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.”