It sounded like a train rolling through a station or a powerful earthquake shaking the historic Central High School of Little Rock as three world leaders looked up with three members of the famous Little Rock Nine and everyone else in the auditorium. Mark Updegrove, President of the LBJ Library who was delivering the final speech of the day quickly closed with, “Good Luck and Godspeed” before giving instructions for everyone to seek shelter from the tornado that had touched down on our graduation ceremony. In many ways, it was a fitting and timely ending for the Presidential Leadership Scholars of 2016’s official tenure.
The Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program grew out of a bipartisan desire to prepare the next generation of dedicated leaders of diverse backgrounds who seek to change America for the better. We are Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Democrat, Independent, Republican, African American, Asian, European American, Hispanic, Gay, Straight, and everything in between, representing the true diversity of America. As one of these 61 incredible leaders, this journey has been an incredibly humbling, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect on the nature of true leadership. Particularly during a presidential election year that has included tragedies in Dallas, Orlando, Istanbul and with many other places that have touched us personally, this group has bonded in a way that many never thought possible. As Presidents Bush and Clinton reflected to us, these types of genuine friendships modeled on their own bipartisan and vastly different personages is what gives us strength together.
For the last six months, we have studied the leadership philosophies of Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush. We conducted our program with the living Presidents themselves, their key advisors, and academic scholars, in order to discern and put leadership lessons into perspective. Drawing heavily from these four Administrations and lightly on several others, we have debated and sought to distill the key lessons regarding the requirements of Presidential leadership. Each of these Presidents decisively confronted America’s thorny challenges, articulated a compelling positive vision for our future, and built strong bipartisan support to realize that vision.
Gathering for our program’s graduation, joined by several members of the Little Rock Nine - America’s 1950s school desegregation pioneers - it was hard not to be inspired by the progress that our nation has made. However, recent events show us how much further we have to go to fulfill our founding fathers’ dream of a more perfect union. Having experienced the heart-ache of Dallas and Orlando together along with countless other terrorist attacks from Brussels, Istanbul and now Nice, it is clear that we live in an interconnected world where the actions or inactions of America are felt globally.
On the heels of the Brexit vote, we had the privilege of hearing directly from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose emphasis on accountability in leadership is being tested a decade after the Iraq War through the Chilcott report. Watching the friendship and humor between a former British Prime Minister and two American presidents of different political parties further emphasized the need for greater civility in our public discourse and leadership. Blair’s call to focus on mission over position struck particularly close to home for a generation of leaders seeking to be the change we want to see in the world. Walking through the very school where the Little Rock Nine’s struggle for civil rights 60 years before changed a nation that still struggles with equality, inclusion, and justice served as a powerful reminder that sustained moral courage and bipartisan leadership have always been critical in shaping our nation’s destiny.
Positive change in the 1950s required the determination of the black high schoolers who insisted that separate is never truly equal. However, that change also required the partnership of a unanimous Supreme Court ordering school desegregation. It could not have succeeded in the short-term without the Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispatching troops to Little Rock to enforce the order. It would not have achieved longevity without his Democratic successors securing the passage of sweeping Civil Rights legislation with broad Congressional support just a decade later. Yet, as one of the Little Rock Nine asked: while there were a minority of good and bad students, the majority were silent, therefore “Whose side did their silence benefit?” Echoing the lifelong mission of Elie Wiesel who championed taking a stand always, the power of this moment in time and responsibility being placed on us as future leaders was not lost.
The Civil Rights Act is but one of many pieces of landmark legislation over the last 50 years - from the 1990 Clean Air Act to the 1997 Balanced Budget Act to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act - that became law because a President reached across the aisle and did what he thought was in the nation’s best interest. These historic successes did not come about easily or without vicious debate. Nonetheless, great Presidents transcended political partisanship by putting the American people first.
Having studied the power of communication, partnerships, strategy, and vision that Presidents deploy in their own unique ways at different times, there are powerful lessons we can all learn from including:
1) Unlikely partnerships often lead to the best outcomes - As evidenced by the PLS program itself, in which Presidents Bush and Clinton came together as leaders of opposing political parties who had even run against each other, but who agreed on the need for a new type of bipartisan leadership development program.
2) Learning to disagree without being disagreeable and finding common ground - The civility of the disagreements and warmth of the friendships witnessed between the various Presidents, their centers, and staffs is a testament to what is possible even in a deeply politically polarized environment.
3) Communication takes more than just words, as intentional actions often speak louder - Whether a handwritten note of appreciation or pat on the back after a job well done, the intentional actions of the free world’s leader has impacts far beyond that are captured in different ways throughout the various personal narratives of each president.
4) Vision requires clarity of purpose and effective prioritization - Presidents must make incredibly difficult decisions. Therefore, having a clear order of priorities and a guiding set of principles creates a structure in which a vision can be articulated and shaped.
5) The power of partnerships is exponential in leadership development - Every president relies on a team. Whether they be rivals or friends, they ultimately serve as force multipliers. Dissenting voices often serve as the most constructive.
Having learned all this and so much more from our time as Presidential Leadership Scholars, it is incumbent upon us as next generation leaders to give back in our own ways to the communities and organizations we represent. Americans have always risen to every challenge presented from the original Brexit of the American Revolutionary War to the fight we now lead against the unspeakable evil and savagery of the so-called Islamic State that knows no boundaries.
America will only secure its proper political leadership when all of its citizenry is engaged and possesses the moral courage to lead that previous generations have exhibited. As this program has taught us, our greatest Presidents have always leveraged media and their bully pulpit to amplify their national visions and instigate vigorous debate to ensure progress is achieved. The difference is that spirited debates on seminal issues like civil rights were grounded in a profound realization that the problems were just too widespread and pressing not to find breakthrough solutions collectively. We face equivalently momentous national issues desperately seeking answers today on topics as divergent as immigration to entitlement reform to national security. The time has come for us as the next generation to tackle these challenges.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr came to the very same high school we graduated in to watch the graduation of the first Little Rock Nine undetected at the time evoking his charge that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” As we have been reminded by each President, to whom much is given much is expected. We are ready to accept this challenge and graduate together to deal with the problems of our time, while honoring and remembering the generations that have led the way in American leadership.