A Cry for Leadership
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty,and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Delivered from atop a podium in a desolate Pennsylvania cemetery, on a cold November day in 1863, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. The historic context of the speech is even more remarkable. Offered at a time when our nation was at a moral and existential crossroads, the simplicity, the beauty, the power of Lincoln’s words and the situation which occasioned them are so moving as to belie the President’s assertion that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what was said that day. Every writer, each public speaker aches to pen and/or deliver words like these.
The Gettysburg Address and the Civil War are reminiscent of another turbulent yet equally significant time in our history, i.e., the Civil Rights Movement. The marches, protests, voter registration drives, police dogs, water cannons and Freedom Rides gave rise to another great speech, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream. This too was delivered with such crystal clarity, moral strength and solemn grace and as to change the course of a nation. In both cases, it was moral leadership that led us forward.
These too are the times which try men’s souls, a situation made all the more dire by the absence of authentic leadership. The reason we lack such leadership is simple, i.e., because we don’t deserve it. And the reason we don’t deserve perceptive leadership is because we don’t insist upon it. We instead settle for leaders who simply serve, entertain and comfort us.
Whether tax benefits, subsidies, federal contracts, a military base or a new factory, we want our leaders to give us that which we desire. Pork is fine as long as it serves and benefits our side. If it hurts someone else, too damn bad? After all, we deserve to be served. They don’t.
The trash talking radio and television talk show hosts, gangsta rappers, reality TV stars, clown politicians and conspiracy theorist, provide the entertainment. We perceived them to be leaders not because they solve problems but because of their ability to performance; to act. We thereby confuse tom foolery, absurdity and show business with leadership skills.
And we are made content by those who appeal to our comfortable, preconceived notions. We readily and continually vote against our own self-interest if sufficient appeal is made to our fears and our prejudices.
If we believe that blacks are lazy and dependant upon government welfare, we will vote against anything which helps them even if it benefits us. If we are persuaded that we are victims and that racism obviates the need to work hard and support our communities we will listen to any rapper who feeds into this belief no matter how poisonous the message. If we are convinced that big government is the enemy, we will follow anyone who echo’s this conviction.
In short, we believe only what we wish to believe, no matter how extreme, regardless of any and all evidence to the contrary. And sadly, we will follow those who reinforce our beliefs over any cliff they demand.
Blackacre realizes that it may be too much to ask for trans-formative role models like Lincoln or King. So in the interest of reasonableness, we instead make the following public policy recommendations.
Recommendations # 1: Demand That Our Leaders Adopt an Entirely New Vocabulary. An instrumental piece of music, played by a well schooled musician is certainly a thing of beauty. Words however have meaning. The mix of the vocalist’s power, tempo, control, technique, inflection and styling coupled with the song’s lyrics and the emotions they convey elevates human vocal expression over all other instruments. The most beautiful, the most moving instrument in the pantheon of instruments is therefore not the drums, the saxophone or the piano but the human voice.
If eyes are the windows to the soul then words, terms and expressions are indicative of the heart. Positive, hopeful words expose a positive, hopeful heart. The lexis of Lincoln and King are compelling because of their power to heal, to unite a fractured nation and to move people to forgiveness and greatness.
Similarly, odious, hostile words indicate an odious, hostile heart. Name calling, snide remarks, nasty put downs, hyperbole, shrill over the top bombast and bluster, negative inferences and vile dialogue of the type we witness today, advances no one’s long term interest.
This does not mean that we support censorship. However, the political dialogue would serve us better sans words and phrases that wound, insult and inflame, like communist, socialist, racist, Nazi or subhuman mongrel, even if such beliefs are sincerely held. At times, silence is golden.
We therefore recommend that our political and cultural leaders employ remarks that:
• Are carefully considered and temperate.
• Accentuates the positive while to the extent possible eliminates the negative.
• Diffuses hostility rather than exacerbates it.
• Appeals to the best in us rather than the worst of us.
• Builds rather than destroys.
Recommendations # 2: Select Leaders who Demand as Much of Themselves and Their Base as They do of Others. This recommendation requires our leaders to be honest with themselves and their base regardless of the personal cost. It involves the principled audacity to the take unpopular but necessary positions even if said positions cuts against cherished beliefs.
It is not enough to publicly denounce a Phil Robinson or Cliven Bundy and still court their support, seek their acceptance or adopt their cause. It is insufficient to denounce the conduct of a thug or a gangsta while still excusing their conduct. Being a leader necessitates calling out and policing one’s own base, something many are hesitate to do.
Recommendations # 3: Follow those who Lead by Example. “The Civil War was America’s bloodiest conflict. The unprecedented violence of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg shocked citizens and international observers alike. Nearly as many men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the whole of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands died of disease. Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would be as high as 6 million souls.” In comparison, only 405,399 Americans were lost in World War II.
“Moreover, death is not the only way a soldier can become a casualty. An additional 476,000 were wounded and 400,000 were captured or declared missing. The total number of casualties during the Civil War was therefore 1.5 million.”
While nowhere near as deadly as the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement also required personal sacrifice. The Freedom Riders for example faced beatings, the fire bombings of their buses, mob attacks, arrests and jail terms. During the march over the Pettus Bridge, just outside Selma Alabama, protestors were beaten with clubs, set upon by attack dogs, water hosed and otherwise abused by Bull Connors and others acting under color of law.
These were but a few of the losses sustained by both white and black civil right leaders, the full extent of which may never be known. The men and women of both eras willingly paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.
Which leaders amongst us today are wiling to exhibit such courage? Talk is cheap especially when delivered in front of a microphone or a staged photo-op.
Recommendations # 4: Welcome Leaders who Embrace Reasonableness and Common Sense. Some leaders argue against comprise, adopting an all or noting, scorched earth approach to political/policy issues. However, no one has a monopoly of virtue. No one has a lock on morality. None are completely right and no one is 100 percent wrong.
Naked hatred is not tough love and selective outrage is no evidence of good faith. Spite and intransigence are not the equivalent of strength or commitment to principle and few hate the sin but still love the sinner, their many pronouncements to the contrary.
It is therefore important to venture outside of one’s comfort zone, to move past one’s own political or social bubble and on occasion to listen to the other side of the social/political spectrum. Hence, compromise should not be viewed as a four letter word. More often than not reasonable compromise is the only way to resolve our differences.
Recommendations # 5: Choose Leaders who are Humble. We need leaders who realize that no matter how smart they are, or how smart they think they are, they are no more intelligent than anyone else. The worst thing a leader can do is to believe his own hype.
It is perfectly reasonable is to challenge the process, to ruffle feathers, to make people uncomfortable. This is what leaders do. Nor does Blackacre expect our current leadership to give their last full measure of devotion as did Lincoln and King. Both were felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Nonetheless, we deserve more from those who lead. There are far too many who are mad just to be mad, spurred on in part by those we follow. We must not allow hostility to rule the day. Imagine the state of our nation had Lincoln insisted upon punishing the South rather than welcoming it back into the Union.
This is therefore a call to action, made upon our leaders to be more than they are and to rise above any particular issue or dispute. And since in one way or another, we are all leaders, this is really a demand made upon us all.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO, Blackacre Policy Forum