Transformational Leadership, Books, and Politics: An Interview with Allison Ball

by Frank Thornsbury

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Good leaders are also good readers.” Well, look no further for evidence of this truth than the life and career of Allison Ball, Kentucky’s state treasurer and the youngest female constitutional officer in the United States. She’s no stranger to the pages of an inspiring biography or a tangled spy yarn or the Book that matters the most. Indeed, Treasurer Ball herself seems to share certain qualities with the protagonists she admires. Talk to her for only a minute and you’ll find that she’s optimistic, always moving forward, and completely committed to her faith and to the knowledge that God is in control of the narrative. Needless to say, we appreciate her taking a break from her characteristic brisk pace to discuss issues related to faith and politics and culture.

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Frank Thornsbury: Madam Treasurer, again, you are the youngest female constitutional officer in the United States. How did you get to this point?

Allison Ball: I really think it’s evidence of how God has worked in my life, because it’s unusual to have a person at such a young age in this position. I had experiences early in my career that now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see were instances of God placing me in certain positions. I was a public prosecutor for four years, which taught me how to stand up for things and to think quickly. That wasn’t a job I expected to take, but it turned out to be an excellent training ground. Then I ended up practicing bankruptcy law, another unanticipated turn. But, again, this was great training for becoming treasurer. You know, Oswald Chambers talks a lot about God having a hand in our circumstances, and I think that’s true. The process leading up to this point was a series of little things where God was preparing me.

F: You mentioned Oswald Chambers. Are there other Christian authors or apologists who have influenced you, specifically in how you bring your faith to bear in public office?

A: Yes, absolutely. On a personal level there are several authors that I have relied on heavily. G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, for instance, have meant a lot to me. Their writings helped ground me in solid Christian thinking. As far as my public service is concerned, John Pollock’s biography of William Wilberforce stands out as an influence. Wilberforce’s life is such a wonderful illustration of how God can use someone in public life. He lived at a kind of a turning point in England’s history. There was a lot of decadence in the culture at that time. People were religious but they didn’t take it seriously. But William Wilberforce had a genuine relationship with Jesus. He thought about going into ministry, but felt like God was calling him to public service. And, of course, God used him to stop so much of the slave trade in the United Kingdom. He brought morality to a legislature that was sort of blasé toward such things, as if no one really did that anymore.

F: I agree. Wilberforce is a great example of what it means to stay faithful in the midst of great opposition. G.K. Chesterton was another giant when it came to living out his faith publicly. How has he influenced you?

A: First, he was a great thinker. What I love is that you can see his progression from anti-Christianity and liberalism to orthodoxy. Anytime you can see someone who is very intelligent, who starts off cynical toward the gospel, and then changes and accepts truth—that’s always inspiring. Chesterton has been one of the most profound influencers on the way I think. And, you’ll be interested in this point, I find his fiction more challenging than his non-fiction.

F: Interesting. Challenging in what way?

A: The insights into society and human nature in his fiction are profound. I think you actually pick up more about the way he thought from his fiction than from his other works. His non-fiction is brilliant. But The Man Who Was Thursday, The Club of Queer Trades, and The Man Who Knew Too Much are fantastic and reveal something about Chesterton that isn’t found in his non-fiction.

F: Are there other authors of fiction that have influenced your thinking?

A: Yes! There’s a Scottish writer named John Buchan who is considered the grandfather of the spy novel. He was a strong Christian, and actually became the Governor General of Canada. He was a lawyer and a politician. It was his fiction that gave me a strong sense of God’s direction in life. He was a Calvinist, so there’s a certain theological subtext to his work, but reading him as a teenager gave me confidence in seeking God’s will in various areas of my life.

F: Is there one work of his that you might commend to our readers?

A: Yes, you need to go read The Thirty-Nine Steps.

F: Very good. I think I’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation.

A: Well, the book is completely different, and much better. Go read the book!

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F: (laughter) I will! Anyway, getting back to your biography. What have you learned about government and about being a Christian in government now that you’ve been elected and are now governing?

A: I think what people hear about the bureaucratic morass in government is true. Now that I’m in it and am trying to change it, I’ve been surprised to see just how slow government functions can be. It’s not always responsive to people or to leaders who want to make it more efficient. However, I’ve been encouraged to see that the people within the system respond to good leadership. They respond to someone taking initiative. This is why I think public service has to be a calling, because it’s hard. You have to feel like you’re doing something that God has placed you there to do—in order to get through it, in order to be encouraged.

I guess my primary takeaway is that people respond to leadership and respect. Everyone’s hungry for good leadership. Everyone’s hungry for purpose. So, I think that if a public servant, who has an ultimate purpose, can provide that—even within an expansive bureaucracy—it’s extremely effective. People respond to a person with a vocation. They respond to a person with purpose.

F: To that point, and beyond what you’ve already mentioned, how do you see yourself bearing witness to Christ in government, especially in light of Christ’s prayer for us to be in the world but not of it?

A: I’ve seen, in my short time in office, that if you take your Christian principles seriously, you have to be willing to put them to work politically. I think we have a great opportunity to transform culture by being light in darkness, by being different—because, again, people see that; and they respond to it. I’ve always felt that I need to be authentically Christian in whatever public or private setting I’m in. A lot of times public servants will divide their faith from their political work. And I don’t think that’s the right response for the Christian. I think the same is true no matter what sphere you’re in. Whether you’re an office-holder, teacher, parent, plumber—whatever it is—your faith and your work has to be integrated. There’s no division.

F: That’s good. So, you’ve unpacked your concept of transforming culture. Is there a time for Christians to clash with culture?

A: Well, I think our transformation of culture is, in many ways, a clash with culture. Going back to the example of William Wilberforce, if you’re following God’s principles, you might have to clash with a culture that doesn’t follow those principles. But I think you have to use wisdom here. You can’t just go around picking fights. What’s important is that your faith is so integrated with who you are, and that you bring that to bear in your sphere of influence.

F: So, we should clash with culture in as much as that clash produces civilization and creates culture?

A: Right!

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F: Some have said that citizenship itself is a vocation. How does the ordinary citizen engage in this transformation of our political culture?

A: Christians need to understand the huge influence they can have if they actually vote, and if they actually get involved. When you start looking at the numbers, you see that it doesn’t take much to perpetuate change, especially on the local level.

F: Speaking of the local level, how can people get involved in the political process and have an influence beyond Election Day?

A: I think it’s important to note that Christians have a cause that goes beyond any sort of candidate or fad or identity. Our power comes from the power of the gospel. Saying that, you should call or email your representatives in government. They actually don’t get contacted a lot.

F: Really? That’s surprising.

A: It really is. If I am contacted on an issue, especially if I get more than one communication on the same issue, I’m definitely going to look into it.

F: What about involvement at the local party or at the local school board or other political organizations?

A: Yes, that goes back to being light in darkness wherever one finds himself. There’s that famous quotation from Edmund Burke that evil triumphs in the face of good men doing nothing. We need good people doing things at every level.

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F: Indeed. Well, last but not least, we’ve spent this entire interview discussing the need for good leadership, the need for leaders with Biblical ethics. What about young people specifically? To the person in high school or in college or to the young professional who wants to be a leader and a culture-maker, what’s your advice to them?

A: Know what you believe. Read good books. Get educated, even if it’s not formal education. If you’re smart and you care and you’re young, you’ll get noticed. And have a good, strong handshake. That throws people off and makes you get noticed even more, especially if you’re a woman.

F: (laughter) Yes, having been on the receiving end of your handshake, and knowing the value of a good handshake, I think that’s a great place to end. Madam Treasurer, thank you for your time.

A: Thanks, Frank. It was my pleasure.

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Frank Thornsbury is originally from Johnson County, Kentucky in eastern Kentucky, where he was involved in local politics for several years. He is now the English program coordinator at Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Allison Ball is from Floyd County, Kentucky in eastern Kentucky. She was elected to statewide office in November of last year. She was married in early October of this year and is enjoying married life with her husband Asa.

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1 Comment

  1. As a professor of communications at The University of Arizona my mother started her class on Professional Presentation by teaching every student the value and propriety of the handshake. Allison is right in noting its value. There are actually seven judgments made in the first 7 seconds of meeting another person and one of those is related to our judgment of their handshake. Allison’s good judgment is certainly revealed in her appreciation for great Christian worldview authors like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I echo her encouragement to every citizen to get involved and to bring their Christian worldview to bear in the public square. Although I’ve contacted my senators and representatives, I’m certain I’ve never contacted the treasurer of my state about anything! She’s right in pointing out that should change. Thanks for this timely and faithful interview.

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