these and other adults disappoint, today’s youth are also stepping forward to provide alternative visions. 

In my book and in my classes, I draw on my experiences coming of age on the mean streets of Chicago during the ‘60s; my experience leading Morehouse College, a liberal arts college known for cultivating moral leadership; my experience as a baby boomer preacher and as the father of a son who is both the dynamic pastor of an historic congregation and a Chicago hip-hop artist forging innovations in community and pastoral ministry (Rev. Julian DeShazier). I am proposing that seminaries, along with schools of business, public health, law, medicine, and engineering devote greater attention, not simply to professional ethics, but also to the cultivation of knowledge, aptitudes, habits and skills for moral leadership in and beyond their professional guilds. During my classes, I invite guest speakers from these disciplines to offer their perspectives. Nearly all of them agree that moral leadership may be a topic and a vocation that could attract new students.

There are at least five habits that faculties can and should help students begin to form in the journey to moral leadership. 

First, future moral leaders should be students of the moral life and just society. Curious students need not study classical ethical categories in great depth, but they should show curiosity about foundational topics like justice, power, love, and reconciliation. What do these terms mean? What is the best that has been thought and said about them?     

Second, future moral leaders  should learn to frame social concerns as moral issues that require moral analysis and action. As they examine society and its social institutions and the ways in which assets, wealth, opportunity, and power are distributed, they should ask: is this right, good, fair, and optimal? If not, are there other policy options that have been, or might be imagined?  For instance, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy titled, “Economic Justice for All” (1986) offers a sharp contrast to traditional free market approaches to the production and distribution of goods.2“Economic Justice for All,”  U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, 1986. www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf It is important for future leaders to understand these and many other options to achieving a more just social order.

Third, students should be encouraged to strive to live morally exemplary lives, engaging in exemplary behavior while remaining undaunted by failures and frustration. Moral leaders are often expected to ‘be the change they seek’, whether through speaking truth to power, seeking restorative justice and reconciliation with former adversaries or simply telling the truth and keeping promises each day. The ancient Greeks spoke of such a life as an ‘agon,’ a struggle, a theme that appears in early Christianity (“I discipline my body like an athlete…” (I Corinthians 9:27)) and in Islam (the internal jihad). But, in the face of personal shortcomings, leaders can continue to practice virtue hopefully and honestly, rather than abandoning the journey as inevitable mistakes occur.  As Beckett said, “Ever tried, ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”3Samuel Beckett, Westward Ho (New York: Grove Park, 1984).

Fourth, students should be encouraged to invest in enduring institutions. These are the organizations that will outlive them and extend their values and aspirations far into the future. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of an individual.”4Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays By Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance,” (New York: Charles E. Merrill Press, 1907). Investing in institutions is an obligation, not an option, for a morally serious person. I have faced occasional pushback on this claim from students who are decidedly anti-institution, for now. 

Fifth, after living their best lives, moral leaders ought to aspire to die well, living their values to the end. History offers a tragic list of good people who paid the ultimate price for their moral causes including Jesus, Socrates, Lincoln, Edith Stein, Bonhoeffer, King, Kennedy, Malcolm, Romero and the members of the bible study at Emanuel AME Church. 

Can seminaries play a role in cultivating such leadership? That was the hunch that guided Dean Jan Love with support from the Luce Foundation to establish the James T. and Berta R. Laney Program and Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. The Program honors the legacy of Dr. Laney who served both as Candler’s dean and later, Emory’s president. Later, he became U.S. Ambassador to Korea during the Clinton Administration. During a 2014 travel seminar to Seoul, South Korea, a class of Candler students and I learned that Mrs. Berta Laney was no ordinary ambassador’s spouse. During the Laney’s tenure in Seoul, she joined female protesters on the streets and sent a clear and powerful message that the harms done to Korea’s so-called “comfort women” during World War II must be publicly acknowledged and repaired. 

Both of the Laney’s are moral leaders, and symbolize two vocational approaches. He is ordained and is an esteemed Methodist clergyman. She is a moral agent and layperson who exhibited integrity, courage and imagination in redefining her role as an ambassador for America’s highest values. 

Today, the Laney Program offers classes and sponsors lectures that have featured Angela Davis, Jimmy Carter, and the daughter of Malcolm X.  The program also convenes leaders to explore moral dimensions of public life at a time when America seems susceptible to forfeiting the idea of popular democracy in favor of a strong leader or state that provides security and promises prosperity–what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “democratic degeneration.”5Charles Taylor, “Democratic Degeneration: Three Easy Paths to Regression,” https://neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu/events/uc/directors_lecture_with_charles_taylor/ All of these activities have raised the interest of younger students and that gives me hope. But, I also draw hope from de Tocqueville’s famous observation that, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but in her ability to repair her faults.” 

We owe it to the courage, integrity and imagination of the current generation to help them to learn the disciplines, traditions, practices and virtues that have produced the leaders whom they admire. I hope that many of them will consider leadership in traditional congregations whether synagogues, temples, churches or mosques, but even if their leadership is limited to other public spheres of democratic discourse and justice making, we will all be the better for them.


Robert Franklin is the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, Candler School of Theology, Emory University and a senior advisor to the president of the university. He is a former fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory Law School, and is president emeritus of Morehouse College. He has authored three books with a book on moral leadership coming in Spring 2020 by Orbis Press.