Years before George Washington became president of the United States, he penned 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.” His writing project was more an exercise in youthful penmanship, because he copied a translated older text, originally written by French Jesuits. Nevertheless, the focus of Washington’s observations was civility: polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.
A few of Washington’s rules struck me recently, as I was thinking about the current presidential campaign: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.”…….”When you reprove another be without blame yourself.”…… “Let your conversation be without malice or envy.”……”In all causes of passion allow reason to govern.”
Our early American leaders lived in times of tremendous social change. Sometimes we overly romanticize their lives, forgetting their environment of fear, social unrest, “Indian” atrocities, counter-reaction colonialists’ atrocities, slave rebellions, fear-mongering propagandists, intercultural conflicts, and the terrorism spread by rumors of foreign intrigue.
In a letter written to his wife, our second president, John Adams, confided to Abigail about his “fear that in every assembly members will obtain influence by noise not sense.” His letter went on to warn about the dangers of political leaders not acting with respect and decency to such a degree that the government would eventually fall apart.
Almost two decades into the third millennium, our country and our world are changing even more dramatically. Fear and anxiety are byproducts. The pace of change is accelerating. A bit ironically, a great many contemporary people are anxiously trying to maintain their identity as their very identity itself is changing. White Christian America, for example, is diminishing as a new form of immigrant America is taking shape: multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious. For a growing number of people, however, it is also an America increasingly disconnected from institutional religion. Perhaps that is more our challenge than our danger?
Millennials have now surpassed the Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. By around 2020, more than half of America’s (USA) children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group. Today 12.3% of our U.S. population is black. According to the latest projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population is expected to reach 28.6% by 2060.. ..A great mix of various cultural traditions and values. And of course one cannot ignore evolving gender and sexual identities. More than 8 million adults in the United States are lesbian, gay, or bisexual: comprising 3.5% of the adult population; and majority public opinion in the United States now supports same-sex marriage.
Reflecting about social change in our contemporary world — the Republican and Democratic conventions, the political crisis in Turkey, killings in Orlando and Dallas, the truck massacre in Nice, the latest shopping center killings in Munich, etc. — the first word that comes to my mind is leadership. Human problems require human solutions. We all need to be leaders, working together. Otherwise we disintegrate in feverish chaos.
In our families, schools, churches, and community organizations, we need to educate and equip young people with constructive leadership skills. At the same time we need to critique and disempower those “leaders” who do not lead but control. Those people are really not leaders but self-promoting authoritarian managers. The leadership responsibility rests on our shoulders.
What qualities characterize genuine and constructive leaders?
(1) Constructive leaders are honest and transparent. They have integrity. They neither manipulate people nor play with the truth.
(2) Constructive leaders create a vision of the future that is realistic and compelling. They are not afraid of change, but see it as a continual human challenge. They understand the changes on the horizon as new opportunities for human transformation and growth.
(3) Constructive leaders inspire and motivate. They help people engage with the present and build a more humane tomorrow. They reflect deeply on the signs of the times.
(4) Constructive leaders analyze and solve problems. They observe, judge, and act in collaborative problem-solving. Yes they are often recruited, trained, and chosen to solve problems. But they don’t do it alone. They cannot do it alone.
(5) Some people are very content to sit back and watch the world go by. Or they long to return to some romanticized former time, like the 1950s…..Constructive leaders have a higher level of perseverance. They have vision but are not daydreamers. They can be counted on to get things done. They move ahead. They don’t live in the past.
(6) Constructive leaders build on solid foundations of mutual respect and trust. They do not denigrate people but lift them up. The stronger the relationships, the better the leadership.
(7) Constructive leaders communicate with their people. They listen to them. They stimulate and promote collaborative leadership.
We are all called to leadership. Civility is a virtue. Change is a fact of life.