In arguing for a systemic approach to leadership – one that invariably involves 1) leaders, 2) followers, and 3) context, as opposed only to leaders – I never diminish the importance of the leader. Leaders obviously matter.
However just yesterday were two seismic events in American politics evidencing once again that to fixate on leaders at the expense of followers – at the expense of everyone else – is to misread how history happens.
First was a semblance of closure in Charleston, when President Obama delivered his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine African-Americans killed a week earlier in an historic Charleston church. The events that followed the killings were as dramatic as unforetold. They swirled around the symbolism of the Confederate flag, which came overnight to be seen as offensive to the point of intolerable. Across the south political leaders joined to insist that it was time for the flag permanently to come down. And across the country business leaders joined to insist that it was time for the flag permanently to be removed from the nation’s shelves.
How did this happen? Did the governors of South Carolina, say, and Alabama, simply wake up one morning and have a change of heart? Or did they in the immediate wake of the shootings call for the elimination of a symbol that many had long perceived as racist? They did not. They did not on their own have a change of heart, and they did not immediately after the shootings call for the flag to be taken down. Nor for that matter did the CEOs of companies such as Walmart, Amazon, and Google act on their own, out of a sudden impulse to do the right thing by refusing to sell Confederate flag merchandise.
No, what distinguished this moment in American history was not any leader but a group of followers, the victims’ families, who first charted the path toward forgiveness and redemption, toward peace and love not war and hate. By setting a tone of reconciliation in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston killings – “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul,” said the daughter of one of the victims to her mother’s killer – the families of the slain set the tone for everything subsequent. It was they, followed by the people of Charleston, who changed the nation’s history in a way that will forever be seen as significant.
Yesterday’s second event demonstrating the importance of followers not just leaders was, of course, the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage was now legal in all 50 states. To the naïve it might seem that the five Supreme Court justices who came down in favor were leading the nation on equal rights. But anyone who knows anything at all about history knows that these five justices were not leading at all, they were following. They were following the American people, the majority of whom now believe that gay men and women should have the same right to marry as straight men and women. And they were following gay rights activists, who started organizing in earnest in the 1980s, and whose cause since then has steadily gathered momentum.
On the surface yesterday was about an impassioned eulogy delivered by the nation’s chief executive. And on the surface yesterday was about a transforming ruling handed down by the nation’s highest court. But only on the surface. Scratch beneath and you will find that both were in consequence of ordinary men and women doing what they believed to be right.