Leading Against the Grain

Review of Joe Rigney’s Leadership and Emotional Sabotage

Joe Rigney’s debut book with Canon Press, Leadership and Emotional Sabotage (2024, 108 pages), builds on concepts he has been developing for a while. Accordingly, for readers interested in his thoughts on empathy and courage—with a dash of Narnia for taste—this book will not disappoint. On the surface, it is yet another book about that nebulous and intriguing concept of leadership, intended for leaders of institutions, but as you delve into its pages, the book reveals itself as a timely work of moral philosophy, founded on Scripture, tailored to the hostile circumstances of the Negative World, applicable to anyone interested in living a morally serious life.

Below I provide the following: a brief summary of the book, some reflections on what I found especially valuable, and some thoughts on what I thought could have made the book even better.

Summary of the Whole

The book is divided evenly into two parts, theoretical and practical, each part consisting of three chapters. The first half posits the theory that all society depends upon people exercising good judgment and that good judgment depends especially on the virtue of “sober-mindedness.” The second half explains what sober-mindedness should look like in the home, in the church, and in the world. At just over one hundred pages, this book is quickly digestible while also offering depth and immediate applicability.

Rigney explains in the introduction that his motive for writing Leadership and Emotional Sabotage arose from his interest in another book on leadership, Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Despite Friedman’s valuable insights, it suffers, Rigney claims, from certain errors in theology and anthropology. Rigney’s book purports to correct and supply what is lacking in Friedman’s book by translating Friedman’s concepts “into more biblical language” (p.5).

Friedman’s greatest insight for Rigney seems to be the former’s diagnosis of the problem that plagues our society, viz., a “chronic anxiety” that debilitates people’s capacity for good judgment (p.2). Such a problem is concomitant with the particular temptations of the Negative World and the pressures that Christians feel within it to accommodate orthodox opinions to the fashions of the regime. Rigney departs somewhat from Friedman, however, with regard to the solution on offer.

The book’s point of departure is an explanation from Shakespeare of what Rigney sees as an essential component of a healthy society, viz., “degree… the principle of cultural order or rule or hierarchy” (p.12). When degree is corrupted, all of society suffers. The bridge between a lesson in mere leadership particularly and in moral philosophy generally is the realization that the concept of degree operates at the societal as well as the individual level. Hence it is incumbent upon everyone to pursue and cultivate the character trait of sober-mindedness in order to exercise good judgment, which is as necessary for those in authority to maintain order in an institution as it is for each person to maintain order within his own soul.

The theoretical first half of the book naturally leads to the practical applications of the second half by explaining what degree-maintaining sober-mindedness looks like in the three realms of home, church, and world. Each of the three application chapters contains a list of things to do or not do, be or not be, described in a “how to” manner, though not uniformly arranged in each chapter. The book concludes with 10 brief exhortations that function as a summary of the whole book.

Reflections on Particular Strengths

Leadership and Emotional Sabotage has three particular strengths that warrant attention. It supplies an ample scriptural basis for its claims; more than that it demonstrates a particularly useful way to read scripture; and finally it expands on Rigney’s previous reflections on the concept of empathy.

This book is dripping with scripture. From a comparative word study on sober-mindedness to analysis of important scenes from both Old and New Testaments to exhortations from God’s Word to be oriented by God’s Word itself, this book is a robust argument intended for people of The Book. Those whose minds and imaginations have been formed by the lessons and stories of the Bible will easily make the connections that Rigney draws in his effort to translate—as he says—Friedman’s insights for a biblical audience.

Furthermore, Rigney offers analytical readings of certain scenes from scripture  (e.g., Aaron’s creation of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and Paul’s clever speech before the angry Jerusalem mob in Acts 21) that elucidate his points. Even someone relatively unfamiliar with these scenes could derive benefit from Rigney’s approach in the same way that someone could find value in reading the biographies in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives without knowing much about the personages beforehand.

Finally, Rigney explains what he means by sabotage from the title of Leadership and Emotional Sabotage by tying the concept of sober-mindedness to that of empathy, a topic he has written about before. Just as alcohol can chemically affect our judgment, so too can empathy when “we get drunk on other people’s passions.” Whether from fear of disappointing others or from a desire to please them, we can lose our grasp on the sober-mindedness required to make good judgments. Rigney calls the sin of empathy an “arch-passion” that must be mastered lest it lead to our ruin and harm to those for whom we are responsible (p.42).

A Few Areas for Improvement

There is next to nothing in this book with which I disagree. There are, though, a few things in it I think could stand improvement for greater clarity. First, it is not clear why Friedman is important to the argument in this book. Also at times, the effort to extract as much out of the meaning of sober-mindedness at Rigney does seems a bit forced. Finally, in some places, the advice in this book comes across as rather trite. None of these complaints, however, should be considered disqualifying, and the book as a whole is certainly edifying.

Bringing in Friedman at the beginning in such an important way leaves me a little confused when all mention of him disappears after chapter two. I am left wondering a few things: for one, do I have to read Friedman in order to get the full value out of Rigney’s book, as if he is building on Friedman? Further, if Rigney is working from a purely scriptural (and Shakespearean) basis, should not his analysis of the chaos-causing effects of sin and his arguments about sober-mindedness as the solution stand on their own? Why even mention Friedman at all?

Rigney’s main point seems to be that our capacity for good judgment is affected by our ability to withstand pressures that play on our passions, and sober-mindedness is the state of maintaining good judgment in the midst of those pressures. This point, though, that an essential, dynamic relationship exists between moral virtues such as courage and temperance and the intellectual virtue of prudence is made much more clearly by putting it in those classical categories. It seems simpler and more straightforward to explain why cowards and sycophants cannot easily be prudent. The close connection—bordering on confusion—between courage and sober-mindedness reveals itself in the fact that the last three chapters are entitled—not sober-mindedness but “Courage in the Home,” “Courage in the Church,” and “Courage in the World.” 

Relatedly, I was left curious about the nuance between the more biblical virtue of sober-mindedness (νηφάλεον) and the classical, cardinal virtue of temperance (σώφρονα), especially when I saw them listed right next to each other in a passage Rigney cites (1 Tim 3:2). How might Paul have understood the difference between these two virtues? Aristotle posits from its etymology that temperance is a virtue that—like sober-mindedness—preserves one’s ability to exercise prudence (σῴζω + φρόνησις). Perhaps there is some subtle difference between these two virtues with regard to right action, following from good judgment, that could be teased out in a more thorough comparison.

Lastly, the whole genre of leadership books is fraught with attempts to repackage classical wisdom and common sense as modern novelty and incisive originality. Leadership and Emotional Sabotage is better than most in this regard because it invites us to consider a concept we are somewhat familiar with, viz., sober-mindedness, in a way we probably never thought to do. That said, there is some repackaging in this book. For example, it includes such familiar admonitions as “take responsibility” and “know yourself” (p.46). Moreover, it describes some things with which we are accustomed in ways that seem more complicated and innovative than they may in fact be, e.g., courage as “tolerance for emotional pain and distress” and “willing[ness] to be called ugly names” (p.49). Perhaps repetitive repackaging like this is necessary and helpful—and I have no doubt some readers will find it so—but when included in a book that is marketed specifically on “leadership,” it starts to resemble and lend credibility to a whole genre that, on the whole, could stand to be discredited.

Rigney’s book is a great primer for real-world application of virtue ethics from a biblical perspective. It ultimately encourages readers to strive for what true leadership is at its essence—compelling human excellence—as laid out in scripture, and that is a mission I can get behind and a resource our people sorely need today.

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Clifford Humphrey

Clifford Humphrey received a PhD in politics from the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship in 2020. He is also the director of religious coalitions at the Edmund Burke Foundation.

One thought on “Leading Against the Grain

  1. In commenting on Tucker Carlson’s trip to Russia, Jon Stewart commented on why Carlson was so soft on Putin and so glowing of Russia. Stewart said that while before the world was divided by Capitalism vs Communism, today’s world is divided by woke vs anti-woke. And that the Carlson treated Putin with kid gloves because Putin and his dictatorship is an ally to those who oppose woeness.

    I would modify Stewart’s statement by saying that the world is divided by a conflict between democracy with equality and authoritarianism with hierarchy. We see that division in Europe and even America with our authoritarian ethnocratic movements. And the above article seems to favor authoritarianism with hierarchy. For example, Rigney’s view of an ‘essential component of a healthy society’ is one of the correct cultural order or hierarchy of values.

    When we look at what Rigney says is the problem with empathy in the article cited above, we find what Rigney is objecting to: TOLERANCE. But here is the question, should the Church decide what society should tolerate and what it shouldn’t ? Is Rigney saying that society’s sky will fall should society tolerate what the Church says it should not tolerate? Do we see the Church, or at least Rigney, using fear to try to manipulate society when society tolerates what the Church says it should’t? Do we see authoritarianism with hierarchy in the answers to those questions? To answer that last question, we need to see which sins society is being told by the Church to not tolerate.

    BTW, the difference between empathy and sympathy is found in the presence or absence of the ability to understand what another person is experiencing. That ability is determined by whether one has or has had similar enough experiences with what another person is going through. And in today’s world, where people are becoming less self-controlled, more intolerant, and then more violent with one another, it is difficult to believe that one of society’s weaknesses today is having too much empathy or sympathy. In fact, what is tearing our society apart is the intolerance of some who want an authoritarian state and society where there is hierarchy.

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