Language as Leadership – and Fierstein the Firebrand

If you know my work at all, you know I put a premium on being leadership literate – on being familiar with the classics of the leadership literature. As a member of the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School, I developed a course titled “Leadership Literacy.” And a few years after that I edited a book based on the course – an edited collection of the great leadership literature titled, Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence.

Working with the great leadership literature yielded two surprises. The first was that there IS such a literature! Who knew?! For all the many thousands of courses on leadership and management that have been developed over the last thirty, forty years, nearly none make serious, rigorous use of what I consider the core of leadership learning – the great books.

The second surprise is that this work has real world, practical, implications. To be sure, “Leadership Literacy” and Leadership Essential Selections are, unapologetically, in the tradition of the liberal arts. They are not of obvious, immediate use, nor are they intended to be. This is not, however, to say that they are unimportant – not by a long shot. One might even argue that at a moment such as this one, when the liberal arts – subjects such history, literature, and philosophy – are under attack for not being adequately practical, anyone with any interest in the world of ideas ought to protect with special zealousness any effort in which the world of ideas is the coin of the realm.

All this came recently to mind when I read a short piece in the New York Times by Harvy Fierstein. Fierstein, an actor and playwright long familiar in the theater, has a way with words and this time, for the first time, he flat out, without question was aiming to lead. He was aiming to stoke the flame of fury in order to get others to do something, as opposed to nothing.

And so he did. There is no question that in the space of one month Fierstein’s article, titled “Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown,” has galvanized the gay community and communities more generally and globally into taking a stance against recent Russian laws that are patently homophobic. Since Fierstein’s piece appeared, on July 22nd, the conversation about the situation has been nearly non-stop – the issue being what if anything to do about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in February, in Russia.

Only time will tell if Fierstein’s screed will endure, if it will ever be considered a classic of the leadership literature. At a minimum though, it gives evidence yet again that just the right words at just the right time can be, of themselves, agents of change. Thanks in good part to this single article the issue will not now go away. The 2014 Winter Olympics have already been branded by Fierstein’s pen – which took on not only Putin but the rest of us as well, insisting that we stand up and be counted.

I close by quoting Fierstein directly:

“Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has declared war on homosexuals. So far, the world has mostly been silent.… Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered?…With Russia about to hold the Winter Games in Sochi, the country is open to pressure. American and world leaders must speak out against Mr. Putin’s attacks and the violence they foster. The Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under the threat of boycott…There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”

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