My browser homepage is Bing.com. I like the extraordinary images that Bing offers each day as its wallpaper. A ribbon of images highlighting trending stories runs along the bottom of the page, and this morning, I noticed that three of the nine stories featured were about people apologizing for having offended others.
Our society is drowning in thin-skinned objections to other people’s perspectives. Being offended has become cultural cachet, and instead of listening to one another and recognizing others as complex individuals, people write others off as one-dimensional. Far too often, people fail to manage their emotions or analyze their interpretations.
The current climate makes the following insight truer than ever: To be an All-In Leader, you must be prepared to say things that others will find offensive.
A leader is not leading if he is inside the group. The very purpose of a leader is to offer a future that is distinct from the present and often incompatible with the current state of beliefs and affairs. The best leaders in history, including Galileo, Christ, Jefferson, Lincoln, Anthony, Churchill, the Dali Lama, Einstein, and King expressed ideas that were at odds with generally accepted opinion at best, and at worst, heretical.
In fact, the more disruptive a leader’s ideas and points of view are, the better job of leading she is probably doing. Or, as Einstein once put it, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
I imagine all of you are with me so far, but here is the real test: George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama for three nonconsecutive terms including his first from 1963 to 1967, was a true leader. Yes, this is the same Wallace who opposed school desegregation, among other civil rights.
If calling Wallace a leader offends you and you automatically label him and write off him––and maybe even me––consider the fact that you may have slipped in to our society’s be offended first, think later, if at all, mentality. I am not praising the morality of Wallace’s position; I am recognizing his leadership, which was firm.
Leaders are not leaders because they are correct or have the moral high ground. Leaders stand for something––something that can be either popular or niche, right or wrong––and they are willing to take a stand when their values are threatened. One man’s terrorist is another’s martyr.
By clearly articulating two very different visions, Wallace and Dr. King gave Americans a choice between two distinct futures. I believe it is fortunate that America sided with King, but that does not mean I cannot acknowledge Wallace’s leadership.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote several dissents in the 1920’s upholding free speech claims, once wrote:
Those who won our independence . . . believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.
As leaders, we must continue to push boundaries and disregard the culture of “taking offense.” Let’s debate ideas as we recognize those on the other side as human beings. The very soul of our country depends upon it.
In the next blog, The Wisdom of Sticks and Stones, we’ll discuss why leaders should not apologize for their visions, along with the three realizations that will transform the way you process other people’s perspectives. Are you All-In?