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Lead, Follow Or Get Out Of The Way

Read a couple of thought-provoking articles this week. The first, "What Makes a Good Leader?", by Garry Wills, appears in the April issue of Atlantic Monthly. Wills discusses the qualities and conditions necessary for exercise of leadership, using Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and F.D. Roosevelt, and Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as leadership role models. His central point is that leaders can't _lead_ their followers where they don't want to go, and that all effective leaders have to gauge and understand their followers' opinions and willingness to be led. He cites Abraham Lincoln's leadership on the issue of slavery as an example:

"Abraham Lincoln did not have the highest vision of human equality in his day. Many abolitionists went further than he did in recognizing the moral claims of slaves to freedom and recognition of their human dignity. Lincoln had limited political goals, and he was willing to compromise even those. He knew that no one who espoused full equality for blacks could be elected in or from Illinois--so he unequivocally renounced that position: 'I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. . . . I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.'

"But for that pledge Lincoln had no hope of winning office. The followers were setting the terms of acceptance for their leader. He could not issue calls they were unprepared to hear."

Continuing, Wills says that this "Lincoln has disappointed people who think followers should submit to a leader's superior vision--those who want the leader to be active and the followers passive." Clearly, while the moral position would have been absolute and unflinching opposition to slavery, Lincoln (as would most politicians) chose a course that was most likely to lead to electoral success. He later found the conditions ripe for ultimate elimination of slavery as part of the war effort, and so he did.

Wills gives examples of other Presidents doing the same thing, particularly FDR who, while hailed as one of our three greatest Presidents, clearly led by sticking his finger in the air judging the direction of public sentiment. His ability to do so was a gift, according to Wills.

The article raises some interesting observations:

First, it presents an adequate defense of Bill Clinton without naming him. We don't know whether Clinton is a great leader yet, but he clearly is a good follower of public moods.

Second, again with respect to Clinton, it is clear that his opinions with respect to "black" issues will be determined based on that reading of public perceptions. Thus, his "dissing" of Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah, his "diss-missal" of Lani Guinier, and his positions on welfare reform and certain other issues seem informed by a desire to secure white middle class support without losing black support. He might even be willing to relent on certain issues, but only insofar as white middle class opposition is not strong. And, historically speaking, how can we expect anything else?

Finally, Clinton's dismissal of Guinier is a clear example of a President not willing to step out in front of the assembled masses and attempt to _lead_ them where he thinks they should, but they don't want to, go. Wills says that model of leadership doesn't really exist historically and would be ineffective anyway, but that's certainly not the way I wanted Clinton to behave. Perhaps I was being naive (again!).

Of course one might ask what the point of being a leader is if you can't take strong positions and attempt to convince people to follow you, but, again, that's being naive.

Which brings us to the current edition of New York Magazine, featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton on the cover ("The Sharpton Generation: How Al Sharpton and a Band of Young Insurgents Are Making a Grab for Power in the Post-Dinkins Era" by Craig Horowitz). The article is about the changing of the political guard in New York City's black community. Dave Dinkins is gone, other leaders are "long in the tooth", and a new generation of leaders is vying for positions of power. While the article discusses several heirs to the throne, Sharpton gets the biggest play (of course, he's the biggest guy, so why not!).

The article points out that Sharpton produces a viscerally negative reaction among whites who consider him an ambulance-chasing demagogue.

But the article also points out that Sharpton, away from the TV cameras, is extremely critical of the black community:

"We strove for what was right even if wrong was done to us. That's real black history," he told a congregation in Queens recently. "Martin didn't die so you could be no dope pusher. Malcolm didn't take seventeen bullets so you could call your mama out her name. When we had no rights, we respected and loved one another. We've gained the world and lost our own soul. We will be the disgrace of black history if things don't change."

Sharpton also had the following to say:

"What's the point of talkin' about how good we were if we're nothin' now? Go to the library and look at magazines from the sixties and seventies and eighties. Who did we have on the cover? Martin Luther King. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Carl Stokes. Jesse Jackson. Who we got representing us on the covers today? Snoop Doggy Dogg. Is that how you want to be remembered? It's not enough to be angry, it's what you do with it. Martin was angry, but he organized boycotts. He could've pulled his pants down and turned his hat backwards, but Miss Rosa Parks would still be riding in the back of the bus. Pregnant women were fire-hosed in the streets of Birmingham. People spent cold, lonely nights in jail. Medgar Evers got his brains blown out and had three children he would never see grow up, and _our generation is too busy being angry to be useful_." (emphasis added)

Now I confess to never having been a Sharpton fan, but if this is what he's been saying, I can understand why more and more members of New York's black middle class are moving in his direction, and how his act is becoming more respectable both inside and outside of the black community. (I recall NYT Magazine article in the past year that pointed out Sharpton is becoming more respectable inside and outside of the black community as a result of his credible 1992 Democratic Senatorial primary campaign -- Mario Cuomo called Sharpton the classiest candidate in that field!)

Summarizing racial matters in NYC, Horowitz says:

"In New York, the gulf between blacks and whites seems to widen with every slight, every assault, every misplaced nuance in the public discourse. Form has taken precedence over content to such a degree that it is just about impossible to have an honest public discussion about any issue involving race--which means just about every critical issue facing the city. Just as in the days of segregation when there had to be two of everything, one bathroom for blacks and one for whites, we have reached a point where every conflict, every debate, every confrontation, has two separate versions, one truth for blacks and another for whites. ... Sometimes it seems as though blacks and whites live not in different cities but on different planets."

Horowitz's point is well taken in New York and nationally.

In any event, I wonder about the true value of black elected officials without having what we used to have, strong black community based leaders who can and will hold elected officials, both black and white, accountable for meeting the needs of African Americans. Because, as the Atlantic Monthly article makes clear, political leadership is about compromise, is about knowing which way the wind is blowing and making the best deal. Given the needs of poor black communities, leadership through the political system is insufficient.

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Meanderings 1.03 -- April 3, 1994