Cultivating a Leadership Virtue
by Hans Gustafson
Consider the following scenarios:
- The company picnic serves only bratwursts and hot dogs as its main course.
- The hospice care facility admits its first Buddhist patient.
- Sixteen Muslim employees abruptly resign citing religious discrimination leaving a company with a worker shortage and a threatening lawsuit.
- An office bars workers from praying and then fires them, inviting a costly lawsuit.
- Public pool establishes women-only hour in an effort to accommodate Hasidic Jewish women and Muslim women, only to draw complaints of violating freedom and equality.
- A nation’s agriculture minister suggests boosting pork exports to the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population.
The term “wherewithal” is a curious word, especially given the fluidity with which we use (and abuse) the English language today. The term has been in usage since the 16th century and can now function as a pronoun, noun, conjunction, and perhaps more. It was likely originally used exclusively as a conjunction bringing together “where” and “withal.” The most current usage of the term is as a noun to refer to “the means or resources one has at one’s disposal,” most often referring to financial resources.
Here, I propose a particular usage of “wherewithal” set within the context of interreligious encounter. I aim to capture its spirit to articulate a certain posture, approach, or attitude in our world of increasing religious diversity, especially when we find ourselves in (inter)religiously complex situations, like those bulleted above.
While retaining the essence of the word, which I understand to be “possessing what one needs to make something happen,” the term can be used to connote being present in a particular place and time (one’s specific context) with others; that is, where-with-all. This is obviously a departure from its historic and intended usage, but no less instructive. In this sense, having wherewithal means to be aware of, and sensitive to, the needs, concerns, and desires of others – particularly those not regularly or adequately seen or heard. Truly being with-all of them is to remain conscious of their needs while having the foresight to surmise how particular actions might produce particular consequences down the road.
However, awareness and foresight are not enough to qualify as the virtue of wherewithal. It also requires the ability to do something about instances where such awareness and foresight are lacking and to lead others to do something as well. In this way having wherewithal is, in essence, a leadership virtue.
Wherewithal, as defined above, is having both awareness of something (e.g., a problem, tension, conflict, or opportunity) and the ability to do something about it. Therefore, “interreligious wherewithal” is the virtue of being aware of potential tensions or opportunities in (inter)religiously complex situations and having the skill to do something constructive about them through thoughtful action and leadership. Cultivating interreligious wherewithal entails developing this virtue within ourselves and in others in service to our communities, places of work, governmental agencies, and beyond.
Those with interreligious wherewithal will recognize the potential problems with serving only pork products at the company picnic; they will be aware that many Buddhists have different beliefs about death and end-of-life care and that these might conflict with the standard practices of Western hospice providers; they will foresee the implications of not providing adequate religious accommodations to employees; they will be able to navigate the complexity in the aftermath of perceived preferential treatment based on religion; and they will have the interreligious wherewithal to know and understand the circumstances of selling particular products in regions dominated by particular religious and cultural beliefs and practices.
Like any virtue, interreligious wherewithal is cultivated over a lifetime, and the process is never finished. In my work as director of an academic center for interfaith learning and a professor teaching (inter)religious studies to undergraduates, I have the honor to engage with and learn from college students and members of the general public from many professional fields, backgrounds, generations, cultures, and traditions. As our cities and towns continue to become more religiously diverse, cultivating interreligious wherewithal will become increasingly important for our personal and social flourishing at home, in community, and at work.
This article was originally published on November 16, 2017 by State of Formation
Header Photo: Pixabay