People hunger for leadership. Particularly, in democratic and free societies, we want our leaders to be able to use words and arguments to shape the thoughts of the people and to call us toward mutual commitment and sacrifice. These sorts of persuasive leaders are evident in the past. Reading through the Lincoln Douglas debates recently, I was stunned by the depth of their debates compared to the sound bites and talking points of our day. The words of leaders like Churchill, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan shaped the viewpoints and called strong majorities together for a common purpose. Under their leadership Nazism was defeated, we landed on the moon, and we saw the beginning of the end of Communism. Considering this great list of accomplishments, we need to ask, “how can we raise up leaders like this in the future?” Leadership as persuasion is a learned skill—a discipline if you will. It has many facets, but the ancients knew that one of the most important aspects of leadership was learning to use words to shape and guide the opinions of others. Omnibus discussions are great times to practice the virtues needed to lead and persuade others. Here are three ways Omnibus discussions can help us acquire and practice the skills needed to think and lead:
Have you ever had the misfortune of jumping in during the middle of a discussion and found yourself saying something that has already been said? I have often done this. Sometimes it is really embarrassing. You think that you have something that will move the discussion forward, perhaps you even believe that what you are saying is profound. The reaction of the group belies your misstep. There are often rolling eyes or sighs of exasperation. “We already covered that half an hour ago!” someone exclaims. If we aren’t listening to a debate, to the ideas and words of others, we are ill-prepared to try to persuade them. Too often, however, in our culture, that is exactly what happens. As one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry says in his brilliant essay “The Work of Local Culture”, “…at the highest levels of our government there is, properly speaking, no political debate” (Berry, What are People For? “The Works of Local Culture”, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, reprint 2010, p. 168). He does not mean that there will be in lack of “political debates” scheduled on TV for our entertainment; he means that in these “shows” the politicians will not be listening to each other. They will, whatever else they are doing, not be debating.
This fact, that others have stopped listening, can give a great advantage to a student who learns to savor discussion in Omnibus classes. To be persuasive in that group of people, one is well-served by listening to the opinions of others. Our logos, the words that we use, needs to be informed and calibrated by the context provided by the words of others.
The value in listening has three great advantages. First, it provides a competitive advantage. Listening closely can reveal the weakness in an opponent’s argument and provide you with the ability to point out or correct that weakness. This, however, is the least powerful advantage gained by listening. Second, the person who listens shows the group that they are a person who values the other members of the group. That qualifies the listener as someone who might be worth listening to and worth following as a leader because it shows the listener to be someone who values people and show empathy. Finally, the greatest advantage the listener has is that they might be convinced in part or in whole by the words of another person. This can do two priceless things for the listener’s argument. First, it can help the listener avoid making a foolish incorrect or harmful argument. Second, if the listener is partially convinced by the argument of his or her opponent, listening can help them pair down or rearrange his or her argument into its best possible and most convincing form. It is crucial to listen before you speak and the Omnibus discussion is a great place to learn the value of and practice this skill.
Listening to others helps you to see the value of other peoples’ perspectives. It is important to know not only what the other person says, but why they are saying it. Someone might be arguing for something that you really believe is wrong, but they might be motivated by something that has value. Imagine someone who is making a strong argument for total equality of the sexes in all areas. Confronted with this argument, I might jump to areas where I disagree with this thinking such as, women serving in combat on in the pastoral ministry of the church. Omnibus discussion would teach us, however, to understand the other person’s perspective before we jump into combat. Imagine a discussion like this one, think about what could come from listening instead of leaping into conflict. The other person might open up about her history growing up in a family where there was abuse and where her father abandoned the family. Her mother might have faced discriminatory practices that meant that her hard work was less valued. In that discussion, hopefully, winning the debate would need to be linked not only to making valid arguments or quoting scripture but to empathizing with someone who came to his or her convictions for reasons that make sense and that need to be accounted for in any case you make.
Aristotle tells us that there are three parts of rhetoric: logos, the words we use; pathos, the feeling behind those words; and ethos, the character others believe us to possess. Too often in our day, logos and pathos take center stage. We often are listening to arguments of people whose character we do not know. Aristotle maintains that ethos is by far the most important part of rhetoric. If we are going to be convinced by someone, we need to believe that they are a person of good character making his or her argument for good reasons. Omnibus discussions teach us, because we are working to persuade people we know, to be the kind of people that others who know us well would respect and listen to. Learning this lesson, and being a trustworthy person is a great lesson for future leaders to learn early.
Success is all about practice. The great basketball coach John Wooden, “The Wizard of Westwood”, started every year by teaching his championship teams how to tie their shoes. Vince Lombardi started each season by telling his world champion Packers players, “This is a football.” Often, the fate of lives and nations is decided by leaders being able to persuade and lead. Omnibus discussions are a great way to begin to practice those skills. They teach future leaders to listen, to consider the point of view of their opponent, and become the kind of person that others will trust. If we use Omnibus discussions to foster these virtues, perhaps we can prepare the young men and women around out tables to be ready to lead and persuade others toward good and godly ends in the future.
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