As some of you may know I work with teenagers in a leadership training program. One of the first activities that I had them do was define leadership and give examples of the people who fit that definition. Pretty much everyone listed the same leaders (Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Mom) for the same reasons (they stood up for what is right, she takes care of me when she doesn’t have a lot of money).
While I understand why they chose these leaders I asked them to dig a little deeper. Do all leaders lead the same way? What are some common characteristics of the leaders you listed? What are some of the differences? And, most importantly, with whom do you most connect and why?
During this activity, I realized something: there was little enthusiasm about historical leaders. Many of my students are told over and over again (as I once was when I was in high school) to respect and remain in awe of past black leaders. Students were very much able to connect with and support adults that they see regularly and list why they see these adults as leaders, but when it came to older more prominent leaders it was simply “because they fought for what was right.”
Leadership that results in blind yet ambivalent support is not leadership that inspires. Unfortunately, discussions about black leaders/leadership (like the ones that occur during black history month mainly about the civil rights movement) do not inspire. In fact, they are alienating and rather uninteresting for the following reasons:
1. The individual and their passion are the only things emphasized. To a certain extent this is understandable since in America we value the rugged leader who rises to greatness with nothing more than his persistence. However, the reality is that passion, while being important is only one part of success. Skills and strong support networks are crucial as well.
2. Leaders are spoken about as if they were angels. Show me that these people are human! Perfection is nonexistent and I find that learning about a leader’s problems or short comings does wonders for making me comfortable with the fact that I am not perfect. We can learn from mistakes as well as successes: where did they fail—professionally and personally?
3. The same leaders are talked about ad nauseum. I love people who made history, like Martin Luther King Jr. for example. But seriously—the chance of someone becoming the next MLK is highly unlikely. That’s not to say people shouldn’t dream but how about we look at people who made change locally through small steps?
In other words, while we should appreciate the contributions of many historical leaders, in order to make them inspirational we have to make them accessible. The best leaders inspire us to become great no matter where we are. Yet we can only be receptive to their inspiration if we see them as human; as people who need support , who make mistakes, and who are not the only ones brining about change.