“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.” Those words from a great him by Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of the 20th century seem most appropriate for Memorial Day 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.
What does wisdom and courage look like today, and what kind of leadership provides it? All that got me to thinking about my own evolution in my understanding of what effective leadership is. My journey down memory lane took me back to the summer of 1962 when I was 15 years old and completely screwed up my first real opportunity to be a leader. I was an Explorer Scout, a part of the Boy Scouts of America for 14-18 year-olds, and our Post took an annual canoe trip to the Boundary Waters just north of Minnesota in Canada. Even though that summer was my first time making that trip I was made a patrol leader of one of the two small groups even though there were other scouts who had been on that trip before. I assume it was because I was one of two Eagle Scouts who were making the trip.
It was my first experience of the Peter Principle, though I didn’t know that term at the time. In fact the book by that title by Laurence J. Peter wasn’t published until 1969, but its basic premise that people in a hierarchy rise the “level of their incompetence” was a pretty good description of my week in Canada. For example, when we arrived at our first campsite and had our tents up a couple of the scouts came to me as their “leader” and asked me what they should do next. I didn’t have a clue and hadn’t thought about it, but I couldn’t admit that to them or myself; so I said something stupid like, “I don’t know. Go entertain yourselves.” I had missed a critical leadership moment when I could have said, “Look guys, I’m new here. Some of you have been on this trip before. Can we sit down together and you help me figure out a list of things we need to do and who is best equipped to do them.” What a difference in the tone of the whole trip that would have made, and better yet if we had begun those discussions before we left home or in the car on that long road trip. Ah hindsight!
And in retrospect here’s my analysis of why that didn’t happen. There was a serious flaw in the Eagle Scout program in those days which has since been addressed with the addition of an Eagle Scout Project requirement to attain the highest rank in Scouting. I’m not sure when the change was made but for many years now a Scout has been required to develop and carry out a community service project as the capstone of the necessary advancement through the ranks. The official language includes this statement: “Eagle Scout projects are evaluated on the benefit to the organization being served and on the leadership provided by the candidate.”
That leadership training was lacking in my days as a Scout. The only requirement back then for an Eagle award was the successful completion of a prescribed list of 21 merit badges, including basic scouting skills like camping, hiking, canoeing, swimming, lifesaving etc. and a number of elective merit badges. When we had met those requirements we had to be recommended by our troop or post leaders for the rank of Eagle and then successfully be interviewed and approved by a panel of District Scouting leaders. That was no small task, and it took me 3 plus years to get there; and I don’t mean to be critical of the experience I had. My 10 years in Scouting, starting as a Cub Scout at age 8, provided me with many of the core values I try to live by today. My observation here is simply that all of those 21 merit badges I earned were based on individual achievement. Many were done in groups of scouts, but each of us individually had to meet the requirements. I had to hike so many miles. I had to swim so many yards and perform lifesaving techniques by myself. The athletics merit badge meant I was the one who had to run a certain distance in a specified time, etc. In none of those activities was attention paid to intentionally developing interpersonal or leadership skills.
And that was not my only experience being chosen to lead in my youth, but the pattern is similar. I was elected President of our high school student council for my senior year, and again it was not because of any leadership skills. I didn’t play any team sports or play in the band where I could learn about teamwork. I was deemed a leader because I was an honors student who always ranked near the top of my class, and I don’t say that to brag. I got good grades because I was blessed with a gift to easily memorize stuff, and I knew how to play the academic game. But getting good grades, like earning merit badges, was an individual activity. Language arts, math, science and history were all good things to learn but they had nothing to do with leadership.
My other shortcoming was that the only models I had of what leadership looked like were all hierarchical. My dad was a second lieutenant in WWII and most of my heroes and role models were military leaders. Leaders in my mind then were authoritarian figures who gave orders that others carried out. So when I was given a leadership role in scouts, school or church youth group my default modus operandi was too often to scold people for their behavior or failures rather than offer any constructive criticism or promote collaborative teamwork.
But here’s the redemption in my lifelong, still-unfolding lessons in leadership. As fate would have it I made a mid-life decision to return to graduate school when I was about 38 years old and God led me to enroll in a doctoral program in Rhetoric. I was drawn there because of my love of preaching and because a member of my church, Dr. Bill Brown, was a member of the Rhetoric faculty at Ohio State University. Rhetoric has a bad reputation these days because it has come to mean empty political posturing, but in the classic Aristotelian sense in means the art of persuasion – not to be confused ever with “The Art of the Deal.”
I must admit that after 14 years in parish ministry I still thought of preaching as a solitary and yes authoritarian activity. The theological movement to narrative and more dialogic preaching unfortunately arrived in seminaries just after I graduated. So grad school for me was an opportunity to catch up with the most current thinking and research on public speaking and the place I learned finally about teamwork and persuasive discourse that comes not from a “sage on the stage/pulpit, but from a guide on the side,” a fellow seeker of truth sharing my experience rather than an expert sharing pearls of wisdom.
But it was not just in the classroom at Ohio State that I learned about leadership. There was a very practical matter of how to make a living and help support my family while I was pursuing my academic goals. And again God provided an opportunity for me where I learned as much and probably more about leadership than I did in the classroom. A good friend from my college and seminary days just happened to be directing a program at OSU called the Commission on Interprofessional Education and Practice. I looked Mike up one day when I was on campus just to catch up over lunch. When he learned I was back in school he asked me if I would be interested in working with him as a graduate assistant. That would not only provide me with much needed income but would also pay my tuition.
To make this long story a little shorter, I worked with Rev. Dr. Mike Casto at what became the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio for the next 18 years. No, it didn’t take me that long to finish my doctorate. That part only took 4.5 years, but by the time I graduated I was so intrigued and integrated into the mission of the Interprofessional Commission (ICO for short) that I stayed as part of that staff until I retired. The ICO mission was to teach and promote collaboration among people in the helping professions, i.e. Allied Medicine, Education, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Theology. We did that through academic classes and continuing education conferences for practicing professionals. That program is nearing its 50th anniversary of existence.
The basic reason the ICO was created was because some visionary leaders let by Rev. Dr. Van Bogard (Bogie) Dunn, Dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Dr. Luvern Cunningham, Dean of the College of Education at Ohio State, realized that the issues facing American society in the late 20th century were too complex for any one profession to address them on their own. Bogie loved to quote President Harry Truman who once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I was reminded of that quote recently when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has done an excellent of job of addressing this crisis because of the way he described his collaborative philosophy of dealing with the current Pandemic this way. He said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
These are unprecedented times that require the best leadership possible, and that means drawing on the expertise of professionals in every relevant field. It means learning from the experience of other countries through global collaboration with the World Health Organization and with experts in China who have been dealing with this crisis longer than anyone else. It means putting aside egos, jealousy and professional or political pride to achieve the common good. It requires both/and thinking and not the dualism of either/or. Specifically it means that we all know we need to save people’s jobs and livelihoods, but we also need to do that in ways that are safe and preserve as much human life as possible. It’s not just one or the other, and that means we all need to figure it out together. It means wearing uncomfortable masks, even it hot, humid weather because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good of other people who are more at risk that you are. Leadership in this time means bipartisan collaboration and compromise. With such leadership we may be able to learn to live with this virus as individuals and as a global community. Without such leadership, not so much.
One final quote comes to mind from the infancy of American democracy, and it’s even truer today. In those early days the red and blue colonies were just as divided on many issues as our red and blue states are today. Ben Franklin addressing the founders of our democratic experiment and the great odds they were facing said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”