Proof that ordinary people make extraordinary leaders
One of the bloggers who contributes to Mindful Voices is Janice Marturano, who shares insights and ideas from her work training leaders in how to apply mindfulness to help navigate the chaos and conflict they face. Janice’s posts always keep me exploring what’s involved in being a good leader—and we are all leaders at least some of the time. Leadership is not reserved only for big L leaders, and yet we look to those kinds of leaders—the ones who are called to bear the burden of leadership for long periods under great pressure—for inspiration and guidance. We choose them to lead us presumably because we hope and trust that they will call out the better angels of our nature.
Too often, though, leaders end up just being cheerleaders for our side. Our side is good. The other side is bad. Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah. Let’s beat them! And in the worst cases, leadership descends into demagoguery—leading us by playing on our fears and our lesser emotions. A steady diet of lesser leadership can make us weary. And wary. We distrust leaders before they’ve even spoken.
Occasionally, though, a leader comes along who shows us something larger, who takes us beyond ourselves, who embodies the kind of aspirations and humane qualities we celebrate at Mindful.org.
Last week, Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, died of cancer at age 61. From diagnosis to death was relatively quick, so it came as a bit of shock to the public. Layton’s death last week was greeted with an outpouring of affection for a leader who had in this spring’s national election catapulted the perennial also-ran left-of-center party into leading the opposition. He was elated that so many of his new members of parliament were young and so many were in the arts. He dreamed of a nation where art and industry were equally valued. Sadly, Layton only spent a few months in the role of leader-of-the-opposition before succumbing to his second bout with cancer.
I once met Layton in an elevator. It was just him and me, one of those awkward moments. He broke the silence with a fart. We both smiled and laughed a little. He was an ordinary guy. I told him that anyone who was willing to break wind in public if nature required had my vote. At the time Layton died, I was visiting my daughters and granddaughters in Toronto. I was amazed to see that at the baseball game the evening after his death, we were asked to stand and offer a moment of silence in his honor. I’m sure not everyone in the crowd was a supporter; the gesture evinced a unity and respectfulness I have rarely seen these days. My daughter is one of his constituents, and his constituency office nearby her house is piled with flowers. Young people here loved him. They changed their Facebook pictures to his. We need leaders who can inspire a new generation. In his final hours, Jack Layton demonstrated why he was so loved, and why he is worthy of honoring. He composed a lovely and compelling deathbed letter to the nation, which ended with words that already have become legend:
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
That’s mindful leadership, in my book.