Coming of age in the 50’s and 60’s was a bit different than coming of age in the 21st Century. We had leaders who were out front and outspoken. And they were leaders who had experience to back up their positions on a variety of topics. Political parties had agendas that could easily be differentiated by an American public. People such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jack Kennedy and his brother, Bob, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Nader were America’s spokesmen on different issues. There were disagreements between the parties, but with the help of people like Tip O’Neill, Everett Dirksen, and others, America moved forward.
Maybe I’ve grown old and jaded, but I don’t see that leadership anywhere in America today. This began as a piece about Black leadership; about who is today’s MLK or Ralph Abernathy or Julian Bond. After reading an article by Dr. Boyce Watkins, a member of the faculty at Syracuse, I had an epiphany thought, “Wait a minute. He’s right. Where is there any leadership in America today? Why don’t we have people who speak for us, the American people?” The truth of the matter is, I regret to say, that we are a nation in such turmoil that no single person can ever again be regarded as the voice of America…and what does that bode for our future?
Perhaps the principal reason that we don’t have one, two, or three voices ringing out across the land is that the land has become so diverse, it’s an impossibility to have a few speak for the many. An elementary school teacher told me a while back that 54 different languages were spoken by the children in her school. Fifty-four is a remarkable number. She rattled off about 30 just to let me know that she wasn’t joking. It’s merely one example of how diverse out nation has become. We have opened our doors to thousands of people from other lands. Many have made significant contributions to the growth of this country while others have merely served as sponges, soaking up whatever they can without making any positive contributions. There was a time when America was viewed as a stew into which thousands of nationalities and ideologies were combined. Today, we are a salad, with each piece a different view, unwilling to combine with any other piece. We are searching for leaders and leadership but we’re doing so in vain.
The qualities of a good leader are all over the map. There are, however, a few characteristics that stand out. I’ve garnered my own list, based on ‘research’ and on personal experience. My first quality of a good leader is character. Honesty and integrity are an essential part of a leader’s character. One cannot expect to build a good team if there is any doubt about the character of the person leading the group. The second quality I think of is vision. True leaders must have a vision of where they wish to take the department, division, or organization. To fulfill that vision, there must be a plan. The plan itself, if the leader is a communicator, will be developed by those within the organization. No, planning is not necessarily a characteristic, but the true leader will guide those whom he asks to create the plan so that it fits with his/her vision. This should not be considered, in any way, as deviousness or dishonest. Assuming that the vision will move the organization to the next level, the vision must be authenticated by allowing input from all of those who will be expected to implement it. The leader must have focus in the face of ambiguity and therefore, he or she must be tolerant, confident, and upbeat even when others are not. Leaders are committed to seeing the vision become a reality. My final quality of a good leader is one who is charismatic; not the hail-fellow-well-met, but the person who can make others believe that the vision and the plan will not only work, but will be, as my own leader used to say, terrific!
Are there leaders “out there?” Of course, there are. Most of them are smart enough not to want the highest office in the country, but those are the people this country desperately needs. It seems to me that we have to return to our roots and determine how we can make what worked then still work today. I’m certainly not saying, “Let’s make America great again:” America is already great in many, many ways. Now, who will step forward and say, “I have a vision and the beginnings of a plan. Who will join me in creating new horizons for this great nation of ours?” I can only hope that I will be around to see that person step forward, to embrace his or her vision, and become a part of that plan.