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Addressing a void of leadership in America

| Thursday, November 6, 2014

Do you hear the collective nationwide sigh of relief? The midterm elections have passed. After months of analysis, predictions and inexorable campaigns, votes have been cast and the talking heads are deciphering the results and brandishing new prognostications.

Although the Republican Party ran away with a sweeping victory, the GOP should be careful not to interpret its triumph as an anointing of conservative policies. The American citizenry has voiced a conspicuous dissatisfaction with its national government, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to this political malaise, but I believe foremost among them is a failure of leadership. Consequently, I would like to share some personal reflections on leadership that look beyond political punditry and aim at guiding others through uncertain waters.

The concept of leadership is discussed so frequently that its meaning has faded into an obscure talking point for admissions officers, politicians, coaches and advisors. As students, we hear it from every corner: calls to demonstrate leadership, expectations of leadership experience and frustratingly abstract appeals to leadership as the key to a better future.

This raises the question, what exactly is the meaning of this broad notion of leading others?

Leadership is no simple task. Navigating interwoven demographics with divergent preferences on a laundry list of issues resembles running a marathon through a dry savanna of starving lions. Leaders have to pick their battles in hopes of serving the common good all while being bombarded by a cacophony of conflicting voices and balancing their values with a necessary pragmatism.

I believe that leading is deeper than having supporters, setting an example or changing your environment — although these are crucial to the success of a leader. There exists a deeper ethos of human impact to which leaders must aspire.

John Quincy Adams once wrote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader.” Adams refers to the vision that a leader must paint to gather the members of his or her community to a common purpose. A vision must pull on the heartstrings of the people, quickening heart rates as the imagination ponders what potential the future holds.

With that said, foresight and a strong message are not enough to bring change to a community. Leadership requires discipline, perseverance and a strong moral compass to be successful in the long term. The welfare of the community must take precedence over political and personal interests.

Solving the difficult challenges that fall to our political leaders also requires creativity, compassion and teamwork. I don’t think anyone would consider it a stretch to claim that our national leaders have been severely lacking in these qualities in recent years. It is incumbent upon our leaders to realize that those who disagree with them are not intellectually inferior but simply hold different priorities and philosophies. There are brilliant men and women on both flanks of political issues, and solutions are best achieved through dialogue conducted in good faith.

And yet, dialogue alone will not close the deal. Making tough calls requires great courage. We must expect our leaders to tackle the hard decisions, rather than duck into hiding to avoid political retribution or popular disapproval. Leadership is built atop responsibility and shirking that duty is a true disservice to the people who bestowed that authority through a democratic process.

My most profound understanding of leadership, however, is one for which I must credit my mother. At its core, leadership can be summarized by a simple decision — that of acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive, but acceptance is central to the role of a leader.

Leaders must accept the circumstances in which they lead. They must accept the gifts and burdens of their communities. Personal bias must be recognized and challenged. Unfamiliar ideas and methodologies must be explored and embraced to resolve new problems. Ignorance on issues must be acknowledged and self-image put aside to utilize the expertise of others.

Leaders must confront the issues that arise during their terms, whether the issues evoke passion or indifference. When initiatives end in success or failure, leaders must accept the outcome. As leaders make decisions, they must accept the shower of opinions on their actions, whether admiration or disdain, loyalty or defection.

Most importantly, leaders must accept that quitting is not an option, for they have been chosen and hold an obligation to lead. It is my hope that our leaders, especially on the stagnant national stage, can overcome distractions to leadership by practicing acceptance.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dan Sehlhorst

Dan Sehlhorst is a junior studying economics and political science. Hailing from Troy, Ohio, and a resident of Zahm House, he looks forward to conversation about his columns and can be contacted at dsehlhor@nd.edu

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