The answer to that question may not be as easy as it seems. Especially if your first answer is no.
As a college student in the mid-1950s, George Walker Smith — a retired pastor and prominent community leader in San Diego, California — spent his summers working as a busboy in Montgomery, Alabama. Every weekday morning, he caught a bus at Holt Street, and on those mornings, at Cleveland Ave., quiet, dignified Rosa Parks climbed aboard, on her way to the Montgomery Fair department store where she worked as a seamstress.
The story he then told is as applicable to today’s new nature movement as it was in his time of change.
“Many times, the front of the bus would be practically empty, yet those of us who were black would stand rather than sit in those empty seats, which were reserved for whites,” he recalled, when I interviewed him for my newspaper column in the 1990s.
In December, 1955, while attending Knoxville College in Tennessee, Smith picked up a newspaper and saw a photo of Parks. “I said, ‘I know that woman.” And he knew that Rosa Parks was not, as she was portrayed, simply a woman with tired feet who wasn’t going to take it anymore.
Since high school, Smith had known that Rosa Parks was one of many important local players in the fight for social justice, working for years with the Montgomery Improvement Association and the local NAACP chapter. Her moment came, and like many, she was ready.
The importance of what she did that day cannot be underestimated. But her defiant act “has been taken out of its most important context,” says Paul Loeb, author of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time.” “The way the story is usually framed, you would think that this woman acted on a whim.” To the contrary, all those years of humble, grassroots work prepared her for “that fabled moment,” as Loeb puts it.
When news media reduce a story of committed, long-term leadership to a 30-second celebrity moment, it undermines the true nature of leadership. This is true for every movement.
This reportorial reductionism suggests to the public that leaders “come out of nowhere to suddenly take dramatic stands.” Indeed, the overly condensed, freeze-dried version discounts those people who spend years toiling for a cause without fame. “It implies that we act with the greatest impact when we act alone,” he says. “It reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand — or at least an effective one — has to be a larger-than-life figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess.”
Rosa Parks was a leader, but leadership is even bigger.
In April 2001, the National Conference for Community and Justice (previously known as The National Conference for Christians and Jews), held its first national meeting on the issue of leadership. During a panel discussion, several San Diegans were asked to discuss their perception of leadership. These were folks from various sectors of society — a school district superintendent, a minister from a major African American church, a business executive, a community college president, a journalist and others.
We struggled. One after another, the panel members spoke in hesitant platitudes about the personality characteristics of leaders. “A leader must have courage.” “A leader should have charisma.” And so on. Oddly, few of the people on the panel would have attributed such attributes to themselves. As the panel droned on, two audience members nodded off.
Suddenly the discussion turned. A panel member said, “What we’re talking about is celebrity, not leadership – and just possibly leadership has more to do with relationships than personality.” The audience snapped awake. They seemed hungry for more of this, eager to move beyond the celebrity-focus that dominates our cultures’ definition of leadership.
In every movement, including the children and nature movement, true leaders have been working long and hard, often without much recognition, for decades before news media pay attention.
In recent decades, alternative visions of leadership have emerged. In the 1970s, the late John W. Gardner, founder of the citizen action organization Common Cause, began to write about leadership in a profoundly different way — one that examined the symbiotic relationship among members of a community and its recognized leadership.
“All citizens should have the opportunity to be active, but all will not respond,” according to Gardner. “Those who do respond carry the burden of our free society. I call them the Responsibles. They exist in every segment of the community—ethnic groups, labor unions, neighborhood associations, businesses—but they rarely form an effective network of responsibility because they don’t know one another across segments. [Italics are mine.] They must find each other, learn to communicate, and find common ground. Then they can function as the keepers of the long-term agenda.”
Other thinkers have also articulated a different approach to community leadership. Political scientist James MacGregor Burns introduced the idea of “transforming leadership” which occurs when “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” He dismissed charisma as a concept that collapses under close analysis, and that leadership is not confined to politics – but is expressed by so-called ordinary people in their own communities.
And the curious thing is that these leaders are often uncomfortable thinking of themselves as leaders.
Leadership is still evolving. As C&NN’s Avery Cleary writes this week, we see a growing understanding of the power of networks, especially those that cross sectors, transcend political, cultural and economic divisions; ones that combine the quiet strength of face-to-face leadership at the grassroots, and nationally, with the reach of the Internet. The Children & Nature Network was founded with these principles in mind.
“I see extraordinary creativity at the grassroots,” Gardner said before his death. “I see new modes of collaboration and conflict resolution, new ways of bringing social agencies, private foundations, neighborhood people, business and government to the same table. There’s a new world out there.”
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network. A decade ago, he worked with C&NN co-founder Mike Pertschuk and others as a consultant to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World awards program. This essay is drawn, in part, from writing he did for LCW and his newspaper column in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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