In this thoughtful essay by Steve Sher, we question the meaning of leadership and how each one of us contributes to the society we live in.
Steven Scher Steven Scher
December 20, 2016
by Steve Scher

I was at a pretty big Thanksgiving gathering at an old YMCA camp on the Oregon Coast. In the industrial sized kitchen, a volunteer crew was preparing to feed a group of 50. Preparing to chop, the young man in charge of the meal that night dumped a bag of onions on the counter. I was nearby, chatting with a friend. I wasn’t part of the crew but I offered to help. 

He told me, “you know I think we have enough folks in the kitchen, but if you want to help, we could really use someone washing the pots and pans.” 

Wash dishes?

Sure, why not, every contribution matters. As I happily walked off to give a pot a good scrubbing, I heard my friend shout, “Now that is leadership.” 

Who showed leadership, the budding chef who delegated, me for knowing he made sense, my friend for acknowledging the transaction? 

Each of us. 

One of the finest qualities of leadership is the ability to direct individual desire toward a greater good. 

It is a simple enough concept, an appeal to the angels of our better natures. 

That notion is absent from much of the political sphere these days, and worryingly, this selfish brew may be leaking over into public and even private zones. 

Instead of creating an atmosphere where my sense of fairness aligns with yours, something much more cramped and embittered is being shared. 

Look at the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump, with his Mussolini frown, speaks to our basest, most divisive emotions. Toss out the others. Build a wall. We will be great only when they are gone. 

The Prussian leader Frederick the Great wrote a response to Machiavelli’s “The Prince. “ In his “Anti-Machiavel,” he advocated that great princes “prefer the happiness of the human race.” 

Unfortunately, he laid the foundation for many tragedies with those grand sentiments. He built a state that supported freedom of thought and faith. But like so many autocrats, Frederick divided the world between them and us. When he saw something “they” had, he took it. 

Programs from Outward Bound to Dale Carnegie teach that leadership means encouraging mutual respect. But the concept needs to go much further in this modern age of distributed information.

Each of us leads. 

We walk in the footsteps of those who walked before us. Literally, in hill and dale, we follow the steps of those who crossed unforgiving landscapes together. Our traces still shape the paths of those who follow. 

Leadership, truly enlightened leadership, can see that long line of people contributing — to community, corporation or country. 

Whips and walls can be one tool for building, but scars linger. 

The poet Shelley wrote of “Ozymandias,” whose once mighty works are mostly dust. Only the sneer of the enslaved sculptor still lingers on the king’s crumbling statue. 

Consideration of the common good is a more useful tool. Because when the inevitable floods come, when fires burn, when the earth shakes, willing hands will be there to rebuild. 

Society can nurture what most all of us innately possess — a desire to contribute, a willingness to share the burden, a belief in fairness for all. 

Individuals set the tone. We sing the song together.

Steve Scher is a teacher at the University of Washington. Prior to his teaching career, he was a long-time public radio host on KUOW in Seattle and has interviewed countless individuals over the past three decades. 

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2016 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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