Business Casual: Leaders And Followers

One of the first political speeches I remember watching was President John Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he inspired a nation with his famous, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Simple, but pretty powerful stuff. A different time, of course. Different issues. But it was the first time it occurred to me that I actually could do something to better my country besides waiting until I was old enough to vote. It gave me hope that governing was not the exclusive prerogative of a bunch of gray-faced old men. I had a sense that the country was united – regardless of party affiliation.

Some of that feeling may have been attributable to impressionable youth, a condition that no longer afflicts me.

But I recall two other occasions, both fairly recent, when I felt a real sense of unity that had little to do with being a member of a political party and everything to do with being a citizen of my country.

One was the speech President George W. Bush gave at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, addressing a city and a country that were reeling from the shock of American lives lost on American soil and trying to come to terms with the fact that the world had changed forever. It was comforting to see and hear the leader of the free world articulating some of what we were feeling.

The second occasion was the 2009 inaugur-ation of President Barack Obama when there was a palpable sense of pride and even wonder that our country had actually elected a black man to its highest office, signaling a new day. The feeling, which transcended political affiliation, was widespread, although those old enough to have experienced segregation certainly felt it in a much more personal way.

On both occasions, there was a sense of common purpose and solidarity that was as real as it was short-lived.

Still, the idea of an elected leader appealing to the things that unite citizens rather than those that divide them sounds awfully good, even if it does seem highly unlikely given the political climate, especially in Georgia. The current election season is showcasing a lot of things, but qualities of leadership do not seem to be at the top of the list.

Call me naïve, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a few more visionaries who bring out the best in us rather than fear-mongers who pander to the worst? More solutions and fewer attacks?

Still, if leaders and leadership are in short supply, maybe it’s because followers and “followership” aren’t what they used to be.

We citizens are a pretty snarly lot of late. We’re mad, we’re broke and we’re tired. And we have been for some time. We don’t much like government or those who do the governing, except as objects of our derision. We want our garbage picked up and our roads paved and our schools staffed with first-rate teachers, but we don’t want our taxes raised to pay for all that.

We want our elected leaders to be responsive, but – in Georgia’s recent primary elections – only about 20 percent of us bothered to vote.

At no other time in the history of our government have we had access to more information about candidates and issues but less inclination to use it constructively. We are paying attention, having perfected the arts of whining and ranting and blaming. But we have not taken our dissatisfaction any further.

Do leaders inspire and galvanize followers, or does an informed, energized citizenry create and motivate leaders? Who’s the chicken and who’s the egg? And do we really get the government we deserve?

This would be a good time for somebody or somebodies to step up. Suppose a candidate managed to metamorphose into a leader in the next few weeks?

Maybe a real leader – someone with good, solid ideas and the ability to make voters want to help implement them – could harness some of that rampant disaffection and use it for good. Find a way to make it work for the system rather than against it.

Wouldn’t it be great to elect leaders who might inspire us to ask what we can do for our community, our state, our country?





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