Leadership in Times of Fear
In 1933, in the midst of the great depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said these words during his inaugural address:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF – NAMELESS, UNREASONING, UNJUSTIFIED TERROR WHICH PARALYZES NEEDED EFFORTS TO CONVERT RETREAT INTO ADVANCE. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
FDR was not suggesting that people should not feel afraid, nor was he denying the real challenges and uncertainties of the time. Rather, he was imploring people to not respond out of fear and panic. Certainly this is sound advice for all of us during our present struggles. For out of fear rises bigotry, contempt, violence, and unreasoned, narrow-minded positions. We cannot afford such fear-based responses and we can find better ways forward.
I believe it starts with remembering our common humanity and fundamental values of respect and dignity for all. I know not everyone shares these values but those of us who do can lead the way. This frees us up to focus energy on solutions to our problems. We need to be willing to stand up and fight for our principles, to stand against the forces of hatred, greed, and selfishness while honoring those fundamental values, and to work for answers that represent the interests of the majority of people, including those who are different from us and those who may need assistance of one kind or another.
Our young people offer hope for the future. Erik Fogg, a member of the millennial generation and author of a book called Wedged: How you Became a Tool of the Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again, outlines a plan for each citizen to fight back. Erik points out that political leaders and media outlets want us to believe that we can no longer agree on anything. However, the truth is, as a country we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. For example, on the issue of guns, when we ask broad questions about gun control we have a 50/50 split of opinions. However, when you ask more specific policy questions we find that 96% of Americans want background checks for guns, 93% want to prevent felons and the mentally ill from owning guns, and 78% want mandatory gun registration.
To overcome the wedge, Erik recommends that we remind ourselves and each other how much we agree. This happens one conversation at a time, especially when we talk to people outside of our tribe. This advice is similar to the wisdom offered years ago by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their book Getting to Yes. The core point of this book is that to successfully negotiate on any issue, we must move out of rigid positions and define our common interests.
Another bright millennial, Sean Long, wrote an article for Kosmos Journal; Finding Political Understanding with a Single Question, and offers more sound advice. He suggests before jumping to conclusions or typecasting a person’s view into a particular camp of thought, stop and ask this question: “What experiences in your life led you to that view”. When we create spaces where people with different backgrounds can come to know one another, understanding and collaboration increase.
Each of us can assume leadership within our sphere of influence during times of uncertainty and division. We need the intelligence, integrity, and courage of those younger and older, from all walks of life. We need leaders with the wisdom and grace of FDR to step forward in our government, our corporations, and our institutions. If we refuse to let fear cloud our judgement, if we stand up for our core values of decency, if we listen to one another and define our common interests and areas of agreement, then we can and we will find our way to our next level of higher ground.