What it means to be a leader — Joan Chittister
Bertolt Brecht, German dramatist and poet wrote: “There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two.”
And Walter Lippmann said: “The final test of a leader is someone who leaves behind themselves – in others – the conviction and the will to carry on.”
But how do we know what it means to really be a leader and how do we know who should do it?
There are some clues to those answers in folk literature, I think.
The first story is about two boats that meet head on in a shipping channel at night.
As boats are wont to do in the dark, boat number 1 flashed boat number 2: “We are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees north.”
Boat 2 signaled back: “Yes, we are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees south.”
Boat 1 signaled again: “I am an admiral in her majesty’s navy; I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees north.”
Boat 2 flashed back immediately: “And I am a seaman 2nd class. And I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees south.”
By this time, the admiral was furious. He flashed back: “I repeat! I am an admiral in her majesty’s navy and I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees north. I am in a battleship!”
And the second boat returned a signal that said: “And I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees south. I am in a lighthouse.”
Point: Rank, titles and positions are no substitute for leadership.
You are all graduating from this great university this weekend because someone has seen leadership potential in you at a time of grinding poverty and gross inequality. At a time when we have never needed leadership more, someone saw in you the possibility to be a powerful presence in the public arenas of our own time. The question is, then, what will you inspire in this world now?
The motto under which you have been educated here – the “the wind of freedom blows” – is exactly what a world struggling between the challenges of the present and the ideals of the past requires.
It requires the freedom to question and the freedom to rethink absolutes.
It requires the freedom to confront what does not work and to rebel against rigidities that mask as unassailable traditions.
It requires you to re-energize the kind of courageous initiative that opened the frontier in one century and reached the moon in the next.
It requires the vision that freed slaves and empowered women, that preserved the spiritual but honored the secular, as well.
What the world needs now are those who will commit themselves to free that kind of energy everywhere and lead others to do the same.
First, though, you must realize that the world did not send you here simply to get itself another engineer or business manager or computer science programmer. No, your world sent you here to be its leaders.
But note well: The world you have been given to lead is both glorious and grim. One right step and the whole world can become new again. One more wrong step and the globe itself is in irreversible danger.
Indeed, we need a new direction; we need another point of view. We need a more complete human agenda. And it is yours now to lead.
No, the world does not really need the skills you learned here. Today’s skills will all change in the next five years and change your life with them.
The world does not need answers either. Answers are easy to come by: You Google them.
No, what the world really needs from you now is the courage to ask the right questions without apology, without fear, and without end.
It needs those who will lead from the vantage point of new questions, not old answers. From the point of view of enduring values, not denominational politics; from the perspective of global needs, not parochial interests.
Two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women. Two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women. Two-thirds of the poor of the world are women.
That can’t be an accident; that has to be a policy.
Where are the leaders who will change these things?
The ozone layer, the placenta of the earth, has been ruptured. The polar ice cap is melting and raising the water levels of the world. And, at the same time, the lands of the poor are turning to dust and stone while the industrialized world goes on choosing short-term profits over long-term global warming treaties.
Nuclear weaponry threatens the very existence of the planet and they have the effrontery to call it “defense.”
The question is, then, how shall you lead this next generation, so that the errors of this present generation do not simply become even more death dealing in the future than they are now?
If you really want to be a leader who leads your city, your country, your world down a different path, there are three stories you should know, I think. They may say more about the kind of leadership needed for our time than anything any MBA leadership manual can begin to explain to you: The first is from the western fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, which you may have learned as a child but which is, in fact, about a very adult problem.
In the first story, a village is preparing for a visit from its king. He will come regally dressed, his courtiers tell them. Never, they say, has a king been so finely outfitted as ours.
So, on the day of the king’s arrival people cheer and cheer as the king strides by. “You, O King, are the finest king of all.” Except for one small child. “No,” the child shouts. “No! He is not splendid. He is not honest,” he says. “In fact, the king has no clothes on at all.” Then the crowd went silent. Then the farce was over. Then everyone snuck away ashamed of what they had allowed to go unchallenged. Only then did the dishonest emperor resign the throne.
Point: If you want to really be a leader, you must be a truth-teller.If you want to save the age, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly writes, “Betray it. Expose its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes.”
Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever.
The lie that there is nothing we can do about discrimination, nothing we can do about world poverty, nothing we can do about fair trade, nothing we can do to end war, nothing we can do to provide education and health care, housing and food, maternity care and just wages for everyone in the world. Nothing we can do about women raped, beaten, trafficked, silenced yet, still, now, everywhere.
If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies.
You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.
The second story is about the Buddhist monk Tetsugen, who determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese.
He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he’d raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.
Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.
Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.
When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.
The second lesson of leadership, then, is that no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.
The third lesson of leadership comes from the Sufi master who taught disciples one thing only: “If you want to smell sweet, stay close to the seller of perfumes.”
The heroes you make for yourselves, the people you idolize, will be the measure of your own character, your own ideals, your own legacy.
If you want to lead the world to compassion, you must surround yourself with the compassionate, rather than the uncaring.
If you want to lead the world to wholeness, you must follow the peacemakers, not the warmongers.
If you want to lead the world to the freedom you learned here, equality for everyone must mean more to you than domination by anyone.
Justice must mean more to you than money. People must mean more to you than fame. Ideals must mean more to you than power or politics or public approval.
If you really want to inspire those you leave behind with the conviction and the will to go on doing good, doing justice, doing right, like the child in the village, like the wise old monk Tetsugen, like the Sufi saint of perfume sellers, choose reality over image, choose people over personal profits and projects, choose your heroes wisely.
Speak up loud and clear to the powers of this world that use their power for themselves alone.
The great leaders of history are always those who refuse to bend to naked kings: Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman.
The great leaders of history have always been those who refused to barter their ideal for the sake of their personal interests and who rebelled against the lies of their times.
If you want to be a real leader, if you want to give a new kind of leadership, you cannot live to get the approval of a system, you must live to save the soul of it.
“As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs,” Clarence Darrow warned us. “And if no leaders object, and no leaders rebel, those wrongs will last forever.”
If you really want to lead, you must rebel against forces of death that obstruct us from being fully human together.
“The purpose of life,” the essayist Rosten writes, “is not to be happy. The purpose of life is to matter, to have it make a difference that you lived at all.”
To save this age, use your education, use your freedom, to make a difference.
Inspire in those who follow you the conviction and the will to denounce the lies, to reject the greed, to resist the heretics of inhumanity who peddle inequality, injustice and the torturers’ instruments of oppression and social violence.
To be a real leader, by all means make a difference!
Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel!
For if the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow.
A Call to Leadership” by Sister Joan Chittister was prepared for delivery at Stanford University’s 2012 Baccalaureate program.