I have been feeling very anxious lately and my friend Gong Szeto sent me this quote from Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:
"I wanted you to see what real courage is... It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
I have been thinking a lot about courage and leadership in terms of Obama, the economic meltdown, and the work I have been doing lately with government and policy.
Courage, leadership, and the Obama electoral victory
What made me feel most happy about the Obama victory was that for every person who voted for him it took courage. The victory was most improbable but the people who elected him saw it through no matter what (the what's being Rev. Wright, Bil Ayers, Sarah Palin, lies about Obama's Islamic faith, the economic meltdown, even Obama's citizenship). The strength of Obama's leadership is his ability to create the conditions for people to have this kind of courage. That's all good leadership does is create the conditions for collective courage.
Courage, leadership, and the economic meltdown
The economic meltdown demonstrates the ambiguity of Finch's words of wisdom. It is clear that traders and their highly compensated bosses saw it through no matter what their visions of immense profit based on passing the buck on risk to the next player. Those who were supposed to be accountable to risk management lacked courage, especially following the debacles of Enron, but one man's courage is another man's cowardice. What they lacked was leadership from Greenspan down to trade floor managers. The autopsy of the American financial body indicates that there were red flags everywhere and there were people who were waving those red flags. The leaders of these corporations refused to see or when they did see, it was too late. In other words, they lacked the courage to lead, which meant doing things that might rein in their traders or reduce some of their windfall profit. The NY Times has a wonderful article, Talking Business, on how Dr. V. Y. Reddy, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, prevented the excesses of the US financial system from happening in India with his strict oversight and regulation.
Courage, leadership, and my work
My work in design and policy is always extremely frustrating because it is difficult to find leaders with courage. I find it most perplexing that those in the bureaucratic areas of government (who have some the greatest job security and benefits) are the most risk adverse. They have the least to lose and yet are afraid to risk anything. My own failures as a leader stem from my inability to get people to move forward with a progressive agenda, not because of their fear of failure, but their exposure as poor leaders. No matter how many times that I tell them that my job is to make them look good.
I can inspire the hell out of my students to achieve miraculous things, but not other leaders. It is something for me to work on and develop as a leader, but it sure is frustrating. Where is the line between keep going no matter what and just plain stubbornness? This is my challenge to conquer in myself.
And yet, for now, I keep moving forward...so that one day the Atticus Finches in my life will believe that I am the bravest person they ever knew.