True Leadership

In Culture, Politics, Self Improvement on May 7, 2009 at 7:18 am

“A true leader does not take the public to where the public happens to be, because the public is already there. A leader takes the public to where the public should be, according to that leader’s view of the society’s highest ideals – ideals that the public shares but which have not yet been realized.”

So says Robert Reich in a post this morning on  This is one of the best definitions of a leader that I have ever read.

Only time will tell if this definition applies to Obama, but so far he seems to fit the criteria. There have been many examples, but one that strikes me the most is his stance on gay marriage. He hasn’t said overtly that he is for gay marriage, but he has been totally supportive of gay rights, and ultimately those rights include the right to marry. Since he’s been in office, several states have either changed their laws to allow gay marriage or are in the process of revisiting them. But before Obama became President, the states seemed to be influenced by the Religious Right and conservatives in general.

Even so, there has been a relaxing of this society’s antipathy toward homosexuality over the past decades. Witness shows like “Grace and Will”, movies like “Philadelphia” and the acceptance of Ellen Degeneres, an “open” lesbian, as a talk show host. And these are but a few examples. Acceptance has been slow but steady. It is only a matter of time before most of the states recognize the validity of gay marriages. But it has taken a true leader to give the public the encouragement it needed to follow its instincts.

You could argue that the public doesn’t know what it wants, but only follows the lead of those at the top. But that argument underestimates the public’s ability to rock the boat when its leaders set a firm course toward a destination it does not desire. Most people are not activists. They prefer to stay in the background and to preserve the status quo. It has been easier for the past eight years to follow the path set by Bush and his ilk, partly because he led by fear-mongering: fear of change, of challenging traditional values, of breaking with the past. However, that doesn’t mean that the majority actually believed the same way Bush did.

I believe that most people believe in their innermost beings that being tolerant is the most important characteristic to have if we are to solve our societal problems. They demonstrated their tolerance when they voted Obama into office. If you would have told me right after 9/11 that we would, a scant eight years later, elect a president whose middle name was Hussein, I would have said you were crazy. I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime. People were ready for change, not so much because they embrace it (most people don’t), but because Obama provided what they had been needing: a leader who will bring out the best in them.

For the past eight years we have been locked into a mentality that chafed us. We didn’t want to be racist, to be a nation of xenophobes, to go to war, to turn our back on the most unfortunate in our society. We wanted to be open and accepting–that has always been the American way. Yes, I know that there are still plenty of bigots and isolationists who would be happy to turn things back to the ’50s. But most people would rather look ahead and explore a world that has been waiting to be born.

And thank God, we have a leader who is ready to assist in the delivery.


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