This is the third and final post in a series on the Rev. Dr. Peter Steinke’s work. Click on links for Part 1 and Part 2.
Pete Steinke authored fourteen books, and at the time of his unexpected passing in July 2020, he harbored plans to write a few more. As I’ve detailed in the two previous posts in this series, Pete was not only a pastoral colleague and good friend of mine, but also a writing mentor. He was one of the most well-read persons I’ve known. An old schooler, he’d cut out periodical articles or copy important sections in books on the two topics I’ve written on – the interplay between inequality and egalitarianism, and restorative justice – and send them to me via the US Mail.
Every mailing offered new insight, just like conversation with Pete did.
He accumulated an expansive share of wisdom in his eighty-two years, and fortunately for us, much of it is distilled in his last published work, Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Two of his gifts were synthesizing varying ideas into the same space and adaptation of those ideas to current contexts.
All of his previous books were written for church folks, and, especially after his introduction to Bowen family systems in the mid-1990s, focused on leadership. With Uproar, however, Pete desired to take his well-honed theories on human behavior and his experience as a church leadership consultant to families, groups, and organizations beyond church walls.
Uproar surprised me when I first read it. I was familiar with the main ideas – non-anxious presence, narcissism’s erosion on a leader’s abilities, self-differentiation – these weren’t the surprise. Pete took on the big pink elephant in the room, and I was pleasantly surprised that his new publisher didn’t stifle his voice. The big pastel pachyderm was and is the leadership exhibited by the 45th president of the United States.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump is not the main focus of Uproar, but his narcissistic style of leadership – the need of an adoring audience, the use of lies and misinformation, the inability to suffer criticism – is something Pete saw multiple times in large-egoed pastors of congregations mired in deep conflict.
Pete writes that like some of these narcissistic pastors he observed, Trump is a master artist and that his admirers are model enablers. “Narcissistic functioning is a systemic problem . . . The system is composed of two needy parts, each dependent on the other. This system exists where a self-absorbed and charming leader becomes the object of others’ devotion.”
Chapter 9 of Uproar delves into the Greek mythological tale of Narcissus. Pete reminds us that Narcissus admired his own image in a pool but despaired because he couldn’t possess the image at which he unceasingly stared. Distressed, he eventually fell into the pool and drowned, never to be seen again.
From pages 98-99 of Uproar: “We have been witnessing a strong measure of narcissistic functioning from Donald Trump. When someone has to use hyperbole to magnify achievements, exaggerate numbers beyond reality, and boost self-importance at the expense of others, the person displays a weakness, an immaturity, and a low sense of self. If these behaviors were true of our children, we would be worried about their level of self-esteem, no less their mental states.”
Reinforcing supply – adoration, fawning, praise – keeps a narcissistic leader in power. In this type of a system, there is little differentiation between the adorers and the adored. This is why Trump could get away with, as he arrogantly claimed before being elected, shooting someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City. None of his ardent followers would hold him accountable. They are fused together in lock-step.
This type of leadership doesn’t perform well during emergencies, much less during crises. Why? Because of the worst tendencies of group-think. Zero space between a leader and his or her minions, literally, leaves no room for options or solutions that originate outside of the leader’s own perspective. To wit, Trump’s leadership is severely hindered by his obsession with loyalty. He rejects the advice of experienced institutional leaders – whether epidemiologists, diplomats, or military – who show him no loyalty. They have to “fuse” with him. If they don’t, Trump marginalizes or fires them.
In Uproar and his other books, Pete consistently advocates for “self-differentiated leadership.” Such a leader is not a reactionary, stuck in survival mode. A differentiated leader – Ernest Shackleton, the captain of Endurance, is the consummate example – uses the neo-cortex brain region that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom to reason, to think clearly, and to communicate effectively with others to overcome obstacles. Courageous, principled and calm leadership – coming out of the space created by differentiation – is the type of leadership most especially needed during times of uproar.
Peter Steinke leaves a legacy of superior writing on leadership. May we who lead – whether large institutions, small businesses, or families – do so with courage and humility, self-awareness and responsibility, and a clear-eyed commitment to the values inherent to our missions.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”