Presidents’ Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day bring to mind the fact that national leaders have the ability to affect the well-being of many, many people. Such commemorations also offer us an opportunity to reflect on what role a “leader” plays in our own lives as well as the life of our communities, our nation, and the world.
When I asked a Generation X colleague to name a leader, he paused, looked at his computer monitor blankly, turned to me and said, “I can’t think of anyone. People my age don’t have leaders. Maybe if we didn’t know so much about Clinton, I’d think of him as a leader.”
Then, I rephrased the question. Had there been people in his life who’d inspired him, driven him to look more deeply at himself and how he interacted with the world? After a moment he said, “Yes. Definitely. One was my Kung Fu teacher when I was 14 or 15. He made a big difference for me.”
From my colleague’s perspective, a leader is not a person who is “served up” to the public as a leader by title alone, but rather a person who touches one’s life in meaningful ways.
Why Be Led?
Why do we need leaders in the first place? It may be because we learn by example, and leaders instinctively inspire by example. If our parents are generally good-natured, protective and balanced in their approach to childrearing, we will, at least in theory, grow to be similar adults.
In fact, isn’t there an element of parenting that we desire from our leaders? Don’t we want, even expect them, to protect us, to be good-natured, to be balanced in their approach, to be, well — good?
What Makes a Good Leader?
What makes a leader? And more importantly, what makes a good leader? Martin Luther King, Jr. was an almost universally beloved leader. The head of a Girl Scout troop is a leader; so is Nelson Mandela. Our parents, and we as parents, are leaders.
Good leaders, just like good parents, support the development of our “better” selves and inspire us to act in the world in accordance with a set of values that speak to universal truths and a “larger” purpose to life. Leaders who promote the effective parenting of children are as important as leaders who speak on behalf of the disenfranchised and advocate change at the highest levels of government. Both types of leaders have important roles to play in improving the world around us. The leaders we believe in and resonate with influence not only the development of our self-image and perceptions of the world but, more important, encourage us to carry their message forward to future generations.
Leaders can teach us, guide us, influence us, and offer lessons to remember and replicate. When a leader moves and affects us, we want to share their message, support their cause, follow their “lead.” And when we lose that leader, what remains is often intangible: their influence, their hopes for us or for the world, their words and their dreams.
Losing a Leader
When we are touched or transformed by a leader — whether parent, peer, or stranger — we hold a piece of them within ourselves. This is the essence of good parenting and, by extension, good leadership: believing, knowing, that we won’t lose the dream when the dreamer has left us, that the good works they inspired will flourish even after they are long gone. Good leaders do not merely leave followers behind; rather, they inspire new leaders.
How do we experience the loss of the individual who has inspired us, someone we might not have known personally, but who touched us nonetheless? For many, the experience is devastating, at least at the start. The grief we feel is immense and overpowering. Our loss may be felt personally, but is shared communally, since one of the greatest gifts a leader leaves us is the group of people he or she has inspired. We need not mourn alone. Our grief is shared by those who believe in the same cause as we do, by a multitude of people who deeply respected our leader and his or her values and message. by joining others in our grief, we find people with whom we can both remember a shared past and carry forward with the work that has yet to be accomplished.