A Christian Leadership Publication

Howard Thurman on Leadership

One of the most searching demands of leadership is integrity and honesty. The leader must above all else be a seeker after truth. In his private life of thought and deed he must not violate the ideals which he embraces in his role as the leader of others. The integrity of the act cannot be separated from the integrity of the person and the word. Therefore, the leader must seek the truth.

He must seek the truth about himself. The single fact is that he must accept himself. It is probably true that he is not as brilliant or as able as someone else seems to be; he may not have the kind of charm that attracts others to him in the way someone else does; he may not have the advantages of background and family heritage that someone else can claim. He may lay claim to some of these seeming assets. Nevertheless, he must at long last say “Yes” to his own basic equipment.

Lincoln says that if you could change the fact of yourself, “You might fetch the wrong jack-knife in the swap. It’s up to you to whittle what you can / With what you’ve got– and what I am, I am…”

In addition to accepting himself, the leader must be willing to take responsibility for his own actions. This is a most searching demand. It is very tempting to shift the responsibility for decisions. The leader can say very easily that he is held captive by the tyranny of his responsibilities. He must do what the role demands of him and take no personal responsibility for such actions. This is a real delusion. True it is that there is an etiquette and sometimes what seems to be morality of office that leaves little room for the integrity of the person. But that fact does not provide an alibi for shifting responsibility to the position or office which one holds. It is a man who is the chairman, or the president or the leader. As a man he is responsible for his actions in his office. Life does not know about status, position, or place, it knows only that the man, the living, breathing man, is a responsible agent however he may function in his roles.

In addition to taking responsibility for his action, the leader must be willing to take responsibility for his reactions. Sometimes it does not seem that the responsibility for a person’s reaction to the events of his life is not his to determine. Again and again we are involved in experiences and events which sweep into our live without any reference to our own wills. They arise in regions beyond our control. True. But the moment we encounter them, how we react to them, what we do with them–these matters are our responsibility and concern. It is here that the true character of the person is often revealed. It is for this reason that two people visited by the same circumstances may be seen to react to it in diametrically opposed ways. One may respond with bitterness and hostility, the other with gentleness and grace. The leader is responsible for his reaction to life.

We are living in a time of revolutions, technological and social. Our reaction to these revolutions may be one of fear, panic, and despair. We may in our reaction be stripped of all hope and all confidence not only about the meaning of our own lives but about the significance of the future for mankind. Or we may in our reaction be inspired to a deeper commitment to higher purposes and more meaningful resolves to the end that in us the dreams for mankind that are cherished will be worked at with fresh vigor and new hope. How we react is our responsibility– and from this there is no escape.

The leader must seek the truth about his society. He must be able to assess it properly and clearly. He must know that what he condemns in others he dare not encourage in himself. The ideals which he demands of the political or social life of his times must not be other than the ideal which he cherishes for himself. In so doing he will discover that at long last the only place for refuge for any man in the world is in his own heart.

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