Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Long Steady Glow from Early Beginnings: A Parent's Influence, Edward Kennedy's Leadership Legacy

Parents matter in the lifelong moral worldview of a person and the leadership philosophy thereof. In Edward Kennedy’s example, his mother was the teacher, his father the spark. Rose Kennedy, ever the torch bearer for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, inspired her youngest child and entire family with the source of great leadership: having a worthy cause.

“Teddy” Kennedy’s policy legacy is proof positive: despite tragedy and personal turmoil, over 46 years as a senator, he influenced the passing of 2,500 pieces of legislation. They included expanding health care (the “cause” of Kennedy’s life), increasing the minimum wage, revamping immigration laws and championing equal opportunity regardless of race, gender or disability.

The significance of our upbringing is a “no-brainer”. We know this. But, in the context of leadership for better or worse, it’s troublesome. Are constituents doomed or blessed depending on the early influences of their leaders? Given our storied human history to date, it appears we are. Yet, if we broaden our view from the short term, for example, in Teddy Kennedy’s case, there is a “long steady glow” which persists and is emblematic of progress. Leaders emboldened by worthy causes which benefit many not just a few do eventually have sustainable impacts.

The journey, however, is not easy, as illustrated by Teddy Kennedy. Mental resilience and toughness are necessary because causes have a cost: the journey is messy, taking unpredictable twists and turns often involving personal sacrifice and distress. One’s imperfections smack us in the face calling for “lessons learned”.

Are we up for this? Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, makes that point loud and clear in her recent book The Challenge of Africa. She sees hope amidst the poverty and desperation and the trails and tribulations. Her “Green Belt Movement” combined with the efforts of multiple other fearsome and extraordinary, ordinary leaders past and present are flicking the flywheel of positive change. Patience is required because change often spans more than any one person’s lifespan!! But, the legacy endures.

The “political mind” is a source of considerable study in the social and biological sciences. Breakthroughs in our understanding of neuropsychology show promise that we don’t have to be the prisoners of our early upbringing when faced with challenges outside our assumptions and beliefs. That is the learning opportunity for leaders.

There is one key ingredient which never goes away in the ongoing inquiry about great leadership and management: empathy. It’s a natural part of our human history. Without that in our family legacy, without empathy as a leader, it is difficult to nurture the “long steady glow” of progress.

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