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Broadening Our Identities

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As we choose our next president, Americans not only want someone to ably handle a crisis after a hypothetical 3 a.m. phone call. We also want someone who reinforces our identity and tells us who we are. As I argue in The Powers to Lead, we judge leaders not only on the effectiveness of their actions, but also on the meaning that they create and teach. Barack Obama's supporters have argued that his African background and his boyhood running around in rice paddies in Indonesia give him a rare experience for American presidents.

Most leaders feed upon the existing identity and solidarity of their groups. In that sense they are insular, and define their responsibilities to their group in a traditional manner. But some leaders see moral obligations beyond their immediate group and educate their followers. For example, Nelson Mandela could easily have chosen to define his group as Black South Africans and sought revenge for the injustice of decades of apartheid and his own imprisonment. Instead, he worked tirelessly to expand the identity of his followers both by words and deeds. In one important symbolic gesture, he appeared at a rugby game wearing the jersey of the South African Springboks, a team that had previously signified White South African nationalism. He seized the teaching moment at the end of apartheid.

After World War II, when Germany had invaded France for the third time in 70 years, the French leader Jean Monnet decided that revenge upon a defeated Germany would produce yet another tragedy, and instead invented a plan for the gradual development of a European Coal and Steel Community that eventually evolved into today's Europe Union. European integration has now helped to make war between France and Germany virtually unthinkable.

Faced with a campaign crisis over incendiary remarks by his former pastor Jerimiah Wright, Barack Obama did not simply distance himself from Wright, but made use of the teaching moment to deliver a speech that should serve to broaden the understanding and identities of both white and black Americans. That is leadership.