Having grown up in Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s, I experienced the currents and crosscurrents of fear, prejudice, promise and hope that were part of the civil rights movement in the south. I remember how mesmerized I was by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (I tried, as a schoolboy, to memorize his speeches, much to the confusion of my immediate family and some of my teachers), and how troubled I was–and afraid–when I learned that he had been assassinated in Memphis. I also remember how embarrassed I was by Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor, Lester Maddox, who stood outside his Pickwick Restaurant with an axe-handle in his hands to keep blacks from entering.
Today, then, when Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol to take the presidential oath of office, at the opposite end of the Washington Mall from where Dr. King had stood, in 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, I was moved to tears of gratitude and hope that we have experienced a measure of healing for the gaping wound of racism that has sapped our union of vitality and strength.
The task before our new president is daunting, and we all should pray for him to have wisdom, vision and courage. He has shown skill as a leader, and he has a fund of goodwill to draw upon as he begins his crucial work.
But, I am aware that there is, in American culture, a profound ambivalence about leadership: we crave it and resist it. Warren Bennis, noted mamagement professor, wrote a fine but troubling book a few years ago entitled Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues. He described the countervailing pressures in our culture, both for and against strong, creative leaders.
Simultaneously, we seek and sabotage leadership. We want innovative solutions to our problems, but we don’t want anything to change. We want less bureaucracy and more responsiveness, but we cling to the rules and customs which have formed the iron bars of the status quo. We want leaders to offer us compelling visions and motivating dreams but we want them to be easy and cheap. We want achievement without effort and heroism without sacrifice. Throughout our culture, we clamor for leadership and then resist it, and the result is that leaders become little more than parrots of their confused constituents, mouthing the often contradictory lines of a script written for them by the latest opinions of the ever-shifting majority.
Let’s hope and pray that we can find a new way, a way in which leaders (at every level) can forge workable, meaningful partnerships with those whom they seek to lead and a way in which the common good matters more than narrow self-interest.