Thursday, November 8, 2012

Leaders Don't Need to Be Elected

(From the November 8, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I am writing this on election night. It looks like it will be another election like those in years past in terms of being a close contest. There will be delighted cheers and deep disappointment when it is all over.

But it need not be this way. It’s not like the president, senators and congressional representatives we elect are the only leaders we can rely on. Far from it. In fact, while national policy and laws have far-reaching impact, national lawmakers may not be as directly relevant to our lives as certain people who we live near and see every day.

I thought about leadership in this context this past weekend when I was inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK), the National Leadership Honors Society. I was one of 39 new inductees into the Grand Valley State University chapter of this organization that recognizes those who show leadership in scholarship, athletics, community service, social and religious activities, media, and the arts.

Of interest to readers of this newspaper is the fact that John Mauro, a math teacher from Grand Haven, was an alumni initiate. He also was the keynote speaker at the little ceremony on the downtown Grand Rapids campus at noon on Sunday. The gist of his appropriate message was that if you have had the privilege of going somewhere or doing something, you then have the responsibility of taking someone else.

That’s a nice model for leadership. Politicians can be humble and selfless like that sometimes, even though many seem more focused on gaining power than in passing it on. But the point here is that we should not look only to politicians to benefit our society with leadership. This room of students being recognized is a microcosm of the potential we all have to benefit from emerging leaders in many fields, not just politics.

For example, three of the students honored have been in my classes. One graduates in December and has just returned from a study abroad opportunity in Spain. She has just been accepted by the Peace Corps, and expects to be assigned to a teaching role in Latin America, where she can use her Spanish language skills. After a two-year assignment, she hopes to work doing public relations for a non-government organization (NGO) in Latin America. Another student is an officer in a student organization I advise. She has already done two internships with Volkswagen in North America and even during the semester the major company taps her to represent them at trade shows, such as an event in California from which she has just returned. She will graduate in April and I fully expect her to be or advise corporate leaders within the next few years. The third student is an international graduate student from Belarus. I had her in a master’s class last year and am chairing her thesis committee currently. I was very impressed with her proposal to study the use of social media in crisis communications by multi-national companies.

None of these students has expressed an interest in running for political office. But I believe they all will make a meaningful impact on society, ours here in the United States as well as around the world. Their leadership is not in politics, but in business and social organizations. Their leadership does not come from being elected, but being inspired and ambitious. They do not lead on the basis of power but out of a desire to empower others.

That’s what real leaders do. They seize opportunities, seek solutions, mobilize people, and communicate by example. They are known not by title but by character of heart and selfless action.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, as important as it is (and which I don’t know as I write this), I am nevertheless optimistic about the future. That’s because I see real leadership all around. It doesn’t just get passed down from state and national capitols. It bubbles up from human capital.

Some are complaining that, regardless of who becomes president, the United States will suffer from an unwillingness of politicians in either party to compromise. That would be a annoyance and a problem if such partisan pettiness continues. But a greater problem would be a gridlock of the spirit. As Edmund Burke noted, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men (and women) do nothing. It is interesting to consider that Burke, a British philosopher of the 19th century, was praised by both liberals and conservatives.

If you don’t like the result of the election we had two days ago, don’t complain about the quality of our leaders. Do something. Be a leader.