Leaders Move to the Front – How Will You?

For almost 20 years I’ve been writing this blog. When I wrote my first book I came to see “everyday leadership” as the simplest banner for my point of view. I have always sought to distinguish authority figures from leaders. You don’t have to have a title to lead. 

I’ll never stop making these three fundamental points. First,  that you can exercise leadership (moral, intellectual, political, or business) without a title.  Second, sometimes you can do more without authority than with it. And, third, that you can only do what you can do. So do it. That “it” you do can be called “leading,” if it genuinely engages others to take on important problems or opportunities. Leadership is not a status you bear, but an activity that you continually repeat. You can lead from the front, to be sure, but you can also support, challenge, or inspire from the sides or the back.

All the while I have tried to make this point, I’ve encountered two problems. First, people continue to think that there is such a thing as the leader. So I have to repeatedly get them to rethink that. Second, I myself am completely and increasingly incapable of denying that the person who is primarily at the front has an inordinate impact on the culture. Parents do. Bosses do. Priests and Rabbis do. And principals do:  My daughter Cece has worked in schools in the New Orleans Recovery District, in Los Angeles, and now in Washington, DC. The schools, measured by teacher and student effort, alignment to the vision, and ultimate student outcomes ranged incredibly among those three schools. One was scandalously inept, another doing its best but stumbling, and the third absolutely extraordinary. When I ask her “To what do you attribute such huge differences?” she replies without hesitation, “school leadership.” The school leader dictates the culture. And, of course, great principals inspire and evoke leadership from all their constituents.

If ever there was a time to defy this seeming “law” of organizational leadership, this pervasive power of the one institutionally at the top, now is that time. Our nationally elected leader authority figure continues to demonstrate defective and divisive values. Trump’s inability to transcend his tribe in order to create a more perfect union – a shared and inspiring vision – leaves so many of us alienated, frustrated, angry.  If you don’t feel that way, I would love your thoughts on this footnote.*

Two fronts for everyday leadership seem clear. One front has already been populated by people who’ve stepped out of the shadows of personal insignificance, apathy, or the seeming security of remaining silent.  I mean, for example:

  • The corporate executives who quit Trump’s committees.
  • The tens of thousands who came out in Boston to dwarf the few.
  • The brave Republican senators who have stepped out and challenged the president’s moral authority. Their “profiles in courage,” as JFK would have called them, have come despite the threats of primaries and the majority of their party who still support the president. They have come from people like Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut who has been baited by Trump and repeatedly by the media to get in the mud, but who has steadfastly turned the attention to the facts and the issues. And John McCain, whatever else you think of him, has proven his independence and love for this country.
  • And yes, the free speech advocates like Richard Cohen, CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the new Chancellor at Berkeley Carol Christ, who remind us of the vital importance of sustaining free speech and allowing the competition of ideas – including those ideas that appear foolish, ridiculous and yes even dangerous  – to reveal what paths make the most sense for us to collectively explore.

Sometimes authorities, when bad enough, release untold amounts of courage and leadership on the part of others. Bullies, whether in the pulpit or on the streets, cannot go unchallenged. History is clear on this.

The second front extends broadly before us. And there are plenty of places for everyday leaders to engage. How will you?  If you are left, center or right, how will you strive to create a civil space?  How will you turn away from the twin demons of victimization and vilification – life is hard and these two V’s are far too easy.  How will you make your block or your business, your classroom or caucus, your congregation or convention more welcoming, more intellectually curious and disciplined.  How in this time when we see hearts closed and angry (and perhaps deep-down terrified) can we be more open to

Lead with our best selves.


*I’ve read the polls and listened to those who appreciate Trump’s words of unity (and clearly he spoke and continues to speak some words of unity) and have a sense that he is being truthful (challenging political correctness) and honest (there were violent counter-protesters in Charlottesville).  If this is your view, I have two sincere questions for you:   Do you honestly feel he has articulated a shared vision in which everyone on the “team” can feel included and motivated? I would have to ask you to answer this question with your feet in the shoes of Jews and African Americans who were verbally assaulted by the neo-nazis.  And secondly:  Are you sure that your “getting” Trump is not being too heavily influenced by the fact that you identify so strongly with “tribe,” whether that tribe is white, Republican, or something else?  You could ask, of course, the same of me: Am I blinded by liberalism, Democratic tribal associations, etc?  Believe me, I feel that influence!  I don’t want to alienate “my” kinfolk.  But it feels like people like me are standing for a sense of citizenship, patriotism, and pride that transcends our tribe.  And that this sense of citizenship is aligned with this country’s most aspirational dreams of “e pluribus unum” and “all men [and women] are created equal.”


  • Interesting post. I constantly feel that Trump was elected by those who THINK they want to be led, and opposed by those who want to participate in leadership. I think that’s why the councils ended up being eliminated, the so-called members came to know it was a sham. If Donald Trump had his way, there would be no Congress, no Supreme Court, just him making the decisions the way he does in his businesses, and with no “laws” to impede his progress. And isn’t this the most outmoded form of leadership there is?

  • Great piece, Dan. Just one thought: I’ve read other articles that credit the courage of Senator McCain during the health care vote, but it was Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins who actually voted against the bill. If they had not done so, Senator McCain’s vote wouldn’t have mattered. In my mind, these were real profiles in courage.

  • Your comment about the two V’s–victimization and vilification–really struck a chord with me. It seems like we dig our feet in and only listen to those that agree with us, especially when it comes to media. In that echo chamber the two V’s can thrive. However if we want to truly persuade (those that can be persuaded) and find common ground with others, we must avoid them as much as possible. They only cause those with opposing views to become defensive, and less willing to listen to our point of view.

  • Hey Dan!
    Another interesting read. I wanted to point your attention to 2 podcasts that Sam Harris has done. The first, titled “Triggered”, talks about the art and power of persuasion in relation to psychology and what Trump says. I am not a Trump supporter but nonetheless find the podcast compelling and if you truly want to confront your bias, I would recommend looking into what Scott Adams says is the perception of people who are right leaning. The second, titled “Friend & Foe”, speaks about the religion of Islam and specifically about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “extremists”. I would love to hear your thoughts on both. I find it interesting that you would quote the SPLC’s CEO in an article talking about bringing people together and free speech when the SPLC would label people like David Horowitz, Maajid Nawaz, and Charles Murray extremists.

  • What the Southern Poverty Center says about these men:

    Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has become one of the most influential social scientists in America, using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.

    Despite Horowitz being a founding intellectual member of the New Left in the 1960s, and an advocate for civil rights and equality, he has since the late 1980’s become a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.

    Maajid Nawaz is a British activist and part of the “ex-radical” circuit of former Islamists who use that experience to savage Islam. His story, which has been told repeatedly in the British and American press and in testimony to legislators as well, sounds compelling enough — Nawaz says he grew up being attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads in the United Kingdom, spent almost four years in an Egyptian prison after joining a supposedly nonviolent Islamist group, but had a change of heart while imprisoned and then returned to England to work against the radicalization of Muslims. But major elements of his story have been disputed by former friends, members of his family, fellow jihadists and journalists, and the evidence suggests that Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute. He told several different versions of his story, emphasizing that he was deradicalized while in Egypt — even though he in fact continued his Islamist agitation for months after returning. After starting the Quilliam Foundation, which he describes as an anti-extremism think tank, Nawaz sent a secret list to a top British security official that accused “peaceful Muslim groups, politicians, a television channel and a Scotland Yard unit of sharing the ideology of terrorists,” according to The Guardian. The same newspaper reported that in 2009, a Quilliam official said that “gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences … is good and it is right,” discounting civil liberties concerns. His Quilliam Foundation received more than 1.25 million pounds from the British government, but the government eventually decided to stop funding it. One of Nawaz’s biggest purported coups was getting anti-Muslim extremist Tommy Robinson to quit as head of the violence-prone English Defence League, trumpeting his departure at a press conference. But Robinson later said Quilliam had paid him some 8,000 British pounds to allow Nawaz to take credit for what he already planned to do. Shortly afterward, Robinson returned to anti-Muslim agitation with other groups.


    In the list sent to a top British security official in 2010, headlined “Preventing Terrorism: Where Next for Britain?” Quilliam wrote, “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics.” An official with Scotland Yard’s Muslim Contact Unit told The Guardian that “[t]he list demonises a whole range of groups that in my experience have made valuable contributions to counter-terrorism.”

    Ed Husain of the Quilliam Foundation said collecting intelligence on people not accused of crimes is “good and it is right” if the purpose is to “prevent people getting killed and committing terrorism,” according to an Oct. 16, 2009, story in The Guardian. He added that this kind of intelligence gathering outweighs civil liberties concerns. “That’s the name of the game,” he said. “It’s not about doing the right thing by Islamists or liberal do-gooders, it’s about creating a society where liberal do-gooders survive freely.” Nawaz backed up his colleague, saying, “Is it right to spy on Muslims? The hypocrisy of the pro-extremist, paralyzed guilt-driven reverse-racism brigade over the recent ‘spying’ controversy is repugnant to say the least. … [N]o one, least of all Quilliam, advocated a police state, or spying on Muslims en masse as a community.”

    According to a Jan. 24, 2014, report in The Guardian, Nawaz tweeted out a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad — despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous to draw Muhammad. He said that he wanted “to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge.”

    In a March 23, 2015, opinion piece in The New York Times, Nawaz claimed that British academia was thick with Islamist radicals. “In fact,” he wrote, “academic institutions in Britain have been infiltrated for years by dangerous theocratic fantasists. I should know: I was one of them.”

  • I was surprised how few comments have been made on this Everyday Leadership column. I have spoken with Trump supporters, and they will defend Donald Trump in many ways. But they all like what he says he will do, like end Obamacare, and build the wall. They do not think he tells lies, they will say he is giving an opinion and not giving facts.

    There are many people like Donald Trump, which is why I encourage the teaching of how to deal with persons who are in the general category of sociopaths/ narcissists.

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