Quiet efforts for the common good
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — For several years, I have taught about Rosa Parks in a seminar on diversity and leadership, which is why I've paid particularly close attention to the public eulogies. I've been struck by which terms were used to describe her: "icon," "pioneer," "activist" ... as well as "sister," "prophet," "saint," "seamstress," "reluctant symbol," "torchbearer," "fine citizen," and "sweet lady." Rarely, however, has the word "leader" been explicitly used - it seems to have been reserved for the men she worked alongside.
Female leaders are often overlooked in our society, and leadership for the common good is less celebrated than leadership that yields business profits. But in Rosa Parks, leadership came in a pure form.
Her passing is particularly sad at a time when the country seems to yearn for leadership - and for moral leaders - more than at any time in our history. A study at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership, published last week, shows that 62 percent of Americans believe leaders are primarily out to enrich themselves monetarily, and that 72 percent of Americans believe the United States will decline as a nation unless we find better leaders.
Do great moments make great leaders, or do great leaders make great moments? Parks's narrative so beautifully illustrates this complex interplay like none I have encountered.
History might not have been written for the better without her and her extraordinary courage and strength to directly and powerfully confront prejudice so enshrined as to be an everyday occurrence. But neither would history have been written for the better without the support of those around her - those who worked in her local chapter of the NAACP, those who labored to be ready when the perfect test-case arose, as well as each person who refused to ride a bus.
Parks said that she did not fully realize what she was starting on Dec. 1, 1955. What a fascinating insight into leadership this disclosure provides. Sometimes, when I read her story, I believe that while she did not fully anticipate the outcome, she hoped for it - she had the most ambitious of aspirations. Other days I am struck by a suspicion that she did not hope, but simply expected. With moral conviction, she knew she was in the right, and that history would, one day, be on her side. Whether her act was born of certainty or uncertainty, hope or desperation, intense dignity or indignation, once she acted, she stood her ground - by simply refusing to give up her seat on a bus she had paid to ride.
The questions I ask myself privately, when the time in the semester arrives in which we discuss Rosa Parks's leadership, are: Who in my class might be the next one to take action, change the face of a nation, shake our collective conscience out of its complacent tolerance of injustices? Who will be the one to catalyze the next significant transformation of our schools, our workplaces, and our communities?
With Rosa Parks gone, this year I will ask my questions aloud.
• Todd L. Pittinsky is assistant professor for public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a faculty member of the Center for Public Leadership.