“The true test of character,” according to John Holt, “is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” Too often, people who lack within themselves the inner spiritual authority of true leaders find themselves in positions of power, which they confuse with leadership and thus abuse the limited authority of the position. Such people are smitten with power and are loath to relinquish it, even momentarily, for fear of losing it altogether. These people cannot lead because leadership requires a great deal of trust, a clear sense of interdependence, a clear sense of high principle, and the courage to stick with it despite any and all personal costs.
To wit, in December 1783, General George Washington rode to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Continental Congress was meeting.1 Although he learned that only seven states had sent delegates, he wanted to affirm what Congress stood for, even if the present was but a shadow of the formative days of 1776.
Around noon on the 23rd of December, General Washington strode to the statehouse, where a solemn Charles Thomson, the Irish-born Philadelphian who had served as secretary of Congress since 1774, met him at the door. Thomson escorted General Washington into the chamber, where 20 congressmen and the current president, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, awaited him amidst aisles and galleries packed with spectators.
“Sir,” said Mifflin, “the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.”
Washington rose and bowed; the congressmen in turn raised their hats as a sign of respect but without bowing. By withholding their bows, the congressmen affirmed the civil superiority over the power of the military.
Washington, with trembling hands, began his statement by conveying his happiness that the United States was now a “respectable nation,” enabling him to resign “with satisfaction” the commission he had accepted “with diffidence.” He overcame his diffidence, he said, because he had been confident of “the rectitude of our Cause,” the support of Congress, and “the patronage of Heaven.”
Although it is said that he could not read the close of his speech because he was so choked with emotion, this is what he had written: “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”
“The whole house felt his agitations,” wrote one congressman to his fiancée. “The spectators all wept and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not.”
Struggling with the final words, Washington said: “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”2
What, you might ask, is the significance of this story? The significance is that liberty is always expensive. True liberty demands that each and every leader know not only when his or her duty to history has been completed but also when to step down with dignity and grace so that the pivotal idea of a free democracy as the central pillar of our nation can deepen in the centuries to come.
With this in mind, it seems clear that today’s means of exercising power and authority must give way to new forms of leadership. Our concept of leadership must be recast to include the ability to foster collective decision-making and collective action. If leadership is to find its highest expression in service to the community as a whole, we must increasingly choose leaders who are truly motivated by the desire to serve.
It is, after all, a leader’s duty to create a response from the followership, not the followership’s duty to respond to the leader. While we unfortunately hear most often of the abuses of power, power can be a good thing when used constructively and toward a positive end, which means that leadership must never be handled carelessly or selfishly.
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Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.