Embracing The Call To Lead

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

By BJ Goergen, Sarah Jackson, Oliver Libby, Jason Schmitt, Shalini Unnikrishnan, and Joshua Walker

On the eve of the election, imagine spending six months with sixty leaders in America from every race, gender, religion, geography, and political orientation studying the Presidential leadership of Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush.  Your co-travelers on this journey are the Presidents themselves, their advisors, and historians.  Your mission is to identify practical leadership solutions for your community.  What would you discover in this process? This has actually been occurring for two years, thanks to an historic bi-partisan partnership between four Presidential libraries to build the next-generation of public service leaders.  We were privileged to participate in this Presidential Leadership Scholars program and walked away with similar reflections on leadership:

Progress Is Possible Against America’s Daunting Challenges

Many Americans feel hopeless and frustrated today.  They labored for decades thinking that innovation and globalization would increase incomes, but now believe wealth is accumulating in fewer hands while they fall behind.  Their American Dream is falling victim to global competition, national security threats, workplace automation, soaring healthcare costs, broken education systems, and a frayed social safety net.  They are deeply pessimistic about government, as they see elected officials far keener to attack opponents and “win” than work together to solve problems.  Gone are the peacemakers and bridge builders, resulting in increasingly paralyzed institutions. Every generation believes they are witnessing our nation’s darkest hour and most dangerous crises.  History reveals that civil rights, the Cold War, the ballooning national deficit, and the 2008 financial crisis all threatened to tatter America’s social fabric just like today’s challenges.  Yet, the four Presidents we studied achieved significant progress against these problems because they leveraged America’s collective strength to confront the issues, rather than shying away from them because they appeared intractable.  They knew these issues were too critical not to take decisive action and that concessions would be required on all sides to reach workable solutions.

Solving Problems Means Embracing Democracy’s Messiness

Our Founders opted for democracy because they believed everyone’s voice needed to be heard.  They knew democracy would be messy work anchored in the strength of our differences and engagement in tough conversations.  Those conversations would require listening with empathy, disagreeing vigorously but respectfully, and remembering that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.  Democracy could only function effectively by presuming everyone’s positive intentions, so that we could build on what we share versus doubling down on what drives us apart.     Each President we studied embraced the inherent messiness of democracy.  They saw the President’s role as developing a compelling national vision and then building strong bipartisan partnerships to achieve it.  These Presidents’ landmark legislation – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, or the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act – became law because they proactively reached across the aisle and did what was in America’s collective best interest.  These successes did not come easily or without vicious debate, but each President showed a path beyond partisanship to reach solutions.

Leadership Is Our Collective Obligation

Our program participants met this summer with 1950s school desegregation pioneers from the Little Rock Nine, whose civil rights struggle is a powerful reminder of how much bipartisanship and moral courage have shaped our nation’s trajectory.  One fascinating aspect of our discussion concerned the number of people of all political stripes required to turn those civil rights into a reality.  Most remember the unanimous Supreme Court ordering school desegregation, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatching troops to enforce that order, and Democratic President Johnson securing passage of the Civil Rights Act with broad Congressional support.  None of this would have happened, though, without courageous black citizens across the nation insisting separate is never truly equal.  Their voices catalyzed the civil rights movement and ensured those rights would be sustained after places like Selma were forgotten.   It is easy to say that we deserve better government, but we only deserve what we work together to build.  Civic engagement requires grueling conversations on sensitive topics whose answers are not self-evident and require difficult trade-offs.  But, we have the extraordinary privilege to be part of a great nation and we are all obligated to be its stewards.  Our democracy needs nothing more and deserves nothing less than the full engagement of everyone.  Our country needs leaders to step up to meet the challenges of our time.  This has been the secret of Presidential leadership since the dawn of the Republic – audacious optimism that working through thorny issues with those who hold divergent views will slowly, but surely, forge a more perfect union.

BJ Goergen, Sarah Jackson, Oliver Libby, Jason Schmitt, Shalini Unnikrishnan, and Joshua Walker were members of the 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholars class and collectively have been politically active in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Meryl Natow