AS WE ENTER a presidential election race that promises to be protracted and shrill, many Americans despair of finding a leader we can trust. We have a crisis of leadership, and we see it everywhere. It is far larger than the upcoming election and, whatever the outcome, will not so simply be solved -- nor will the challenges that divide us at home and that project the United States around the globe as a leader to be feared, but not trusted.
We need a national dialogue on leadership itself and how each of us can play a part in creating and sustaining practices of leadership in which it will be safe to place our trust. Every American knows something about the values we want our leaders to embody and uphold on our behalf. And many of us worry that our country is making grievous mistakes, both here and abroad: dwelling in fear, painting the world in black and white, meeting violence with violence, fueling hatred, acting in isolation with arrogance and hubris, hardening ourselves to the suffering and pain our actions are causing. We sense there are better ways to lead.
I believe that the leaders we admire live five essential commitments:
First and foremost, they question themselves. Effective leadership comes from an inner core of integrity, and yet it is not fixed, stubborn, or implacable. Leaders we trust are open to our thoughtful influence, aware that they cannot possess all the answers, eager to hear responsible critique and to work with it. They resist the temptation to believe they are larger than life. The first and most difficult obligation of a leader is the Socratic injunction, "Know thyself."
Second, leaders we trust honor their partnerships. Knowing they won't be successful alone, they value partnerships as the basic units for accomplishing work, and they invest in preserving partnerships that remain capable of receiving honest critique.
Third, trustworthy leaders resist the use of force except as a last resort. Leadership is by definition the exercise of power, and leaders are called upon to deploy their power on one side or another of high-stakes disputes. As tempting as it is to wade in with what looks like decisiveness, effective leaders know that interventions imposed from on high seldom yield enduring peace, whether in households, workplaces, or far-off countries.
Avoiding the use of force reflects a conception of the leader as the person whose effectiveness depends on being able to hear multiple sides of a dispute and to create conditions within which it can be transformed at the most local level where those directly affected can assume responsibility and discover their own resourcefulness.
Fourth, knowing that differences of opinion, perspective, and world view are a crucial part of life and learning, leaders who can be trusted value differences, not only as an ethical imperative and a measure of respect for others, but also as a unique creative resource. In any group, organization, or system, the voices from the margins hold the buried wisdom that can keep us honest and alert to our self-deceptions. There are aspects of our culture to which alienation is a healthy response. Only when we have leaders who understand healthy conflict in its inevitability and its productivity, will we begin to develop the skills to mine it well.
Fifth, leaders who can be trusted create communities that function as sustaining circles of trust. Out of such communities leadership can emerge as a collective project that derives its power and authority from a cooperative commitment to a larger whole.
When Americans come together to form a supportive community for the purpose of enabling its members to develop their own potential and seek the common good, we know we have the courage to communicate across wide chasms. This is the essence of our national experiment, the spirit and the result of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
In this crucial election year, all Americans need to initiate a deeper dialogue on national leadership based in our strongest ideals -- equity, freedom to disagree, fairness, strength, mutual responsibility, and national unity. As we take up this conversation, we ourselves will be leading from our best and highest aspirations, preserving for succeeding generations the legacy we inherited.
Diana Chapman Walsh is president of Wellesley College.
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