R.W. Emerson, "Heroism"
Today is a quiet, rainy and contemplative day. A good day for being alone. A good day for sitting back and taking stock of where you are, where you've been and where you hope to go. To listen very quietly to yourself and check for those signs that the universe is unfolding as it should. To listen for your own authenticity.
That quote from Emerson struck me today for a simple reason. For many years I did exactly the opposite of that on a day to day level. Instead of being a persistent man, determined to figure out my own values, my own priorities, my own thoughts on a particular matter, I would, more often than not, try to "reconcile myself to the world." To wrap my thoughts or feelings or understandings into what someone else put forth. To play it safe and go along with the crowd. Not necessarily because the crowd was right or wrong about something, but sometimes just to be able to remain part of the crowd itself. There is safety in numbers and sometimes it's just plain scary to stand on your own and speak your truth in the face of any other opposing viewpoint.
Which leads me to another Emerson quote from 'Self-Reliance' that I have used on these pages before:
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself, for better, or for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil, bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."
Taken together these two passages are powerful for me. The idea that we can only be ourselves and it is only through our own hard work that we can become the best that we are capable of, and, that in order to achieve that, we have to have spent time actually figuring out what it is we value and then not allow any force in the universe to move us from that spot, unless and until, we determine for ourselves that it is the right time to move. Figure out what matters and then stand rock-solid still and defend those values against any attack that the world may mount.
This line of thinking started for me today on Facebook. I had no idea what I was going to write about until I came across the following quote from conservative columnist Ann Coulter in response to the calls across college campuses for a national day of action and it's comparison to the Students for a Democratic Society movement from the 1970's:
"So at the moment anyway, I mean I don't know what's going to happen in New York today, but at the moment, I'm not really worried of a movement like SDS, which really swept a lot of college campuses, taking over. Of course, if it does, just remember the lesson from my book: it took just a few shootings at Kent State to shut that down for good."
And the surrender can happen that easily. Ms. Coulter apparently isn't worried about a student movement spreading across college campuses because, after all, if it gets too bad, random violence that kills innocent people in a shocking manner has a tendency to end movements like that pretty quickly. And tonight, OWS protestors in both Los Angeles and Philadelphia face forced evictions from law enforcement. At midnight. In the dark of night.
What started me thinking about all of this is how quickly and easily my eyes passed over the Coulter comment when I read it the first time. How I just kind of read it and then moved on and then suddenly stopped and had to go back and read it again. And then again. "Did she really say that? Did she really just seem to advocate for violence in order to end peaceful protest?" I'm not a fan of Ann Coulter by any stretch of the imagination, but what struck me was how easily her words just seemed to slide by my eyes the first time. How it took a minute to register the shock to my consciousness, that that wasn't right. Had I really become so numb that I simply couldn't be moved by the level of callous disregard that the quote implied? And then slowly I could feel a sort of angry resolve coming over me. Not firebrand angry, just kind of calmly resolute. I don't give a damn about Ann Coulter or her politics. Nor in many ways, do I give a damn about a lot of the particular platforms of the various OWS movement participants. But that quote started to bring into focus something that does matter. Where is the place where I would stand alone if necessary? Where is the place inside me that says "I may be only one, but at least I am one." Ann Coulter influences tens of thousands of people a day with her writing and public appearances. I influence a tiny fraction of that. An almost infinitesimally small fraction. But it doesn't matter. Not in the slightest. I serve as a Soldier to defend the Constitution of the United States. Not for political expediency, nor fame, nor reward. I serve to protect Ann Coulter's right to say whatever she wants and for those students to protest whatever they want and for every member or participant in the OWS movement to say whatever they want. And we happen to be living in a moment when a lot of those things that are being said are ugly and unappealing and revealing to many, and unpopular and emotional and provocative. There are a lot of different people with different agendas and different positions running around right now. Each of them advocating something different. It is up to us - each and every one of us - to determine for ourselves what it is that we stand for. Where will we stand alone? Over what and for what? And for how long? And at what cost?
"...But when you have chosen your part, abide by it...."
And that is what leaders must do too. We must choose a part and abide by it. We must keep clarifying and ensuring that we know where we stand and why. We have to know it, so that our subordinates can know it. In order to know it, we have to spend time thinking about it and considering it and forming our own independent ideas about it. To become our own man or woman. To not let the Anne Coulters or the Keith Olbermans of the world determine our position for us. And sometimes we have to be willing to stand alone, or to stand in the face of seemingly great odds or to just be willing to stand up at all.
In last weeks post, I talked about caring, about giving a damn. Regardless of what it's about. Just care about something. And care about it passionately. This week I realized how far I had slipped sometimes into getting sucked into things without giving them any consideration at all. We live in momentous times. We are truly living in a changed world and a global community. There are protests going on the world over in support of various causes and claims. There are new ideas being brought forward for consideration each day. There are new truths being revealed every moment. The world may be moving faster than we would like it to sometimes, but that does not mean that we can simply choose to ignore it.
Leadership requires a vision for ourselves and our organization. A purposeful demonstration of what matters. A choice to consider where we stand or to simply accept that which is being handed to us every day. Leadership requires that we sometimes stand alone in the face of the crowd and determine that the crowd is wrong. That the consensus viewpoint is wrong. That you alone have determined what is right and true and best for you and then being willing to stand rock-solid still in the face of the crowd, alone. Content in the warmth and protection of your well thought convictions.
Where and for what are you willing to stand alone? Answer that, and you begin a journey towards finding out who you are. Answer that and you might become a self-reliant hero.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.