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If I Only Had a Heart...

The cowardly lion has nothing on public leaders. Some years ago I attended a community meeting hosted by the state representative in the district in which I then lived. The state house had recently voted to do something that I and many others thought was not only unwise but actually unconstitutional. My representative had voted for it. So I showed up at that meeting wanting to ask him about that...and to express my own strong disagreement.

At the meeting he explained that he was personally opposed to the measure but that, as "a leader" in the legislature (he was chair of some committee), he felt obliged to support the position of "the leadership." Oh my... that's when my disagreement turned to anger. My youthful idealism erupted into something like this: "That's not leadership. Leadership is doing the right thing, even or especially when it's in opposition to those in power. If you thought the measure was the wrong thing to do, you should have voted against it, even if meant losing your position or even your seat."

He disagreed, of course, and told me so rather bluntly. End of story. But in the years since that encounter, as I have grown in both maturity and in experience as a leader, I have pondered both his behavior and my own at that meeting. I still believe that he did the wrong thing, of course, but I also recognize that leadership is a hard place for idealists, that it involves a lot of compromise...unless one is willing to take a "my way or the highway" approach, which creates even more ethical challenges.

Yes, it takes courage to do the right thing when there is substantial pressure to do otherwise, and I wish my old representative had had a bit more of that courage; his "I am personally opposed to what I voted for" argument has worn thin after decades of overuse by politicians near and far. But it also takes courage to hear opposing viewpoints, to tone down the immediate impulse to judge, to acknowledge that my sense of right might not always be right. That kind of courage requires a humility I don't think I had in that long-ago encounter. My public rebuke of him was not courageous; I had little to lose and had much to gain in terms of feeling self-righteous. In retrospect, we were probably both self-indulgent... and cowardly.

What kind of courage, then, does a deeper leader need? Is there something in between than either of these two approaches? Something better than either caving in to pressure and self-righteous anger? How would you describe that kind of courage?

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