January 17, 2018

Five historical leaders offer 2018 inspiration

     An Italian city has the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Its architectural tilt is unintentional.  My bedside table has the Leaning Tower of Books.  Its appears-to-be-happenstance tilt is intentional.  On any given day, I have a minimum of 25 on-deck books to read.  
     Of all 2017’s reading, I rank Nancy Koehn’s Forged in Crisis number one.  Why did the Harvard Business School historian trump the likes of John Grisham, master of the page-turners?  While I enjoy novels, Professor Koehn reached back more than 150 years to pull into modern times the examples of four men and a woman who demonstrated history-shaping leadership.
     As I read each story, I said aloud, “Amen!”  I put on my early-2018 to-do list to buy a case of Forged in Crisis and distribute all of the copies.  The book’s subtitle is “The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”  If ever we needed inspiration, now is the turbulent time.  Our current environmental crisis begs for courageous leadership.  Contrary to what some may think, Koehn stresses leaders aren’t born.  Leaders are made.  They emerge, just as David stepped forward to challenge Goliath in biblical times.
     Read what Koehn wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s failed effort to stop the Civil War with his original emancipation proposal: 
     “Lincoln was greatly disappointed.  As he considered this failure, he learned a critical lesson: he had no silver bullets to save the Union.  This was difficult to accept.  But he was beginning to understand that the complexity of conflict and the magnitude of its stakes made a single, clear-cut way to end it virtually impossible.
     “This is insight for today’s leaders.  We are under pressure to move fast, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and make a big impact.  But the reality of trying to accomplish something real and good gives lie to the seductive notion that there is one simple solution.” 
     Read more of this dilemma in the chapter entitled “Emerging Vision.”
     Do those words sound relevant, as we consider our temporary negotiating stalemate with Republic Services Inc.’s plan to build mountains of toxic coal ash in its Broadhurst landfill?  Two years ago, many sighed, “There’s nothing we can do.”  Twenty-four months later, it is clear: “Yes, there is something we can do.”  And that “something” is to maintain the willpower to never give up and keep negotiating with Republic.  It is in the community’s and the corporate giant’s best interest to reach an amicable accord.   
     Want more inspiration? 
     Go with Koehn back to 1915 and British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s crisis in his quest to discover the South Pole.  As his crew watched their ship, Endurance, get trapped in ice and eventually be swallowed, Shackleton did not despair.  He forged ahead with one goal: “Lead all 27 of his men to safety.”  Read the bone-chilling account and marvel.
     As our 16th president battled to reunite the Union, Frederick Douglass, an escaped and later freed slave, leveraged his courage and voice to end an ugly chapter in America’s history—human bondage.  With a bounty on his head, Douglass—against all odds—became a leader, one our nation sorely needed.
     In the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer used his backbone and words to stand up against Germany’s Third Reich.  Earlier in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the youthful minister detected Nazi evil on the horizon.  The Führer eventually tossed the made leader into prison.  Ironically, two weeks before Hitler took his own life, the Führer had Bonhoeffer hanged.  Nonetheless, he made the ultimate sacrifice for what was right.
     Koehn’s final example strikes closest to home.  Scientist Rachel Carson rose above her shyness to open the world’s eyes to the dangers of irresponsible use of chemicals—specifically DDT.  Her fearless efforts, along with her book, Silent Spring, forged Carson into a leader.  Quietly battling her own crisis, terminal cancer, the nature-loving introvert didn’t die before becoming the mother of the modern environmental movement.
     Is there hope in today’s environmental crisis in Wayne County? 
     Read Forged in Crisis.