When They Were Like Us

There is appeal in a leader who shares our values and casts a future vision about the world they can see and bring into being. Even at moments of weakness, a leader still finds a way to inspire.

Too often, a leader is someone else. Too often, we forget the leader inside of us. This week, there are some key reminders about a leadership that rises above politics and turns on policy.

The National Archives and Records Administration has released a series of 356 photos depicting White House officials on September 11, 2001. Until now, most of us may only recall President Bush’s first speech after the attacks televised that evening where he denounced “the very worst of human nature” which had attacked “Moms and dads. Friends and neighbors.”

What is so striking about these recently released images is the humanity depicted. There is a very tired looking Second Lady Lynne Cheney and a resolute Vice President Dick Cheney arched back in his chair with his foot propped up on the desk as he monitored the news broadcast from his White House office.

Bowns july 1
Photo Credit: National Records and Archives Administration

There is a visibly shaken National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice looking down in deep contemplation as a very somber Secretary of State Colin Powell looks upward.

Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

When our leaders show their humanity, they are more like us, rather than appearing as some demagogue speaking from a distant mountaintop. We turn to our leaders for their strength but also for their frailties. That is what makes them and all of us human.

In less than two weeks, we also face the 41st anniversary of President Nixon’s exit from the Oval Office. Surely it was an understatement when he said, “I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress…”

Facing one of the darkest moments in the history of the American presidency before or since, he nevertheless urged those watching:

“We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended…Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it.”

He then reminded onlookers:

“It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

It takes a leader to face such struggles and to fly in the face of hope that somehow, everything could still be all right. Nixon spoke about disappointments and sadness. Surely, he felt many of those emotions, as did most Americans (then and now) when trying to make sense of Watergate.

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Photo Credit: History.com

In remembering the darkness of both of these days, remember our leaders’ humanity and connect with these moments, even if it’s in seeing the faces of tired leaders or their expressions of hope.

Humanity means remembering our weaknesses. Leadership means not being afraid to show them. It means wearing our weaknesses on our sleeve and going on anyway, undeterred. By facing whatever it is that may make us imperfect, we keep it in check and not ignore it.

Even before the U.S. Constitution was adopted as the new form of American government, James Madison wrote about the same:

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Submitted by Jason Bowns


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