Leaders' Edge Advisor

Vol. 3, No. 1 - by Gary De Carolis, President


“One person with courage is a majority.” (slightly modified)
-Andrew Jackson

LEADERSHIP AND COURAGE

Leading in times of change is a daunting challenge for any individual. Yet if we are going to evolve into a more humane society, a place where all people regardless of abilities can have a place to flourish, then some measure of people will have to summon up for what is arguably the most important ingredient for system change: courage.

Personal Foundation for Courage

One of my earliest childhood memories is of the day my father took me to work with him. My dad was a music therapist at a state mental hospital in New Jersey. I recall him taking me into a building and down a set of stairs into a basement corridor. We walked along what seemed to me like an underground tunnel, dimly lit by small windows at the top.

As my father and I were walking, I began to make out what looked like cages – iron-barred cells on one side of the hallway. With shock, I realized that the cells contained people, lying naked on straw-laden concrete floors. This horrific scene was like something from another world, and was seared indelibly into my young brain.

The other life-changing experience of that day was to see my father lead an orchestra of about 20 patients in a large room in that same basement. The members of the orchestra all had major mental illness or neurological disorders that had landed them in the state hospital. I recall that many could not speak; some were unable to walk. And yet, there they were, all playing music together, led by my father.

I don’t recall how the music sounded, but that did not really matter. What stood out for me were two facts. First, the band members clearly loved my father. He believed in the band members, who had been discarded by the rest of society, and cared enough to dedicate himself to helping them be the best musicians they could be. Second, music made all of the band members happy. I saw smiles on the faces of people who had little to be happy about. Music can bring joy to people, even in the most desperate of circumstances.

I firmly believe that this early experience came to play a major role in who I am today. The conditions my father worked in, the care he gave to those in need and the joy he was able to bring to that group of people all laid a strong foundation of optimism and the courage to fight for a better life for those that are less fortunate.

All leaders, if you dig into your life and reflect on your experiences, can find those events that have deep meaning for you and also may hold the ingredients that allow you to be courageous at those critical moments when courage is necessary. To help move your organization or community to new places yet discovered will take many courageous steps in the face of much resistance. Just know that most of what we have today was built on the backs of others who were willing to put their lives on the line. They had courage.

The Courage of your Convictions

It is one thing to hold onto one’s beliefs; it is another thing to do something about those beliefs. For me, treating all people as valuable members of society is a very strong value that drives much of what I have done in my life. We all deserve the right to live in community, the right to have friends, the right to do what you are blessed in skills to do, the right to be free, the right to be educated, the right to decent housing, the right to express your religious beliefs and the right to love those that you care about. Each of these rights and the very basis of our own society, the right to live in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, has not come without individuals willing to fight for those rights.

In the 18th Century, our forefathers risked their well-being and their lives, as well as those of their families, to guarantee those rights, more for others than for themselves. They were people driven by an internal voice that said, “We can do better.” Those few people who hear that voice and act on it on behalf of others are generally viewed as courageous. But my sense of those people is that they would not regard their actions as being motivated by courage, but rather by moral imperatives. They could do nothing less. To live with themselves they needed to do whatever it took to bring about changes that would improve people’s lives and prospects. When I think of other great people in our history, like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez and so many others who have moved our nation forward, they all acted on those convictions that they so dearly held.

These people changed the course of events for others. They put their own lives on the line to make it possible for people to have better lives. Such leaders have an uncanny ability to take the best of what people hope for, articulate it in a vision that most can understand and then take action to make that vision become reality. They are architects in the business of helping design a world that speaks to the highest of human potential.

Why these people? What brought them to the point of risking so much for the greater good? One key ingredient, I submit, is exposure to other people and life events from other vantage points. In the book, Common Fire, which tells the stories of 100 modern social change leaders, the authors found that a shared characteristic was that nearly all had an “out of tribe” experience early in their lives. They had a glimpse into the lives and struggles of people from different races, cultures and/or classes. Sometimes a vision for what the world could be is shaped more by what is not, than what is. Put another way, these leaders saw prejudice, discrimination, abuse and pain and turned those things upside down. They saw a world that could be – one that reflected equal and fair treatment for all individuals, respect for all individuals no matter their circumstances, race, gender, class or culture. And they knew that they must act on their vision; they were motivated by an internal drive that would not let them turn their backs on what they saw as great injustice or want.

Conclusion

In the end, to move people, nations and systems forward, individual people must do courageous things. Great injustices can be endured and even accepted by the many for fear of what would happen if they went against the majority opinion. It is those few, who if you asked them, would say they just did what was right, that have addressed head-on the wrongs that are experienced by a segment of the population. What possesses them to take up such causes, and with such passion? Why them and not others? What we know is that we are all better for their courageous acts and stand ready today to carry on the reforms necessary to make life better for all people.

I know that for me, seeing the condition of people in that state hospital and my father’s commitment to improving the quality of their lives has been a strong motivator for my entire adult life. Though the results of my efforts may pale beside those of the world-renowned heroes mentioned here, my determination to bring about more respect and opportunities for those with disabilities remains unshaken by the obstacles I face in the process. How about you?”

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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