In 2007, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote an extraordinary foreword to a book of poems called ‘Leading From Within’. This was no ordinary anthology. It contained poems that were selected by leaders – from financial icon Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard Funds, to Diana Walsh Chapman, the former Dean of Wellesley College, and also leaders in science, medicine, advertising, community organizing and faith-based traditions. Each leader also contributed a short essay explaining how the poem shaped their leadership.
Albright’s foreword began boldly. She recalled the story of United Flight 93 – the plane hijacked by terrorists that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. She remembered how Tom Burnett, a passenger on the plane called his wife to say, “I know we’re going to die, but some of us are going to do something about it.” Since he and his fellow passengers saved lives that day, Albright challenged her readers to learn from their heroism.
She noted how the statement “I know we’re going to die” is not remarkable. Any of us could say this on any day. The words that follow, however, are remarkable: “…some of us are going to do something about it.”
Albright calls this “the fundamental challenge put to us by life.” This is because we are defined by what we choose to do and be during our allotted time. For some, this realization could be their call to leadership. And those who lead from within know that “true leadership comes not from the sound of a commanding voice, but from the nudging of an inner voice – from our realization that the time has come to go beyond dreaming to doing.”
What seldom gets discussed in literature about leadership is the stress and self-doubt that comes with the job. Global educator Parker Palmer writes about this in his Introduction to Leading From Within. It is evident in statements like: “What they’re asking me is impossible.” “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” “Someone else could do this better.” “I’m exhausted by the constant demands.” In other words, the call to lead requires grit and grace – as well as determination.
Palmer understands that leaders break our hearts when they choose to play small and violate our trust and confidence. In fact, one obstacle to answering the call to lead is the example of leaders who lack integrity, compassion, and wisdom. He cautions followers about leaders who choose to be “pirates, prevaricators, and people with delusions of adequacy”.
But after reading the poetry contributions submitted for this anthology, Palmer gained a new perspective: “Because these leaders seek “sustenance, inspiration, and guidance – from poetry, not Power-Points, they offer me real bread for the [leadership] journey… And because they wear their hearts on their sleeves – defying the myth that says leaders must appear invulnerable – I can trust them.”
He applauds the leaders who inspire us with their words and actions and help us to find our better angels. These are not twitter-fed leaders. They are like United States Congressman John Lewis, who put his life at risk many times over to fight for principles of racial and social justice that are infused with love – not hate. These leaders check their egos at the door and listen to their hearts and minds.
Albright shared stories about meeting heads of state and their people, during her time as Secretary of State. She recalled visiting children in Sierra Leone who had lost limbs in that country’s bloody 11-year civil war. Some “were too young even to know what they were missing.” She spoke with one small girl, Mamuna, just three years old, and watched her play with a toy car with her one arm. Albright wondered, “…how anyone could have used a machete against that girl?”
And while the camp was filled with many other children of all ages waiting for prosthetics to replace their lost limbs, Albright did not see self-pity or anger or bitterness there. Instead she saw teams of “dedicated doctors and volunteers doing all they could to celebrate the gift of life.”