In our Leadership Snohomish County Book Club, we’re reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” She weaves together the stories of four American presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson — drawing out lessons and guidance for leaders today.
It has been so affirming to see that the turbulent times that we currently live in are not the first or worst in our history. It is easy to be myopic and lost in fear — imagined or real.
When we look at a situation through a historic lens, we often receive a valuable gift of perspective. It’s reassuring to see that no one path took the four presidents to the pinnacle of their political leadership. These men differed widely in their affluence, temperament, appearance, physical ability and privilege. The uniting factors in each of these stories, though, includes ambition, perseverance, hard work and the way each worked to enhance his individual qualities.
It is interesting to read David Greenberg’s review in The New York Times Book Review. He says in part:
“While she highlights her subjects’ common traits — preternatural persistence, a surpassing intelligence, a gift for storytelling — it is the differences among them that are most interesting. For example, where Abraham Lincoln grew up under the discipline of an austere father who would destroy the books that his son loved to read, Franklin Roosevelt thrived under the trusting indulgence of a loving mother. In contrast to Theodore Roosevelt, whose curiosity led him to immerse himself in pastimes like studying birds and other animals, Lyndon Johnson “could never unwind,” channeling his manic energy into his ambitions. The only safe generalization is that you can’t really generalize.”
This sounds a lot like what we say now about our Snohomish County leaders.
We cannot generalize about the characteristics that define a successful leader. If anything, I hear most often that our community leaders often do not consider themselves to be leaders. Many who enter LSC programs are reluctant to proudly own that label. More commonly, they express the desire to better themselves and the community and region in which they live and work.
In our LSC classes, we talk a lot about authenticity and building on the strengths we have to make a difference. By showing up as our unique selves with our own gifts, we have a far more significant impact than we could by trying to fit into a mold or someone else’s ideal. Just as a key has different notches to fit each lock, our own strengths create a master key like no other to “unlock” our ability.
So, we can agree that you can’t generalize. We see that
We do have something interesting in common, though. And that is in making the choice to lead. These four men – as different as they all were – all made those choices.
Each year, Harry Parker, Corrections lieutenant from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, comes to speak to the LSC Signature class about leadership. He starts by sharing that there is one word in the English language that is the most powerful word of all. The class thinks as he presents and then, at the end, when asked what that powerful word could be, the class offers up many answers – love, god, money, power, influence, humility, compassion, resilience…. The list goes on.
Only once in my six years at LSC has anyone guessed the correct answer according to Parker. The word is choice.
We are each given countless opportunities each day to choose how we show up as parents, leaders, friends, partners and individuals. These choices add up. They create your foundation. They allow you to chart your course, try again, build a career and make a difference. Another choice awaits should you make one that isn’t quite right.
When you find a situation unacceptable, you can choose to make a change.
You can educate yourself, use your voice to advocate, or employ your social capital to engage.
Consider how you might apply yourself to a cause that you care about. How will you use your power of choice?
Kathy Coffey is executive director of Leadership Snohomish County, an organization that connects, ignites and develops county-specific sustainable leaders to strengthen our communities. She is a member of Lynnwood’s Human Services Commission, a South Everett–Mukilteo Rotarian and sits on the board of directors for the YMCA of Snohomish County. To learn more about Leadership Snohomish County, visit www.leadershipsc.org