WASHINGTON -- Standard & Poor’s didn't say it in so many words, but the message was clear. S&P downgraded the credit rating of the United States because of a crippling lack of leadership in its public life.
Leadership is essential, especially in a democracy. The paradox is this: A nation "of, by and for the people," as Lincoln put it, needs inspiring leaders more than any other type of government. We cannot govern ourselves unless leaders summon what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Over the centuries, America has been lucky enough to find such leaders in Washington and on Wall Street. Until now. We seem leaderless: rudderless, sailing in circles on increasingly stormy and dangerous seas.
Even in the eyes of many of his supporters, President Obama is regarded more as symbol of change than an agent of it. Republicans, meanwhile, are burying themselves in the ideas and attitudes of the past. Leaders in both parties, and in much of corporate America, all too often play to their own worst instincts -- and to ours.
But all is not lost. Leadership -- inspiring leadership -- has not vanished from America. We just don’t see it as much in the usual places.
Which is why we decided to look for leaders elsewhere. The Huffington Post is searching for -- and will interview -- effective, inspirational leaders in walks and worlds beyond the traditional venues, hoping that by doing so we can remind ourselves (and those in the high and mighty offices) what the country lacks.
We will range widely: the not-for-profit sector, the arts, literature, advocacy groups, science; anywhere and everywhere besides the places where we are supposed to see national leaders but where we see so few.
We call these leaders The Inspirationals.
In a series we begin today, we ask them to tell their story: how they see the world and their role in it.
We chose as our first leader someone whose family is deeply rooted in politics, but who chose a different path. Tim Shriver is the chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics. A nephew of John, Robert and Ted Kennedy, he comes from one of the preeminent -- almost mythic -- families in modern politics. Yet he sought a role elsewhere.
I sat down in Washington with Shriver in the Special Olympics offices of his late mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister to the famous brothers.
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Your family has spent many generations as leaders in politics. The photos and memorabilia here demonstrate that. Why did you look elsewhere?
The short answer is that I started in education. I felt a real hunger for authentic interaction with kids, with young people, with social change issues. I wanted to get inside the lives of people I'd heard about as issues, but didn't know as people.
I felt that politics, as important and powerful as it was, wouldn't give me as much of a sense of connection to people, that sense of authentic understanding of struggle and triumph, of adversity and isolation, of transformation. I wanted a little bit more of the real, a little less of the big picture and a little bit more of the small and intimate and personal side of social and human change.
Tim, what is there about politics today that makes it harder to be a leader, that makes politics seem disconnected from the kinds of concerns you deal with in the Special Olympics?
What I feel is missing sometimes is the aspirational side. I grew up around political leaders who felt that the country wasn’t where it could be: that no matter how difficult the car payment or the monthly rent check was to muster, that everybody had within them a desire to contribute to something bigger to make things better; that we as a country could actually create real ways to do that; that human beings -- average Americans -- could play a role in a big story, could contribute to a big story, even if it was in a small way.
I think political leaders now tend to focus much too much on the acrimony, the antagonism of the system, the ways in which we're divided as a country -- and not enough on the ways in which average Americans want to contribute to the solution. I mean we've been through a series of deep crisis moments in politics, and what have the American people been asked to do themselves? I don't think that the president and many political leaders are trying to reach out to the American people to say, "You've got a role to play now and we need you to do it." I think we still don't know what politicians want of us.
Is there something missing these days in the training of what we used to call the "leadership class?"
I guess there is. The larger climate tells them that we're cynical as a country, that we don't have big ideas; that we don't believe in belief; that we don't hope in hope. Now you could say perhaps that the last presidential campaign refutes all this, and in some ways it did. The Obama campaign seemed to reinvigorate big-idea thinking, aspirational thinking, hope thinking -- to use the language of that campaign. Sen. McCain represented the idea of patriotism, of heroic sacrifice, in that he had been willing to put himself on the line for his country.
But I think that a lot of political leaders have succumbed to the idea that no one cares about that anymore, that we're not a country of ideals, that we're a country of interests, that we're not a country of sacrifice, that we're a country of selfish people, that the only way to appeal to the common ground is to give something to people.
President Kennedy’s over-remembered words of 1961 were not a gift from him or an offer of a service; they were a request of the country. When we ask of ourselves big things -- sacrifices -- we unlock a side of experience that is the seat of the spirit; the seat of excitement and enthusiasm.
I don’t feel that politicians and business leaders are comfortable in that language today. I don't think they are confident that if they turned to people and asked on behalf of the country, that they would be anything but scoffed at or ridiculed.
Why are political leaders afraid to do that?
It's a little bit beyond me. When I look at the data, when I talk to young people in particular, I still see people who want to contribute. When you look at most of the surveys we look at, young people want to make a difference, they want to be involved in community building, they want to be involved in education, in health care, the environment. They want to be asked.
I mean here we are in the Special Olympics movement. We ask people all day long, all over the world. It’s all I do. I don't give anything. I ask every single day. I ask business leaders, kids. I ask sports and physical educators; I ask health care; I ask doctors to volunteer their time. That's all I do. And it if anything, we have too many yeses. We have 3.7 million athletes who are playing in 50,000 events a year. Every one of those events is a monumental effort. People volunteer hours of their day, or their week or their life or their whole experience, in order to make our games successful.
How does a leader learn to ask?
You have to learn to take a risk; you just have got to take the chance.
How did you learn to do it?
By being surrounded by inspirational people, people who are positive, people who are, in general, rebels. I am surrounded by people who in their gut have a desire to fight. But it is a joyful rebellion. It is a dignity revolution. They fight school systems, health care systems and businesses. They are parents who say: my child belongs. But they do it in general with not just enormous courage, but with a spirit of happiness and love. I mean I don't know where else I'd go. It is the best job I can ever imagine having.
Is there one most satisfying moment for you as the long-time leader of the Special Olympics?
No. I think the most important thing we've done is make it clear to people that this is not an organization WITH a leader. It is an organization OF leaders. We have inverted the idea of a pyramid structure. We’ve flattened the view of social change completely. I play my role as a coach, I play my role as a dad, I play my role as a fan, I play my role as a blogger, I play my role as a person who pledges to this movement. I play my role the same way I'd ask you to play it. You can be as much a leader of this movement as I am.
My job -- if you will, my professional life -- is to make sure I can convince you that you are the agent of change. You, whoever you are: mom at home, high school student, even a second-grader. Parents say to me, "I've got a child who's eight years old who has Down syndrome." I say that the only person in the world who can make that child feel welcome at school is another eight year old. So I say to that other eight year old, "You have the unique power to be an agent of inclusion, unity and change." My job is to convince you -- an eight-year-old -- that you are a social revolutionary!
Is there science to motivating people in this way?
While I'm sure there is, I don't know it. I'm not a student of the academic literature. I try to be a student of the human spirit in my own way. The most important part is to be a good listener and to have confidence. A lot of people see, I think, the human situation as hopeless. In this kind of leadership you have to be hopeful, be positive, believe that people have goodness in them no matter who they are -- and never to expect or be discouraged when you see the evidence to the opposite. If you want to lead a movement like this, you have to be confident that the good is out there and ready to be tapped.
Does your family heritage help you be optimistic?
I suppose my family of origin was one of hopefulness and anger. I grew up around parents who were at times irate, quite furious, at the injustice they saw in the world. My mother was very angry about the intolerance her sister Rosemary -- who had an intellectual disability -- was subjected to. All her life, she would tell me -- and remember -- she would say my mother, my own grandmother, would call around to people asking for something for Rosemary: Is there a doctor for Rosemary? Is there a school? And I can remember my mother hanging up the phone and saying that there's nothing for Rosemary, nothing. And it would make her furious. Even later in life, even into her 80s she would remember those moments. So she lived her life with a certain anger at injustice.
So there's part anger and part hopefulness. If you can keep those parts in balance in your life, and remind yourself what's important to try to change, and that change is urgently needed, and that the lack of change is the agent of the destruction of the human spirit; that when we sit by and watch injustice and allow it to persist we allow the destruction of others and, in so doing, allow in some ways the destruction of ourselves. If you can keep that anger and balance it against the hopefulness and the possibility of changing it, I think you've got something of what I feel like I grew up with, what my children remind me of, what my wife has kept me grounded thinking about.
My family has been enormously blessed by the support, love and affection that so many Americans have shown to us, and so many people in different parts of the world. I can go to many countries around the world and get a hearing simply on the strength of the contributions of my parents' generation to the ideals of the world.
We are all very grateful, often quite humbled, by the opportunities we've had as a function of what our parents' generation has done.
Does the lack of faith in political leaders worry you?
It does! Yeah it does. It worries me about my own kids. I'd like to see my own children think of politics as an option. I don't think they should think of it as a requirement for sure, but I'd like them to think of it as an option. We need great leaders. Leaders make a difference. The difference between having Nelson Mandela in South Africa and not is epic. We need people like that in this country desperately now. We need people who have the guts to take a stand for big ideas and risk everything. Not small-minded people.
What role does your faith play in creating and sustaining leaders?
We’ve made a huge mistake in the last 50 years by dichotomizing religion and politics. The Founders were really good at making sure that we don't politicize religion, we don't make religion a political tool.
But we fail to remind ourselves that the Spirit underpins political aspiration, the Spirit that stretches across all religious traditions, the Spirit of harmony, of unity; Spirit that drives towards justice and tolerance, Spirit that inspires you to self-sacrifice, even in the face of enormous difficulty and even in the face of the fear of death.
Those are spiritual values that come out of religious traditions that have stood beneath great political leaders. Martin Luther King could stand as he could on the Mall in Washington and say he had a dream because he could quote the Prophets. Those were spiritual values that spoke to a political reality. We need to remind ourselves that separating church and state is not the same as separating our spiritual lives from a search for political and social justice.
What is real leadership based on your experience?
The extraordinary thing about being around a movement like Special Olympics is that you see people with disabilities, you see their families in their rawest form, you see people with their fears, you hear their stories of isolation and exclusion and you see this incredible determination, this incredible willingness to try even though they're going to be made fun of, even though there's nowhere to go. These are people who say, when I’m sad, I’m going to tell you. When I'm happy, I'm going to raise my arms up. When I'm giving my best, I'm going to lay it all on the line, and when I'm done, I succeeded. I came in 5th and gosh darn it that's a victory. I gave it everything I had and I told my story on the playing field of life. I think people come and they watch our athletes and they go "Holy Moly, that's a real human being! That person is really giving it all they've got." Not whining, no spin, no BS, if you will.
There's so much spin in the world today. In this movement I have had a chance to be a part of, leadership energy comes from the no-spin: just me as I am. I may not be the smartest, I may not have the highest IQ, I may not be the fastest, but I'm faster than I was yesterday and I'm laying it all on the line.
I think what leaders need to do is remind everybody else that there's a real leader in them. Get their stories. Find out what it takes to be real, what it means to be real, what they're following that's real. I think we have a real authenticity deficit in our leaders today. Closing it will be the work of people outside of the traditional leadership structure.
I think we remember great leaders who gave everything and who were not afraid of what might come from what they did. I don't think we see that enough today. I think that now we're going to find that in crazy, wild, unpredictable places, like maybe on a soccer field at a Special Olympics event in your town. I hope I will be there to witness it.
Video by Sara Kenigsberg