Leadership Lessons From Effective Acts Of Conscience: Martin Luther King And Pete Seeger

Feb 19 2014, 6:28pm CST | by

Leadership Lessons From Effective Acts Of Conscience: Martin Luther King And Pete Seeger
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Doing good by doing the right thing is actually quite rare. And that shouldn’t surprise; acts of conscience pose significant psychological risks, especially when done collectively. Success calls for leadership that is visionary, courageous, practical, and welcoming: a rare combination indeed. That rarity is partly why we celebrate those who get it right, like we did last month on Martin Luther King Day, and why so many mourned the recent passing of Pete Seeger, a hero of mine who died at age 94. While both their stories are compelling for many reasons, the leadership lessons they contain also deserve notice. As I hope you’ll agree, they have much to teach about how to mitigate the risks of taking a moral stance, and thereby increase the chances of becoming an effective agent for meaningful change.

Let’s first consider the risks. If you take what you consider to be a moral stance you already think you’ve done the right thing. And if you don’t take a stance, since most of us think of ourselves as basically good people, you already think the situation either did not warrant one or that nothing could be done.

In both situations decisions calcify, for many reasons. People are built to bring attitudes in line with previous behavior. It’s called cognitive dissonance. Confirmation biases lead you to find mostly supporting information while ignoring data that disconfirms. And when one acts collectively powerful groupthink processes drive “us vs. them” thinking. Polarization ensues. Moral certainty grows. In fact, acts of conscience can close off all but the most motivated to further discussion and reflection. “I’m doing what I know to be right.” Case closed.

Despite the difficulties sometimes the consequences of one’s actions actually harmonize with the morality of the intention. One then does good by doing the right thing. Dr. King’s story is well known and won’t be retold here. Pete Seeger’s is both much narrower in scope and less well known. But they contain similar leadership lessons.

In the last 25 years if you have spent any time along the Hudson River, anywhere from New York City through the Hudson Valley all the way past Albany, you’ve seen the good Pete Seeger did. In the 60s when I was in grade school, the river was pretty much an open sewer and dumping ground for industrial waste. It’s filth was a punch-line. Now it’s a treasure, a recreational playground where people boat and kayak, and even fish and swim, a lovely river whose shore is dotted with restaurants and parks. It could even be argued that NYC remains a magnet for the world’s best and the brightest in part because of our glorious Hudson River Park  where people bike, walk, skate, play, picnic and whatever.

The change was catalyzed by Pete Seeger and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. I have a personal connection to this work. In 4th grade Seeger came to my school for an assembly. It was the best sing-along ever. And when he talked about the Clearwater sailing on a clean Hudson all kinds of possibilities opened. Could such a thing be possible? The music made it seem so. He floated an effective moral message on irrepressibly joyous songs.

By looking closer at what he did, as well as Dr. King, 4 leadership lessons emerge:

Have a vision
You can’t fake this. You either have one, or you don’t. A vision is much bigger than a plan. A plan guides. A vision both guides and inspires. And if you do have a vision you have to be able to communicate it. That Dr. King communicated his vision is unforgettable to anyone who encounters the soaring oratory of “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial from August 28, 1963.

Seeger’s vision was a Hudson River, the people’s river, brought back to life from being a toxic, open sewer.  And because he’s Pete Seeger we find his dream not in speech but song. Sailing Up My Dirty Stream from 1961 is one such example and it ends this way:

“Sailing up my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream.
That some day, though maybe not this year.
My Hudson and my country will run clear”


Here’s a not great recoding of this song (the only public access version I could find).

Celebrate “yes”
Dr. King worked to let freedom ring. Pete Seeger sang and sang and sang, using music to carry his message. While both articulated the wrongs they saw, they each put “yes” at the center of their message, Seeger doing so with song. His Twitter bio says it well: “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.” His music was his yes and it carried his message.

Be the change you want
When Pete Seeger showed up at my school the plan to sail the Clearwater on the Hudson was in full swing. His plan was to sail the boat even when the Hudson was a mess. The plan worked. In 1969 the boat was launched, a “majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries.” By treating the river like a place worthy of a majestic sail and then actually sailing he helped make it so. By being free, be it at lunch counters or walking over a bridge, Dr. King helped let freedom ring.

Mobilize inclusively
The inclusivity in the “I Have A Dream” speech remains remarkable more than 50 years later. It was a grassroots effort to achieve America’s promise for everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike. Seeger and his music was similarly inclusive. He said the following to the House Unamerican Activities Committee on August 18, 1955: “I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs.”

A message for everyone too beautifully sang to ignore.

————
My next two posts will also talk about moral leadership. The next, titled “Leadership Lessons From Absent Acts Of Conscience: David H. Koch And The NYC Ballet,” will try to learn from acts of conscience not taking place. The third, titled “Leadership Lessons From Harmful Acts Of Conscience: Psychologists Resigning From The APA,” will look for leadership lessons in well-intentioned acts of conscience that end up doing harm.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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