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Tim Shriver Talks Special Olympics, The Kennedy Legacy And Leading By Asking (The Inspirationals)

First Posted: 08/15/11 04:30 PM ET Updated: 10/14/11 06:12 AM ET

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.

* * * * *

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.


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