Good leaders aren't scarce, they're scared - of scrutiny

In the coming months, a new group of leaders to shepherd communities, states, and the nation for the next few years will be chosen in a flurry of media madness. As I read the papers, watch the news, and listen to debates hosted by media and paid for by corporations and political parties, I'm struck by the limited choices we really have.

That's not to say we don't have great numbers of people running. I can't even name all the Democratic candidates for president. In my little town, the list of people running for sheriff can look more like the social register than a ballot. But I'm hard pressed to find any real differences, any substantial inspirational message that puts one candidate ahead of another - nobody stands for anything, at least not publicly.

I've come to the conclusion that really good leaders aren't scarce, they're scared.

Perfectly decent people are afraid of today's brand of public scrutiny. They're afraid of the requirement that good leaders must have a history that is beyond reproach - a quality none of us possess and few can even pretend since the dawn of cable news and investigative reporting.

Last year, I was a recipient of the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World award. I received media attention, financial rewards for my nonprofit organization, and more recognition than I ever dreamed of.

And now my life is different. I used to be a local do-gooder, working for the poor and downtrodden, rallying the community to build good day-care centers, and helping raise money for food and shelter. It was simply what we did together; my role was that of being on both sides of the fence. I could relate to the neediest client and the most astute politician. I could even get them both in the same room. We held one another in high regard, and good things happened to make our community a better place.

Now that I've been noticed, I sense a bit of that distance that forms between leaders and the public at large. I'm no longer just one of "us." I'm "them." And I'm under a scrutiny I wasn't under before.

It seems as though being a leader in the national or local limelight makes the general public hungry to be able to say, "See, I knew she wasn't that good!"

Our political culture seems to thrive on people's misgivings and weaknesses. If I inhaled in the '70s, had a child out of wedlock, or just happened to make a bad decision one day, it takes every bit of that to bring me to where I am today. And the fact that I might have a less-than-glamorous past - that people do evolve - makes me very passionate about focusing on people's gifts, which is what gets things done, not showcasing their mistakes or frailties.

Public leadership requires so much energy to be invested in covering up our humanness that we're no longer free to do the work.

I'd much rather have a sheriff with a degree in law enforcement, fresh ideas about crime prevention, and a skeleton in his closet than one with the right pedigree.

I prefer a governor who is an empathetic risk taker and a free thinker, and who has human frailties, far more than someone who talks in circles and has never had a temporary moral lapse.

I want a president who knows how to build coalitions, be prudent with our public resources, and who walks in the shoes of real people - even if I don't approve of everything he did in his private life.

I know and work with some true leaders - and I don't need to go back 10, 20, or 30 years to see what their pattern of behavior today tells me. Nor do those leaders have time to engage in personal attacks or cover up poor personal decisions from their past.

Unfortunately, that leaves few people with real leadership skills willing to step into the public arena. Good leaders abound, and they're busy doing work building strong communities that will help make our nation a better place in spite of our collective faults. If we could hold them to more human standards, perhaps we could entice them to stand and be noticed.

Gerry Roll is executive director of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries in Hazard, Kentucky, and a recipient of the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World award.

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