The Presidential Leadership Scholars Program on Why We Must Learn to Understand and Relate to Each Other
Over the past 18 months, I have been welcomed into a family I never expected to be a part of. When word came in that I had been accepted into the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, little did I know how my life would change forever. I was now part of a family that didn’t always look, believe, or talk like me but has become a vital part of who I am becoming.
Six months have now passed since graduation from the program, and I recently had the privilege to return to Little Rock, Arkansas for a session that focused on the leadership skills of President Bill Clinton. As I listened to the 2017 class speak of their encounter with the always-gregarious former Commander-in-Chief, I was reminded of my own experience with the 42nd President of the United States.
The leadership topic discussed in this module was the powerful communication prowess of the President. From his early years as a leader in Arkansas, all the way to the White House, President Clinton advocated for three primary values: opportunity, responsibility, and community. Clinton believed these three principles were critical and, whether it was in a stump speech in his bid for governor, his 1992 acceptance speech at the DNC, or in the 1995 State of the Union Address, the President would champion opportunity for all, responsibility by every individual, and the need for a united community. This “New Covenant” was not only his political philosophy but also set his agenda.
As a pastor of a church in a “Red” state, I was interested to learn more about the President and his ability to leverage his communication skills in leadership. I wanted not only to hone my abilities but also to better understand how leaders communicate and, more important, how they listen. Like anyone, I came to Little Rock with many preconceived ideas. I heard stories of the President’s ability to charm a crowd but was eager to discover if that charisma translated beyond the words into the man himself. Would meeting him in person change my perspective?
Perspective is a powerful tool for a leader. If you observe only one side of a tapestry, you will see only strings and knots with no apparent order or design. In politics, it is very easy to have a largely one-sided view of leaders and I discovered even some of my views of the president to be one-sided. Politics can cut people down to the simplest, most base descriptions, distorting the public’s perception of the true leader.
Like a tapestry, I discovered President Clinton to be a very complex man. Over dinner we discussed people, places, and spiritual beliefs. The President spoke with his characteristically unique ability to recall specific names attached to particular stories and events, which revealed a man who cared deeply about helping others, even if our preferred means of accomplishing those goals differed. Without a doubt, the President “held court” at the table, but his stories clearly reflected a man who had listened to others and allowed their experiences to inform his mind and to touch his heart. The experience with President Clinton communicated to me that, though many of our views differ, it is to our peril to stop listening to one another and to stop seeking understanding of the view “from the other side.”
This distance from that night has given me greater perspective as to what the Presidential Leadership Scholars program is about. In a time when there is not only fighting between the political parties but also deep division within the same party, the nation loses. Our calling must be to seek understanding that we might work together for the greater good. This is not “pie-in-the-sky” thinking but is a deeply held value and tradition of our great land that must not be lost. My fellow scholars and I do not agree on some issues, but we have learned the incredible value that comes from a wide variety of perspectives, and we are seeking to work together for positive change.
My experience with President Clinton, as well as my deep friendships with my fellow scholars, have given me greater optimism about the ability of people to work together even though their perspectives and views may differ. The greatness of America is not its unanimity but its unity.
Brent Taylor, D.Min is a pastor, professor, and author of the upcoming book, Founding Leadership: Lessons on Business and Personal Leadership from the Men Who Brought You the American Revolution. Dr. Taylor is a 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar, a joint program and partnership between the Clinton Foundation and Presidential Center in Little Rock, the George W. Bush Center in Dallas, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation in College Station