Great Spiritual Leaders

The death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 prompted a global outpouring of both grief and celebration. The modern world had lost one of its great leaders. Mandela’s extraordinary personal gifts generated considerable discussion about public leadership.

Is leadership an innate human quality or can its principles be learned? What constitutes good leadership? Why do some leaders succeed while others fail? Who are the great leaders of our time and how will those who follow them be prepared? Great Spiritual Leaders considers these and other questions by exploring the nature and nurture of ‘leadership’ from a variety of different faith perspectives, looking to the founders of the principal world religions as well as to their contemporary exponents. The contributors to this collection of portraits examine the attributes of influential religious and spiritual leaders across four millennia and almost every continent. They conclude that there are at least five attributes of effective leadership that appear to be crucial for enhanced living in pluralist societies – a commitment to collaborative oversight, the importance of exemplary service, the possession of truthfulness and integrity, a vision encompassing the well-being of all humanity, and the ability to interpret ancient religious traditions in a fast changing world. This book will instruct and inspire those called to leadership wherever that call is experienced.

Subtitled Studies for leadership in a pluralist society, the book also has chapters on founders of world religions such as Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad as well on some contemporary and historical exponents of their teachings.

Among the 16 leaders featured in the book are the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary MacKillop and Confucius. Each chapter is written by a different author, among whom are Anna Halafoff, Mehmet Ozalp, Keith Rowe, Benjamin Myers, and Eleanor Capper.

Two academics from the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University, Seforosa Carroll and William Emilsen, edited the book, which was launched at the United Theological College in Sydney this month. It is published by Barton Books.

In their introduction, the editors say the book emerged out of current discussions on leadership and how leaders might contribute to a good society.

“It had its origins in our conviction that religious leaders from different traditions might have something positive to offer to the debate and might even challenge some popular notions of leadership.”

Participants in the project conclude that there are at least five attributes of effective leadership that appear to be crucial for enhanced living in pluralist societies – a commitment to collaborative oversight, the importance of exemplary service, the possession of truthfulness and integrity, a vision encompassing the well-being of all humanity, and the ability to interpret ancient religious traditions in a fast changing world. 

Abdu’l-Baha

The chapter on ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1844-1921, is written by Dr Natalie Mobini, the Director of External Affairs of the Australian Baha’i Community.

The chapter focuses on his talks and activities during an extended visit to North America in 1912 during which he explained the teachings of his father, Baha’u’llah (1817-92), the founder of the Baha’i Faith whose core teaching is the oneness of humanity.

It describes how ‘Abdul Baha showed outstanding leadership for a pluralist society in his contribution to the discourse on race and racism and also on gender equality.

It relates how he turned down a prestigious invitation to address the US Congress, to abide by a previous commitment to speak to the then newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had come, he said earlier, “to meet the poor, not the monarchs and noblemen”.

The chapter notes how he encouraged interracial marriage, articulated a new set of racial metaphors by comparing black people to sapphires, rubies, violet and roses, and expressed his joy when arriving at racially mixed gatherings: “How beautiful to see blacks and whites together!”

He actively undermined attempts to segregate meetings he attended, and organised a banquet where the black people were served by their white hosts, an astounding event at a time of widespread racial segregation in the United States.

In a similar manner, the chapter says, he promoted gender equality, dismissing the claim of women’s inferiority as “pure imagination”, and saying it was crucial for justice and the progress of humanity that women “participated fully and equally in the affairs of the world.” He said that “until woman and man recognise and realise equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible.”

The chapter says of ‘Abdu’l-Baha: “He modelled for Baha’is the role of a servant leader in a pluralist society” and noted that “his progressive teachings on such subjects as race and gender equality have taken on the status of accepted fact” in society as a whole. 

It says the example he set of service with love and inclusiveness remains a powerful role model of leadership, and is offered to the wider community as one worth considering.

Great Spiritual Leaders can be ordered from : Barton Books

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