Leadership is a daunting challenge for industry and our country today. It is especially challenging for safety professionals who must deal with push back from CEOs to employees. The topic, I believe, is very appropriate for us safety professionals. We Americans have a love affair with leadership. Go into any bookstore and you will find almost as many "how-to" books on leadership as you will find on 10-step programs to lose weight - and you all know how seriously we Americans take our waistlines!
The reason for our national obsession with leadership is, I suspect, two-fold. First, as a free people, we believe that leadership is not a status granted to a few on the basis of birth, but a characteristic open to all on the basis of effort. Americans want to lead because we believe we can lead. Ironically, our longing to lead is an essentially democratic trait. And, second, as a fortunate nation, we have often, since the days of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, enjoyed leaders who have been the envy of other countries around the world. Americans want to lead because we know that leaders can change or communities, nation, and the world for better. We prize leadership because we remain a fundamentally optimistic people.
I have found no better definition of leadership than the once recently put forward by James MacGregor Burns, a distinguished historian, who described leadership as a "commitment to values and the perseverance to fight for those values." Leadership at its most effective is grounded in both principle and pragmatism.
Another historian, Garry Wills, drives home this insight in his book on leadership, Certain Trumpets. The most important quality of leaders is so obvious, Wills tells us, that we sometimes overlook it. Leaders have followers. "It is not the noblest call that gets answered," Wills reminds us, "But the answerable call."
Principles are essential, but stripped of a practical way to achieve them, they reduce all too quickly to impotence, just as pragmatism, unless harnessed to conviction, can slip all too easily into cynicism. Balancing an idea about the way the world should be with an understanding of the world as it really is represents, I believe, the essence of effective leadership - whether Washington's, Lincoln's or one of the Roosevelts or Bushes.
This is as true for nations as it is for individuals. The United States is beginning this century as the richest and most powerful nation in human history. But there have been rich and powerful nations before. What is different - and what explains, I believe, our ultimate victory in the forty-year struggle called the Cold War - is that the world trusts America and trusts us because of our values. In short, America today is not just a great power; we are that unique historical phenomenon, the world leader. This is something of which all Americans, young and old alike, should be proud.