Martin Luther King, Jr., the great 20th century civil rights leader, asserted in his 1963 book, Strength to Love, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”
I submit that King’s dictum is applicable not just to the general notion of what it means to “be a man” (that is independent, critical-thinking person), but more specifically what it means to lead. By extension, therefore, I contend that the ultimate measure of a leader is his or her capacity to take a stance in situations of challenge and controversy.
A leader is not only expected to take a stance in times of controversy, but to do so despite others preferring to remain silent or to pretend not to know or understand the issues. Taking a clear stance at times of challenge also involves providing guidance, inspiration, and direction to others who are in need help to formulate their own positions and to move in a particular direction.
Leaders who lead the way in taking a stance on controversial and complex issues, rather than waiting to see what is the direction of public sentiment and popular opinion are principle-centred leaders. This construct was coined by Steven Covey in his book, Principle-Centred Leadership. The principle-centred leader is contrasted with the public-relations centred or popularity-driven leader who wishes to go with the flow and fit in and not upset public sentiment. Covey describes such leaders as market-driven leaders. Martin Luther King describes such leaders as thermometer-type leaders.
Thermometer-type leaders merely reflect the temperature of society and are contrasted by thermostat-type leaders who do not begin by seeking to reflect the temperature of society. Instead, they regulate the temperature.
A principle-centred leader offers himself or herself to lead an organization or country not merely on the basis of how well he or she is able to read the mood of the organization or country and how aligned his or her values are in relation to those of the organization. Rather, their leadership is grounded principally and critically on how effectively he or she can transform the organization, moving it to a higher level of functioning. This is a most incontestable assertion about what leadership is. A leader’s job is that of creating transformations and improvements in the way a system operates.
Covey, in his book mentioned above, discusses some characteristics of principle-centred leadership. These include:
- Compass: Without a compass an adventurer can be easily lost resulting in part from yielding to conflicting voices. A compass is located in a clear set of values and do not change with each wind of popular sentiment.
- Service: Principle-centred leaders see life as a mission and commit themselves to serving causes greater than those connected to personal self-interests. Thus, while a conscientious person will pay attention to personal interests and meeting personal needs, being principle-centred means that a leader will not make the pursuit of the function of leadership about self’s interest.
- Belief in others: Principle-centred leaders are aware of the weaknesses of those around them, but they do not focus their engagements on others’ weaknesses but their strengths.
When we match compass, service, and belief in others as core elements of principle-centred leadership, what emerges is a picture of purposefulness rooted in a fundamental sense of who one is. Such leadership leans towards serving a larger cause, which creates space for others, not out of obligation or duty, but by the conviction that others matter.
Tests of leadership in 2021
Leaders of the Republican party in the United States of America faced tests of their leadership a year ago when, on January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 elections. Despite the gut-wrenching pictures of the assault on that country’s democracy and the threat that the members themselves experienced, a majority of the leaders of that party have sought to downplay the atrocious nature of the events, publicly, in order to protect their political careers and power ambitions. Their stances have not been governed by a compass, service to others, or a belief in the good of others. Their refusal to take a stance at a time of controversy and challenge reflects a surrender of their better judgment, which some have expressed in private – which have since been made public.
I predict that all the leaders of the Republican party who have sought to place personal ambitions above the interests of their country, will be remembered, few by name, for the hollowness of their convictions and recorded in history as those who lacked the courage to do and say the right thing and to truly show leadership. Two of their leaders who will stand out from among them because they were willing to go against the grain of popular Republican sentiment and be governed by a compass and focusing on service to the larger cause are Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.
There are two elements of the courage shown by these two leaders which should be highlighted. The first is the fact that both of them knew that there were consequences for their decision not to go along with the crew of principle-bending party members who publicly sought to ingratiate themselves with Donald Trump. The second is that they did not wait until some politically convenient time to take their stance. They did so in the height of the controversy.
The “real time” courage of Cheney and Kinzinger may be further contrasted with the “late in the day” show of strength of former members of the Trump cabinet and inner circle who found their voices only after they had left, or been kicked out of office. It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the true character and strength of people whose purported show of courage occurs when there is nothing to lose or when several others are doing the same. The real test of character is shown in what we say and do, where we stand, when the tide is against us, and when we must go it alone. Leaders set examples; they do not follow the crowd.
Jamaica and the politics of popularity
In Jamaica, the test of leadership has also centred around the politics of popularity versus principles. The apparent calculus is that a successful leader has to be in sync with the wishes of the masses. As a consequence of this thinking, many political leaders often engage in “soundings” or “fly kites” to gauge what the popular sentiment is, before taking a position on controversial issues. This type of leadership is governed by public relations and popular sentiment, not principle.
This type of leadership is obviously precarious and unsustainable. Two examples of how unsustainable this approach to leadership can be seen in relation to the government’s position on mandating the taking of vaccines for COVID-19 as well as the restricting of movement and the declaring of States of Emergency as a security measure.
A majority of citizens are either opposed to taking the vaccine or are suspicious of it and also do not welcome curfews. Yet, government is pushing vaccines. At the same time, a majority of citizens welcome states of emergency, and government and their spokespersons are seeking to use the fact of such support as the basis for having them.
But the government cannot have it both ways. If popular support is the acid test of the wisdom of a decision, then we should not place restrictions on people who do not vaccinate, and we should have states of emergency. It is to be noted that the evidence on the efficacy of states of emergency, shows that despite heavy usage between 2018 and 2021, crime continues to spiral out of control with 2021 showing a higher murder rate than 2020. The question that arises in relation to states of emergency is, if popular support is the acid test, should government continue to implement them, despite questions about their efficacy?
The unassailability of principle
The experiences of Republican party members and the government of Jamacia show the fundamental value and unassailable nature of principle. In both cases, the reliance on popular sentiment is shown to be both unhelpful and unsustainable over the long term. Should popular sentiment be the primary foundation of public policy and the means of determining what is in the best interest of a community, then the result would be chaos. Ultimately, it is principles that are grounded in a compass, and aligned to serving a larger cause while having a deep belief in the good of others, which is the ultimate test of leadership. The questions for each of us are
- What kind of leader am I?
- What is my moral compass?
- By what higher good am I driven to serve society?
Fresh Opportunities in 2022
Each new day, and by extension each new year, provides fresh opportunities to do the right thing, and in this context, for leaders to demonstrate the capacity to be guided by principle. As the US Congress continues its investigations on the assault in the Capitol building and more revelations are made about the complicity of those whose duty it was to protect that country’s democracy, leaders will have opportunities to take a stand. The world is watching this so-called beacon of democracy.
With corruption being a major feature of the character of the government in Jamaica, along with nepotism and self-serving leadership, and a strong belief in leadership by popularity, the opportunity exists for people of principle of conscience in the private sector, the church, and academia to take a stance. Seeking convenient moments to take a stance or hoping to do so without offending others does not constitute leadership worthy of emulation.
I urge those who place compass above convenience, and who place priority on service rather than self-seeking behaviour as the primary purpose of life, to take a stand, guided by the sacred ideals of mutual accountability and truthfulness.