The Importance of Moral Leadership

What is moral leadership and how do we find moral leaders? I agree with David Gergen, writing in his book Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made’, when he speaks of leadership as a journey that has to start from within. That thought struck a chord with me and it sheds some light on why leaders behave the way they do when they assume these leadership roles. The way people lead reflects who they are. They need to understand themselves, control their emotions, and master their inner self before they can exercise leadership and be of service to others. These are the elements that develop character, help us grow, and develop a sense of purpose. For a leader, knowing their own values and having the ability to follow their true north in a complicated world is important. This is essential for developing moral courage and moral leadership. The journey starts within.  

When you think of leaders, what or who comes to mind? Some will think of leaders of the past and some will think of the leaders of today, many as possibly not quite fitting the bill. If you think of what you would want a leader to be on the other hand, what comes to mind? Many would say a role model and pillar of the community who has courage and acts, not in one’s own self-interest, but in the interest of the community they serve. Moral leadership is important and it is about people making choices for the benefit of others while trying to bring others along with them on different issues. Unfortunately, in today’s world, many leaders are more concerned with their own status and solidifying their own power base than they are with morality, doing what is right for the highest good of all people. We need leaders of moral courage, compassion, and character now more than ever before. The world has no shortage of challenges it is facing and now is the time for strong moral leadership. How do these leaders we need emerge? How do we develop leaders who will stand up, and who will be courageous? There is no simple answer to these questions but there is hope.

A new younger generation of leaders has begun to emerge who have started to challenge the status quo and demonstrate courage. There have been several young leaders who have climbed the ranks to lead their countries at a younger age than those before them, capturing the mood of their nation and understanding what is required. In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was 34 when she took office in 2019 and she has focused on equality and climate change as key issues during her term, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made moves for Finland to join NATO, making a decision that has been shirked by previous administrations because of fear of what the repercussions might be. Dritan Abazović was 32 when he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Montenegro in 2022 and his government priorities are to fight against corruption, for more sustainable development, environmental protection, and better care for young people while continuing the path toward EU membership. 

Another leader who came to power at a relatively young age was the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern who was sworn into office aged 37. Key issues of concern have been cutting child poverty, homelessness, climate change, and equality. Ardern has forged a different path based on courage, strength, empathy, and compassion stressing kindness and well-being as a governing virtue. She has sought to lead by example which was demonstrated in the aftermath of the horrific attack in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, which took the lives of 50 people while praying in a mosque. She sent a powerful message around the world about New Zealanders’ shared values, that those who seek to divide us will never succeed and that New Zealand will always protect the diversity and openness that is its strength. In solidarity with the Muslim community, Ardern wore a hijab while visiting the two mosques that were attacked and showed her empathy as she was embraced by mourners. The empathy which she delivered could be heard in her words “You are us, we feel grief, we feel injustice, we feel anger and we have that with you”. Her heartfelt compassion in the wake of tragedy shows her as an example that other world leaders should take note of. 

In the United States, people are showing similar leadership qualities such as Stacey Abrams who is running for Governor in Georgia and has fought against voter suppression. Liz Cheney is an example of someone in a leadership position standing up for what is right and what she believes in, one of the only Republicans making a bi-partisan effort on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Cheney has faced abuse, and threats and has been censured by her own party but she has carried on fighting for what she believes to be right in the face of it all.  People are showing leadership in their respective positions across politics, society and within the community but the question is how do we ensure they are not a minority but are front and center acting as a catalyst for change. This kind of moral leadership needs to become the standard-bearer and the benchmark that we should be comparing all leaders to. 

The next generation is rising. Young people across the United States and further afield are becoming energized and inspired. They are demanding more from leaders and those in positions of power and informed on the issues that will affect them in the years to come. Thrust into the world of activism by the largest school shooting in American history, Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg has become one of the most compelling voices of his generation on gun violence and control. The co-founder of March for Our Lives, his call to “get over politics and get something done” challenges Americans to stand up, speak out and work to elect morally just leaders, regardless of party affiliation. Passionate in his advocacy to end gun violence, Hogg’s mission of increasing voter participation, civic engagement, and activism embraces a range of issues. Following the recent spate of mass shootings including the school shooting in Uvalde which killed 19 children and 2 adults and the shooting in Buffalo, New York which killed 10 and injured 3, Hogg organized protests to put pressure on political leaders to take action and pressed the need for gun control legislation.

This generation is more engaged at a younger age than previous generations, particularly on issues that are going to impact them increasingly in years to come. One only needs to think about Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old climate activist who started protesting for climate action aged 15 in her native Sweden. In 2018, Thunberg took the international stage beginning the school climate strikes and giving public speeches on the topic. Thunberg has stated that as she watched the Parkland students galvanize with the ‘March for Our Lives’ protests she was struck by how one defiant act like skipping school could be so powerful and how could she sit by knowing that the greatest crisis facing the world was unfolding. She was so inspired by the approach taken by young people protesting gun violence that she began to use these tactics to fight for climate action. It was slow at first but soon her social media presence expanded and she received national and international coverage. Her defiance paid off, drawing an estimated 4 million people to take the streets in September 2019 in support of Global Climate Strikes, the biggest single day of climate protests in history (Guardian, 2019). This leadership from someone so young on an issue of such importance is, and continues to be, inspiring.

Why is leadership important? Without good leadership, without a moral compass, there is no moral leadership. South Africa is a good example of what happens in a country when there is a lack of moral leadership. What took place in South Africa between 1948 and 1989 during the apartheid era was reprehensible and it happened in a vacuum of moral leadership. President F.W. de Klerk began to institute changes and reforms to dismantle apartheid when he came to power in 1989 and freed Nelson Mandela in 1990. They worked together to change South Africa and this culminated in a new constitution and Mandela becoming President in 1994. Mandela was able to precipitate change along with others who demonstrated courageous leadership alongside him. This shows what happens when moral leadership is introduced and courageous and righteous action is taken. Often people think that something like this could never happen in their own country but as we have seen across the world in recent years, things that would have seemed improbable can happen and all it requires is a lack of moral leadership. 

Why is moral leadership so important to a political forgiveness process? For a political forgiveness process to be successful and if we are to move forward each one of us needs to consider our own actions, our own place in society, and who we want to represent us. Are we looking for morality in leaders? Are we looking for leaders that we can trust? How can we make sure that this is the leadership that we are really getting? The fundamental change we need in society can only be enabled through each of our own actions. We can create the necessary conditions for that change yet it is up to each of us to play our part. We must all think long and hard about who we want representing us, and why. Do we want leaders who will agree with everyone and do nothing or do we want leaders who will do what is right no matter how difficult it is. We can affect change and we must seek to do so in an informed way.

Novel Ways of Healing: The Role of Political Forgiveness

“There is no more powerful force then a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggles and ancestors by remembering.”

Lonnie G Bunch III Director of the Smithsonian Institution

February marks Black History Month, a tribute to the black men and women who have made significant contributions to this nation, and across the rest of the world. Black History Month is about celebrating those who have shaped our nation for the better. It is about the shared experiences of all black people and how those experiences have challenged, and ultimately strengthened America. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history.

As school boards across the country argue over what should be taught in schools, Black History Month serves as a reminder of what has taken place in our country; the good, the bad and the ugly, and why it is so important to have a greater understanding of history. James Baldwin once said “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced” and this is a reminder of the importance of facing history.

History is powerful and history can be uncomfortable, but it is in history we can learn from the lessons of the past and forge a better future. Our nation is so polarized because we have a conflicting understanding of the past with competing narratives about our histories. To heal we need to establish a shared truth and a collective memory which can then begin to unite us. There is a real danger in ignoring the past and doing so brings added mistrust and prolonged pain within our nation. Black History Month provides an opportunity to revisit our past, to understand our history more deeply and bring to light the harmful beliefs and attitudes which have developed in our nation revitalizing an awakening for the need for racial justice.

Political forgiveness creates new possibilities for to how all sides can live peacefully together in a renewed society. One key element to laying this foundation is the construction of historical memory to ensure the past is not forgotten, but rather dealt with head-on as a means of focusing those involved in the process and seeking to end the violence. To this end Bryan Stevenson, a public rights attorney, established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson has devoted his life to exposing racial bias in the United States penal system and shining a light on the uncomfortable history of the United States. He understands that it is necessary to address past wrongs with truth and reconciliation efforts and yet his approach is not what we typically think of in terms of a traditional truth and reconciliation model.

Stevenson’s approach focuses on creating physical markers of the nation’s racial crimes across the state including documenting the history of the slave trade in the form of signposts acknowledging the grim history of our nation. Through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, Stevenson began a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching’s by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating memorials that acknowledged the horrors of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynching’s in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. Several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.

To create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynching’s, and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African Americans terrorized by lynching’s and humiliated by Jim Crow. It memorializes thousands of black people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death after the Civil War. The Legacy Museum was created as a narrative type museum where people can get a first-hand experience of what it was like to be a slave. The building itself was the former site of a slave warehouse existed giving those who visit a stark reminder of the past. When people enter the museum, they are standing on the ground where enslaved people were put in pens and held until they were taken to the auction block down the street. The first thing visitors see are slave auction books that advertise people for sale and within are the ads trying to recover people who have run away. It is a stark sight to see such a site and the horror which once occurred there. The slave pens look empty but when someone walks up to them, it triggers a motion sensor and a hologram appears where you will see and hear an enslaved person give an account of how they were pulled away from their siblings, their parents, their children, and how they were sold. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is something every American should experience. It is our history, and we must deal with that fact.

The museum narrative goes from slavery to lynching, from lynching to segregation, and then from the segregation era to the contemporary era. In the last exhibit, visitors sit down, pick up a phone, and talk to someone who is incarcerated in prison today. They hear personal accounts of what it was like to be young, some as young as 13, and be sentenced to life without parole. They hear what it was like to be innocent on death row. The purpose of the museum and memorial is to create connections between the past and the present so people can understand how the injustices of the present are logical outcomes of the past. This narrative was created so people could understand what happened and recognize that now the narrative can be changed, and it must be changed.

In the museum there are hundreds of jars of soil which were taken from lynching sites. On these jars are the names of the victims and the date of their lynching’s. Visitors are given the opportunity to go to these sites where the lynching’s took place, to collect jars and it can be a powerful experience for many. In one instance a middle-aged black woman requested to go to one of these sites. Following a meeting ahead of the trip she was ready to go and was given a jar and a note of what to do. It turned out that the lynching site which she was assigned to was in a remote area. This made her extremely nervous, but she decided to go anyway.

She was about to start digging when a truck drove by driven by a white man and the truck slowed down and stared at her. The truck stopped, turned around and drove by again and she could feel his eyes on her. Then the truck stopped. A tall white man got out of the truck and started walking toward her making her even more nervous. She had instructions which detailed that she did not have to explain what she was doing. She could just say that she was getting dirt for her garden, and that is what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and asked her what she was doing, she said something else “I’m digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in 1931, and I’m going to honor his life”. She was so scared that she started digging faster. The man stood there and said, “does that paper talk about the lynching?” to which she told him it did and the follow up was not something she expected, “Can I read it?” The woman gave the man the paper, and he stood there reading while she was digging. He put the paper down and turned to the woman as she was digging to ask “would it be okay if I helped you?” Then this white man got on his knees. She offered him the little plow to dig the soil and he said, “no, no, no. you use that”. He started throwing his hands into the soil with such force that his hands were getting coated with soil. He kept throwing his hands and digging feverishly. That moved her. The next thing she knew tears were running down her face. He stopped and said, “oh, I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you” but she answered, “no, no, no, no, you are blessing me”, and they kept putting the soil in the jar.

When the jar was almost full, she noticed the man was slowing down and that his shoulders were shaking. She turned to look at him and saw the man had tears running down his face. She stopped and she put her hand on this man’s shoulder asking if he was all right. In a stunning reply he said no, “I’m just so worried that it might have been my grandparents that were involved in lynching this man”. They both sat there with tears running down their face. When all was done, the man stood up and said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar”. She too wanted to take a picture of the man holding the jar. The woman brought the man back to the museum where they put the jar on the exhibit together. This was a powerful moment for them both, a shared history being acknowledged and the pain allowed to air (‘NPR, Terry Gross, 2020).

Moving moments like that do not always happen when you tell the truth about history and when you have every reason to be afraid and angry. Until we commit to dealing with the past and encouraging moments like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration. This is the face of a political forgiveness process. It is about people coming together, deciding to live together in a different way, a way which has healing at its core. This can only be achieved if we take responsibility for our past and make different choices for the future. In many cases these experiences can be so profound as we learn the power that forgiveness can bring, even on a symbolic level.

The United States was founded on the principle that we are all created equally and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We have never been able to live up to this guiding principal yet it is something we can aspire to and something we can achieve but it must start now. Unfortunately, systemic racism still exists in our nation today and diminishes who we can truly become. If we can face our past openly and honestly by working together as one people and uphold the principle we are founded on, we will become a stronger nation, a more perfect union, and a more perfect version of ourselves. We are all equal, you no better than I and I no better than you. We must acknowledge our history, no matter how difficult it is, and we must educate future generations about out history so they can actively choose a better path forward and to never allow the injustice of the past to be repeated. The future can be better, the future must be better and the work to achieve this is long overdue. It is time to get to work.