The Great Man Fallacy

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. Once again this week, lots of typos and errors in the text, which I didn’t have time to correct.


The first reading was from the essay “Where Is the Love?” by the poet June Jordan.

“…Virtue is not to be discovered in the conduct of the strong vis-a-vis the powerful, but rather it is to be found in our behavior and policies affecting those who are different, those who are weaker, or smaller than we. How do the strong, the powerful, treat children? How do we treat the aged among us? How do the strong and the powerful treat so-called minority members of the body politic? How do the powerful regard women? How do they treat us?

“Easily you can see that, according to this criterion, the overwhelming reality of power and government and tradition is evil, is diseased, is illegitimate, and deserves nothing from us — no loyalty, no accommodation, no patience, no understanding — except a clear-minded resolve to utterly change this total situation and, thereby, to change our own destiny.”

The second reading was from the Christian Scriptures, the Good News of Mark, chapter 9, verses 33-35. This translation is from “The Five Gospels,” translated by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“When [Jesus] got home, he started questioning [his followers,] ‘What were you arguing about [while we were] on the road?’ They fell completely silent, because on the road they had been bickering about who was greatest. He sat down and called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be “number one,” that person has to be last of all and servant of all.’”

The third and final reading was from the Talmud, Pirkei Avot 6:5, translated by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein.

“Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than your learning, do! And do not lust for the table of princes. For your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and your Master is trusted to pay you the wage of your work.”

Sermon: “The Great Man Fallacy”

We’re in the middle of a presidential election year, and the Myth of the Great Man dominates our understanding of leadership. I like to define the “The Myth of the Great Man” as the belief that the only way you can have an effective nation, or an effective organization, is if you have a Great Man (can you hear the capital letters?) in the top leadership slot. The Myth of the Great Man explains why Americans place so much emphasis on the election of the U.S. president and congresspeople, yet mostly ignore the role of staffers and career bureaucrats and the other people who do most of the actual work of writing and enforcing our laws. The Myth of the Great Man also explains why the chief executive officers of American companies get paid 671 times more than the average worker, because those companies believe they need to pay big bucks to attract a Great Man as CEO.

I believe that the Myth of the Great Man is just a myth. Actually, calling this a “myth”is a slander to real myths. After all, a myth is a form of truth, whereas this is nothing but a fallacy. Let’s be honest and call it the Great Man Fallacy.

I don’t know where the Great Man Fallacy came from. But I do know that Jesus of Nazareth is commonly misinterpreted as being one of those Great Man leaders. This means there’s a religious dimension to the Great Man Fallacy, one which even infects Unitarian Universalism. I believe the Great Man Fallacy gets in the way of our communal religious life. More insidiously, it also gets in the way of our personal spiritual lives. That’s why I wanted to talk with you about the Great Man Fallacy this morning.

The Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus of Nazareth did not believe in the Great Man Fallacy of leadership. In several places in the Christian scriptures, Jesus makes it quite clear that there is only one being who is great, and that one being is God. Even though many people now believe that Jesus is God, Jesus himself explicitly told his followers that all of his virtues come from God the parent, not from himself. Thus Jesus says (in the book of Mark, chapter 10, verse 18), “Why do you call me good?… No one is good except God alone.” [NRSV]

Not only that, but Jesus quite clearly tells his followers that none of them is any better than any of the others. We heard this in the second reading. The followers of Jesus were bickering among themselves about which one was the greatest. Jesus stopped them by saying that if anyone wants to be the greatest, that person must be the last and least, and the servant of all the others. As I understand this, Jesus’s reasoning is pretty straightforward: If you try to be a leader by being the greatest, you’re usurping the rights and responsibilities of God.

Over time, the Western Christian tradition forgot this part of Jesus’s teachings, as it increasingly relied on a hierarchy where certain men were considered greater than all other men and women. Yet anyone who looked closely at the Christian scriptures could still see that Jesus didn’t have a hierarchical understanding of leadership. Instead, Jesus clearly had an egalitarian understanding of leadership.

In some ways, the egalitarian understanding of leadership continued in the West, not in Christianity, but in rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud makes it clear that the rabbis could, and did, disagree with one other; authoritarian hierarchy is absent. For example, when a man went to Rabbi Shamai and asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi Shamai pushed him away, telling him the Torah was not something you learned in five minutes. The man went to see Rabbi Hillel, who disagreed and said the whole Torah could be summed up in the sentence, “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else,” which you could repeat while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel then said everything else in the Torah is there to explain that one simple law, which requires a lifetime of study, so maybe the two rabbis agreed more than they disagreed. Nevertheless, the rabbis could, and did, disagree. The Talmud carefullygives the opinions of different rabbis, rather than a single answer which you’re supposed to believe is the truth. This is a more egalitarian understanding of leadership.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying things. Western Christianity has also had ongoing arguments and debates. But Christianity is prone to accepting the pronouncements of those in authority as the Gospel truth. If the minister or the bishop or someone in authority says it, then it’s less likely that someone else is going to argue with it. And this has become the norm throughout Western culture. Just as Western Christians are prone to accepting the pronouncements of their leaders without question, so too in the secular West we are prone to accepting the pronouncements of our leaders without questioning them as much as we should. This is how religion supports the Great Man Fallacy. The West was shaped by Western Christianity hierarchy, and now we actually believe that those who have the most prominent positions in society, or the most money, or the most followers — these are the people who are ordained by God to be the real leaders.

You can see how this works in the corporate world. Steve Jobs didn’t consider himself to be the last of all and the servant of all the other workers at Apple; Steve Jobs was the boss man, he was the most important, he told his minions what to do. And we’re seeing this happen with increasing frequency in the political world, as we’re increasingly asked to accept the authority of leading politicians without question.

But the great Man Fallacy also plays out here in our own congregation. The Great Man Fallacy even plays out in our own personal spiritual lives. Let me explain.

We know that according to the First Parish bylaws, and according to centuries of Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is the members of the congregation who are actually in charge at First Parish. The members of First Parish have the power to call a minister, and the members of the congregation can dismiss any minister should that minister not live up to the expectations of the members. (That happened here in 1796, when this congregation dismissed Josiah Crocker Shaw when he committed adultery.) At First Parish, the members are the ultimate authority.

However, as the current minister, I can tell you that once a minister is called, there seems to be a slight tendency for the members to begin deferring to the the minister. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you’re the leader, what do you think?” Actually, I’m not the leader; it’s more correct to say I’m one of the leaders. I’m happy to give my opinion — if I have an opinion on the topic at hand — but I don’t expect my opinion to be taken as the Gospel truth. There are plenty of people here with more leadership experience, and who know far more than I do about many things. I may have my opinions about how the worship service should go, but I defer to the gathered wisdom of the Music and Worship Committee. I may have my opinions about the religious education of our children, but really members of the Religious Education Committee (most of whom are parents) and our Director of Religious Education (who has a doctorate degree in developmental psychology) are far better informed on the subject than I am. I may have my opinions about governance, but the members of the Parish Committee have much greater experience with governing this congregation than I ever will, and so while I might sometimes disagree with them, I am also happy to defer to theme when they know better than I.

The goal of a minister, or any leader, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not to be the Great Man, is not to be the Big Boss. Leaders of Unitarian Universalist congregations should not try to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Individual leaders are not the Deciders, because ultimately the Annual Meeting decides. The buck doesn’t stop with individual leaders, because ultimately the buck stops with the members.

It turns out this is true beyond Unitarian Universalist congregations. Leadership actually comes from all the people in an organization. Leadership theorist Phillip Rost points out that you can’t have good leadership unless you also have good followership. Because they’re in a mutual influence relationship, leaders and followers are constantly changing positions. Sometimes you’re a leader, sometimes you’re a follower. There’s no one Great Man in charge, because leadership is a collaborative process. Leadership involves everyone working together to make real changes that reflect our mutual purposes.

If we get rid of the Great Man Fallacy, this can change the way we do spirituality within our religious community. I, as the minister, may be a spiritual leader, but so are you. Everyone in this room will be a spiritual leader at some point. Similarly, everyone in this room will be a spiritual follower at some time (including me).

If everyone can be leader and follower, this changes how we treat the least among us. In the first reading, poet June Jordan says that virtue is not to be found by looking at how the powerful treat the strong. We learn nothing about virtue by seeing how Elon Musk treats Donald Trump, or how Joe Biden treats Mark Zuckerberg. We discover virtue by looking at how those with some power treat those with less power.

Here’s how that might work in our own congregation. We might ask: How do the adults treat the children? Robert Pazmiño, a scholar and a lay leader in his progressive Christian church, said every committee in a church should have a youth member, someone under the age of 18. As I understand Bob, this means that when your leadership teams include young people, and if those young people have real power and authority, then your religious community can make real spiritual progress. The spiritual progress of a religious community is not measured solely by how long its members can meditate, or how often they attend weekly services. The spiritual progress of a religious community is best measured by how the community treats those who are less powerful.

Our individual spiritual progress can also be measured in part by how we treat those who are less powerful than ourselves. And I also believe that our individual spiritual progress must in part be measured by our participation in the leadership of our religious community. Like any individual spiritual practice, this can feel intimidating. Leadership as a spiritual practice is hard work. Leadership as a spiritual practice means coming face to face with those areas where we fall short.

The members and friends of First Parish are actually quite good at leadership as a spiritual practice. If you’ve been a part of First Parish for more than a year or two, you’ve probably already done some kind of spiritual leadership. Teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, serving on a committee, ushering, helping make lobster rolls, setting up social hour — all these are leadership roles. But they’re not leadership in the mode of the Great Man Fallacy. When you sing bass in the choir, you’re not like Steve Jobs telling everyone else what to do. You don’t go around telling everyone that you’re the greatest, and everyone else has to kowtow to you (especially if you’re a bass). Instead, this is more what Philip Rost describes, where followership and leadership go hand in hand.

This is the kind of leadership that Jesus was talking about when he said the best leaders are servants. And providing leadership through helping others is where the real spiritual growth happens. Take the Property Committee, for example. Doesn’t seem like there’s much opportunity for spiritual growth working on the Property Committee. But if you can lead a project that helps the children in Carriage House Nursery School, or if you can help lead a project that restores the exterior and interior of our historic Meetinghouse — by so doing, you have touched people’s lives, and you will find both spiritual reward and spiritual growth. Or if you serve on the Outreach Committee, and help figure out how to make the best use of the very limited funds at the committee’s disposal, there is both spiritual reward and spiritual growth in that, too.

Or I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own life. In the Unitarian Universalist congregation of my childhood and young adult years, my family always ushered once a month, which may seem like the most mundane thing you could do in a congregation; but looking back, I felt it led to some real spiritual growth, as I learned how to be a welcoming presence and how to represent my Unitarian Universalist community to newcomers. In another example, I feel that teaching Sunday school has led me to more personal spiritual growth than anything else I’ve ever done; it’s also been the most difficult spiritual practice I’ve ever done, and it took me years to get good at it; but the spiritual benefits far outweigh anything else I’ve done. And all these leadership positions — ushering, teaching Sunday school, serving on a committee, and so on — are egalitarian leadership, because we all participate together to make our shared religious community work.

I believe the spiritual practice of participatory, egalitarian leadership can be the most fulfilling of all spiritual practices. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal the world, by using our collective and collaborative power to make the world better for those who are less powerful than ourselves. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal ourselves, by pulling ourselves out of the isolation and loneliness that is so prevalent in society today — and that is the first necessary step towards healing the whole world.