Reconsidering Moral Leadership

In early 2007 I was asked to write a series of blog posts for a youth conservation organization examining the intersection of service, civil rights, and the environment for Martin Luther King Day. In one of those posts I mused about MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. Actually, I mused on the way that MLK was introduced to the crowd gathered there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The person who introduced King called him the moral leader of our nation.

When I was writing in early 2007 I commented on how striking this phrase was, because I couldn’t imagine any one person today being called the moral leader of our country. Moral leadership, at least on the national political stage, was all but absent. However, that same week a Senator from Chicago stood on the steps of Illinois’ Old State Capital (where Abraham Lincoln had stood before him) and announced he was running for president of the United States. At the time I didn’t know much about Barack Obama, but now, twenty months later we have all learned volumes about who he is and what he stands for, and I am beginning to hope that moral leadership may be on the rise again.

But what is “moral leadership” and what does it look like? A quick Google search surfaces a broad array of ideas about – and definitions of – moral leadership. There are studies, courses, articles, and sermons. John Edwards even ran on a platform of moral leadership which he defined through his stance on domestic and international issues. But few of these results give a very satisfying or holistic picture of moral leadership and none consider the idea in light of Barack Obama’s historic election.

Moral leadership, to me, is about both creed and deed, about words and actions, about beliefs and behaviors. This notion is rooted in the Gandhian principle of integrity in which word, creed, and deed are one. Both King and Obama used rhetoric not only to rally supporters, but to help chart a course for change, to inspire people to be better. This ability to call people to action, to move them emotionally, to light a flame of aspiration in them, is no small thing. If it is true that we cannot  achieve what we cannot imagine, then we need leaders who can foster that imagination.

This then is the first part of moral leadership. For too long, rhetoric has been scoffed at as nothing more than a fancy turn of phrase, especially in politics. Indeed, this dismissal of rhetoric was often a key talking point for many of Obama’s opponents in the primaries and the general election. To deny the importance of a leader who can inspire our imagination with his words and his vision, is to forget that words can move people both literally and figuratively. Anyone who watched the spontaneous celebrations erupt in cities across America and the world after Obama’s election night victory speech has to admit that words are powerful.

However, moral leadership is not just about providing an ethical compass, but also about leading with a shared moral understanding at the core of your actions. But just like rhetoric, morals and emotions have long been banished from politics. In his recent essay “The Liberal Imagination of Frederick DouglassNick Bromell talks about the central role “feelings” and “emotions” ought to play in politics. He writes, “political values are ultimately the expression of a political temperament […] liberal values remain meaningless abstractions unless they are infused with liberal feelings. But you won’t find this awareness expressed in the position papers of the Democratic Leadership Council, the mission statements of liberal think tanks, or the speeches of most Democratic candidates for the presidency.

For Bromell, it is Obama who has once again reclaimed the centrality of emotion and sentiment within politics, and I argue it is this reclamation that helps Obama move people. Quoting Frederick Douglass, Bromell writes, “a liberal’s deepest convictions are more than just ideas, values, or principles. They are also feelings—feelings ‘of justice and fair play common to every honest heart,’ feelings that revolt ‘against popular prejudice and meanness.'”

He continues:

“But most liberals and progressives today don’t follow Obama’s example. Many would be downright embarrassed to embrace Douglass’s ‘heart’ and ‘sentiment’ and FDR’s ‘love’ and ‘charity’ and ‘sympathy’ as key terms in their political vocabulary. They have forgotten a legacy that is their legacy. They have forgotten that a fairly consistent cluster of feelings and a steady habit of mind have constituted a particular political temperament in America since the time of Thomas Jefferson. This temperament is composed of generosity and flexibility, a predisposition to respect and identify with others, and a willingness to be vulnerable in order to do so. It is based on a deeply felt conviction of the common humanity of all people, and it serves as a powerful check on our inclinations toward arrogance, meanness, and prejudice. The political movements it has energized have called themselves by various names, including democratic, antislavery, Christian, populist, progressive, and radical. But whatever label we affix to it, this temperament is what Douglass would have deemed to be the essence of the liberal spirit.”

“If Douglass were alive today, he would be dismayed by the reluctance of most liberals and progressives to connect programs with values, values with beliefs, beliefs with feelings. He would insist on their knowing what kind of temperament underlies and what spirit animates their politics. He would ask why they find particular values enduring and sacred—a question that would set them on a path leading back to how they feel about the world and themselves and other people, back to a recovery of words that breathe life and passion into an otherwise static list of clichés.”

Moral leadership then is about, as the Buddhists say “Right Speech. Right Actions.” Moral leadership is about leading together with a community or a country, about finding common ground in our emotions and feelings, and inspiring us to envision a better future. Moral leadership is, in Obama’s own words, leadership that calls us all to “put [our] hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

And so I find myself, nearly two years after lamenting the absence of moral leadership, looking ahead to the Obama inauguration with unprecedented hope and a deep hunger for change. I don’t know how he will be introduced to the nation in January, but in my mind I will think of him as the “moral leader of our nation” and will listen carefully to his words, watch closely his actions, and join him in working to make our common future together.

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