09/10/2008

The myth of the perfect leader

We suffer the myth of the perfect leader. We are always looking for them in our next boss, movie idol, public figure, sport figure etc. Then we find out they are not perfect and we become disillusioned and sometimes bitter in our disappointment. President Kennedy was, for many of my generation, a remarkable and visionary leader that rejuvenated our sense of spirit and drive, asking what we might do for our country. We found inspiration in his words, his vision and his dreams. We watched him grow dramatically from the debacle at the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban missile crisis. But more often than not when mentioned today there is some reference to his well documented womanizing rather than his accomplishments during the brief time he was in office.

Martin Luther King was killed before his fortieth birthday and during his lifetime made a country confront whether or not it truly believed in a declaration that it had penned and signed nearly two-hundred years earlier. But many question his womanizing and the validity of his doctoral dissertation. My generation of disillusioned teachers went into the school rooms and removed the pictures of Abe Lincoln and George Washington from the walls of classrooms and threw them into trash piles because we found out that they too were imperfect and flawed.

I too have suffered this myth. A few years ago, my cousin and I were discussing a current leader of the day when I blurted out, “Yes, but, Andy, he just has feet of clay.”

Andy smiled and said “Yes, he does, ...but then...name one that didn’t.” I didn’t take this remark lightly because you see my cousin Andy is a remarkable man. He has been his whole life. As a young Marine in Korea on Hill 922 he was wounded taking some shrapnel to his left shoulder. He refused to accept a deserved purple heart. His refusal was based on two reasons. One: “If you take one that is undeserved, you may get one that you do deserve.” But probably the main reason is that his cousin, my uncle, was severely wounded as a young marine in the Second World War at Iwo Jima. His thinking was simply that he wouldn’t take a medal for something for which his cousin nearly died. Andy worked his way through law school as a deputy sheriff and later went on to Congress where he served for some thirty years.

During his last year in office he returned some $56,000 in salary. He had returned portions of his salary since his first year in office. He simply thought it unethical to vote his own pay increases. Known to run the most frugal office in Congress, he was elected to office during his last campaign on a re-election fund of some $16,000.00. How? He didn’t have to buy radio and television time to explain to his constituency who he was and what he stands for. They knew simply by his actions. I mention these things because my cousin is a man of character who has served his whole life. He has seen both the best and worst in mankind and yet he remains philosophical. What was my cousin really saying to me about leadership and the perfect leader?

George Washington’s real test as a leader came at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, when anonymous letter was circulated suggesting a coup that would make Washington king. (Image from Teachers Paradise)

That very day we had been discussing none other than the “father of our country,” George Washington. I think he may be the perfect example of what my cousin was trying to say. As a young man, Washington was mightily ambitious. He wanted power, property, wealth, and a command in the British army. Did you know it was believed that he cheated people out of property; as much as 18,000 acres? As a young volunteer, Washington’s debacle at Fort Wilderness is well chronicled. When he does finally get the command of an army, are you aware of his battle record? He won four, lost nine, tied one. If he were a football coach, we would have fired him, but....... he lost early and won late. What seems to be happening to George Washington?

During the war the British ran a fleet of ships up the Potomac River and they threatened to destroy his home and much of what he had spent his whole life amassing. Jefferson even wrote him and pleaded with him to come home warning him that he may lose everything. Washington communicated back to his overseers to let them destroy it all, for what they were involved in was much more important than anything he had acquired in his lifetime. You see, we often forget that every major nation of the world at the time was ruled by a monarchy. This was the first time that a people were declaring their independence under an umbrella of self rule. What are we seeing in Washington? The young ambitious, land hungry man has matured. He has become a man of vision who was now willing to sacrifice everything for that vision.

But Washington’s real test comes at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. An anonymous letter was being circulated among the American officers who were bitter over the lack of payment for their services. Many had fought the entire war and had never been paid. The letter suggested a coup and they would make Washington king. After eight years of horrific fighting they had grown to love and respect him; they shared a “bond like no other bond.” And now in their frustration and anger at not being paid, they decided to take control and make Washington king. They offered him everything he had wanted his entire life, power, wealth, land and property. He was horrified.

Distressed at such a suggestion, Washington asked that these officers meet to discuss their grievances. Spending some three days writing a speech that he hoped would change their hearts and minds, Washington strode into the meeting room, sensing their hostility. He began his speech by reminding them of how much he cared for them and reminded them of the many sufferings they had shared over the last eight years of war. Sensing the tenor of his intent, many of these battle-hardened veterans, now turned away from him in anger, as they resisted Washington’s words of reason. He argued that this country was made up of neighbors, relatives, and friends and the were choosing to enslave these people to a monarchy, that they were choosing to destroy the very thing they had fought so ardently to defend these past years. Finally, while the circulating letter had argued against being persuaded by reason to abandon the coup, he suggested that very ability to argue and reason is what they had fought so hard to establish; the first country in the history of the world to know self rule.

As he completed his speech, he could tell that all his persuasion had failed. Momentarily at a loss, he then remembered “the letter,” a letter he had thought to bring with him. It was a letter authored by a Congressman promising that if they would be patient, they would eventually get the monies owed them. He reached for the letter, forgetting for the moment, that to read the letter, he would need his spectacles. You see Washington had worn spectacles for years, but only his intimates were aware of the glasses that he needed to read. You see, he had seen the need for glasses as a sign of aging, a sign of weakness.

As he started to pull the letter from his pocket, he suddenly stopped. His men sensed something was wrong. His hand began to tremble. This hesitancy, this obvious moment of vulnerability caught the attention of the hardened soldiers. But then, Washington simply reached in his pocket for his spectacles and stated “Gentlemen, if you would permit me to put on my spectacles, for you see, I have not only grown gray in your service, I have also gone blind.”

It is said that many of these hardened, battle tried soldiers wept. In that moment of humility, Washington reminded these soldiers that the role of the leader was to serve and not to rule, and George Washington gave back to you and me this imperfect country. This one simple, humble act, Jefferson declared, precluded these men from destroying the very thing they had fought to preserve. It has been said by some it may have been the most important meeting in the history of this country. Lincoln himself declared, “Washington is the mightiest name on earth...long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty. To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name and in its naked, deathless splendor, leave it shining on.” And no wonder.

I was fifty years old before I head that story. I wondered to myself why my history teachers never told me about that George Washington. That story is such a better story than that insipid little cherry tree story. The real story makes him so human. But most of all we see so starkly what my cousin was saying. What my cousin gently reminded me of is that we have no right to expect perfection in our leadership. But we do have the right to expect that we and our leadership will learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. What my cousin was really saying is not perfection but: are we learning along the way? George Washington had learned so much along the way: humility, sacrifice, service, and that there is no better reward in life then spending your energies in a mighty cause. You see, true humility, true nobility, true heroism is not being better than others…it is being better than you used to be. Is not that the real test of the leader?

I thought for years that Washington was the “father of this country” because he was our first president. But that’s not it. Washington is father of this country simply because he had the humility to not be king. King George III was on the throne in England. When he heard about the attempt to make Washington king, he stated, “If he can refuse that, why, then, he is the greatest man alive?” Because, you see, men cannot normally turn away from such things as power, glory, wealth, and fame.

You should teach this story to your people, teach it to your family, your children. Teach them that you will fail, that you will make mistakes. But those mistakes will lead to you learning and over coming. Teach them these things…unless of course, you are perfect!

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