Heroic leaders are not the answer to bad things

By Rich Harwood

In just one hour this morning, I read or heard a series of news stories that made me wonder if the world is spinning out of control and if there is anything you or I or anyone else can do about it. Or, do we simply have to wait for some new political savior to get things right? Amid my moment of helplessness and exasperation, I know we must not wait.

In fact, we need YOU.

The stories I encountered are varied and troubling: outgoing political leaders in Wisconsin stripping an incoming governor of certain powers; the “Yellow Vest” protesters in France rebelling against hurtful government policies; prospects of a new Democratic House majority creating even more congressional gridlock and endless noise; news of genetically altered baby girls in China; indiscriminate deregulation of environmental standards as a new government report tells us climate change is worsening; the rise of extremism in Germany. Mind you, this was all in just one single hour.

This is no way to get off to a good start on a sunny Friday morning. Or is it?

Like me, you may have watched, even cried this week as you witnessed the funeral and moving eulogies for former President George H. W. Bush. He is remembered as a man of decency, loyalty and moderation. The message can seem to be at times: If only we had men like him again.

Of course, national leadership matters, big time. And I know political observers, historians and commentators—including everyday people—like to put great stock in individual heroic leaders. But I do not believe any single man or woman can save us. This is the lesson with our current president. It is the lesson in France with President Emanuel Macron and in Great Britain with Prime Minister Teresa May. The same lesson applies to the growing field of Democratic presidential aspirants.

Leaders require a country to lead.

In the U.S., and in many other nations, people are divided. Grievances abound. Policies swing back and forth from one political ideology to another, often with little attention paid to how they truly impact people’s lives. People protest; they rebel. Things break apart.

Even amid these current troubles, I have enormous faith in Americans (all of us). We are innovators and builders. It is who we are, part of our nation’s DNA. No doubt, we have deep stains on our civic fabric, and yet over time we have found ways to address some of these. More need to be removed. Such problem solving and progress does not come simply from single national leaders, even though our historical fables sometimes suggest so.

Progress and the re-binding of society come from people like you, who work in public libraries, community foundations, arts groups, faith institutions and many others places, courageously bringing people together to bridge divides, create a culture of understanding and shared responsibility, and find new ways forward.

We need organizations and networks and leaders that are deeply rooted in our local communities, that are turned outward toward them, and that work tirelessly to restore people’s faith that we can get things done together. Read the history of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day, among others, and you will see these local entities at work in our nation’s story.

When such local efforts take root, grow and spread, they provide the seedbed for change that people can believe in, and they create the necessary platforms for national leaders to lead in ways that are in touch with the people they serve.