July 20, 2021
Last week, extreme violence and lawlessness gripped much of South Africa, as protests against the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma spiraled out of control. The unrest, the worst in more than a quarter-century, lasted more than a week, and was marked by massive looting, fires and more than 200 deaths. Ultimately, the South African army was called up to quell the dissent and to restore order. It was difficult to watch the goings on there and not think of Nelson Mandela whose election in 1994, following years of ethnic strife, brought a final end to Apartheid in South Africa. In his inaugural address, Mandela, in a tone reminiscent of Churchill, FDR, Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of a South Africa where all citizens might “walk tall, without any fear in their hearts.”
As I reminisced for those few seconds on the words of Mandela, something else struck me – something that applied to but also went far beyond the goings-on in South Africa. It was a sense of the state of leadership in the world today, and, in turn, the state of the citizenry, of the us, the people of this great country. For it occurred to me that in the prior history of the world, at the gravest of times, the greatest leaders, like those I mentioned above, all, remarkably, had one thing in common: they recognized the fear in the hearts of those they led and provided assurance that there’d be no further need of it. See, great leaders show empathy in regard to fear while providing assurance that everything will be ok.
And that’s the point for the week.
What’s largely been missing for the last 20 years or so here and in world politics are leaders willing to openly acknowledge fear in themselves and those they lead while offering a full-throated promise that brighter days are indeed ahead. Not since George W Bush stood on top of the rubble of the twin towers in the days after 9/11/01 has the world seen a leader willing to openly acknowledge the existence of and mandate driven by fear. Instead, it seems, modern leaders use fear to control, divide, and agitate those they should be calming, assuring and unifying.
Great leaders understand that fear is isolating and paralyzing. They know that the proper response to fear is never to minimize it. People who are frightened do not need someone in a position of insulated safety telling them they are overreacting. Great leaders also understand that there is no value in making things seem worse than they actually are. Fearmongering, as is occurring right now, today, in our country is divisive and paralyzing. People don’t want to be controlled, they want to be led. And they don’t want to be told the sky is falling; they simply want the truth and a plan to move forward. True, caring leaders understand this. They calmly offer those who follow them an honest assessment of what’s at stake. They recognize that there is something to be fearful of to be sure. But they, likewise, and most importantly, offer their assurance that together, and with courage, the team will prevail.
See, courage is not an absence of fear. Fearlessness is the same as wonton recklessness. Fearlessness is not a leadership trait; it’s a close cousin to narcissism and has no place on winning teams. No, courage is simply an unwillingness to let fear stand in the way of achieving one’s goals. Those with courage are still afraid; they simply do not let fear stand in their way.
As a result, they set an example for others to follow. They prove that whatever fears might exist can be overcome. They don’t control or manipulate; they simply walk ahead, providing footsteps to follow in. They show that winning is possible, and that life is better on the other side of whatever was causing folks to be afraid.
In doing so, these leaders, like Roosevelt, Mandela and Churchill create conditions where entire nations unify behind them, wiling to trust in them, to move from the known to the unknown, to stare down the throat of fear and laugh, firm in the knowledge that they can and will overcome that which they are afraid of. All because of a leader who recognized their fears and their dream of someplace better and courageously united them behind a plan to go there.
So, face then move beyond fear.
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