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  • Greg Hiebert

Moral Leadership in Times of Darkness and Difficulty


FDR at his 1933 Inaugural Address (Source: Wikipedia)

As I think about the world being gripped by the Covid-19 Pandemic, I find the story of FDR particularly compelling. He was stricken by Polio in 1921 and, eleven years later, was elected to the highest office in the United States of America. His leadership was instrumental in taking the USA out of the great depression and perhaps, more importantly, guiding our country through an even greater crisis, World War II.

What I was most inspired by was Roosevelt’s immense courage and determination to not be conquered by Polio despite the debilitating impact it had on his body until his death in 1945. While FDR worked hard to not be seen as an invalid, the American public identified with the hardship he had endured, just as so many Americans were facing immense difficulties themselves. They were even more inspired by his strength to persevere.

Roosevelt’s strength became their strength. His 1933 Inaugural Address, in which he stated, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” was embraced by a nation that had been brought to its knees by a pandemic of fear. He called for its citizens to come together in trust, unity, courage and selflessness. And he promised those same ideals from himself. Given the challenges we face today, I think we can all be inspired by Roosevelt’s call to action for himself and for the nation and the hope for the country’s great healing. Here are the final words of his address that bear reflection:

For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less. We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.

We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.

In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.

For the past eight weeks, our country’s healthcare workers have been courageously fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic. Service workers have been risking their own health by picking up our garbage, stocking the shelves in our grocery stores, delivering the mail, and working in those services deemed mission-essential by local and state authorities. We are blessed by modern technology that allows millions of scientists and medical researchers to collaborate and cooperate in unprecedented ways to find a vaccine and determine ways to combat the virus and help patients heal. This same technology is keeping many of us connected and collaborating so there is still much to be hopeful for in the weeks and months ahead.

The current state of things will continue for some time until we can bring down the Covid-19 positive cases in our country to small and manageable levels. And as we do that, the work of recovery and restoration of our economy will require that even more of us step up into roles of service, support and leadership to help our country and the world heal. Innovation and American ingenuity will be required just as it did in moving our nation out of the great depression and World War II.

FDR’s decisive and moral leadership during the years 1933-1945, serves as an example to Americans of how strong leadership can serve as a beacon of light for so many who are feeling their way in the darkness of a great storm. And unlike hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes that unleash their devastation in temporal blows, the great storm of the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to lash out at our way of life until a vaccine can be discovered and delivered. Until that happens, we will need to draw upon leaders who are willing to call forth from us those great American virtues of courage, selflessness, determination, and unity that have guided us through the darkest times in our nation’s history.

You don’t have to be the President of a nation to provide moral leadership. At every level and in every position in your organization and even in your family, there is an opportunity to step up and provide decisive, confident and calming leadership to those around you. As I reflect not just on FDR during the great depression and WWII but also in being an avid student of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Winston Churchill after being chosen as the British Prime Minister in 1940 upon Nazi Germany’s declaration of war against England and his first year of leadership during the Battle of Britain, I am drawn to a few core conclusions about moral leadership in times of immense crisis and difficulty:

1. Meaning and Purpose: People need deep meaning and purpose so that they can have something to hold onto and hope for. This meaning and purpose must be conveyed to those you want to reach in a multitude of ways and means so that it becomes embedded in the fabric of everyday life. Churchill’s famous response to the German Blitz of London which lasted for 57 straight days and nights was, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” This gave the citizens of London and the rest of England a great deal of confidence to withstand the bombing onslaught.

2. Positive Communication: In times of crisis, we need frequent communication that provides glimpses of positive progress, even if small. I frankly am tired of the “doom and gloom” I see and hear in every news medium. You have to really look to see that great things are happening everywhere. A coaching client proudly told me recently that his health system has been nothing but heroic over the last seven weeks. They added well over 140 new ICU beds in several weeks. Before the pandemic, such a project would have taken over half a year to plan and execute. There are stories everywhere of the goodness of people stepping up to help and support others in remarkable ways. Let’s tell those stories. Let’s make those stories front page news. It is a human need to counter the fears and anxieties of uncertainty and trauma with positive progress. The moral leader understands this and conveys to his team that ‘Yes, things are tough now. Yes, things may continue to be tough for some time to come. But, there are many signs that positive progress is being made and I am confident that all of these positive pieces of progress will eventually yield great success.’

3. Unity and Shared Sacrifice: Crisis is a time when leaders need to call forth for unity and sacrifice. We are all in this together and only together will we make our way out of this. In these difficult times, strong moral leaders stress our need to band together in order to achieve our greatest good and to put aside our politics and our trivial disagreements that often separate us from our fellow citizens. I recall the first several days after the great tragedy of 9/11 when all of my neighbors placed small American flags in our yards. For a period of time, there was a unity amongst all Americans that gave me tremendous pride and appreciation. I also remember President Ronald Reagan speaking to the American people after the Challenger disaster ended the lives of seven distinguished NASA Astronauts. Reagan’s talk was just 4 minutes long, but he conveyed the deep sense of loss and sadness that all Americans were feeling. He reminded us that these dedicated Astronauts were deeply committed to their mighty purpose of space exploration and that the future belonged to the brave and these Astronauts were indeed most brave. His final words, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Moral leadership reminds us of the inherent greatness of our coming together to engage in deeply meaningful work and only through our unity and deep dedication to one another can it be achieved.

4. High Expectations and Calm Confidence: Moral leaders understand that in times of crisis and adversity, fear can easily run rampant. It can lead people to either be paralyzed in fear or react with immense negative emotion instead of bringing their best selves and their greatest capabilities to bear in support of an organization’s response to the crisis. The moral leader knows that their active presence is necessary to let people know that we will get through this and that the leader has nothing but the highest of confidence and expectations of the people s/he has the privilege to lead through difficult challenges. They evoke inspired connection and trust through their words because they have credibility and speak from their own hearts. FDR’s radio fireside chats were listened to by majority of citizens and his words gave comfort, brought calm and instilled confidence. When the Covid-19 pandemic began to get real in the United States, I had a short conversation with a prominent healthcare system CEO. He clearly understood the threat that the virus presented to his organization. Yet, he calmly shared that he had such a great leadership team that he was extremely confident that the organization would not only survive the crisis but that the crisis would create immense opportunities for them because of their innovation, boldness, resilience and determination. His calm confidence certainly gave me great confidence that under his leadership, his organization would do amazing things. When I speak to other leaders, they frequently talk about how they have stepped up to do mighty things and that while fighting Covid-19 is taking a financial and physical toll on the organization, they express a strong feeling that they will come out of this stronger and more capable.

At this juncture, there are still massive uncertainties on how we as a society will function with Covid-19 still wreaking havoc across the country and many states beginning to open up the economy. Progress will be slow. None of us can fully predict the toll that the pandemic will eventually have on us all. However, in the course of the history of humankind, the Covid-19 pandemic is just one of many that unleashed great death and destruction on societies across our planet. There were always survivors ready to rebuild, replant, and restore life. We will need strong moral leadership to get us through these hard times and, more importantly, we will need strong moral leadership to guide us successfully to whatever is next.

Perhaps it is fitting that I close with words from one of the greatest moral leaders in American history, Abraham Lincoln. These words spoken in dedication to the dead and fallen at Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863. They have been taught to young Americans in just about any course ever offered on American History because they communicated a vision of hope while also recognizing that the work to be done would require a unity of spirit and effort, and that sacrifice and courage would be required: “It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

©2018 by Greg Hiebert

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