Character, values bring leadership
From this perspective
Presidents Day will be here next week. We remember Washington and Lincoln and all of our presidents, all 45 of them. We pay tribute to them for their dedicated public service and personal valor. Truly, history records most of our presidents as heroes of virtue, noble in service, and honorable in duty. Many of them displayed moral leadership in times of peace and in times of war. And moral authority is what Americans are so hungry for during these times. The mantle of leadership is a decision “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
There are those who are asking … where is the civility and moral authority we knew and so admired in Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan; or in the role model of such foreign luminaries as Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill? Americans are searching today for models of virtue as exemplified by some of our greatest leaders … true heroes, if you will. President Truman was a statesman. He always said, “The buck stops here.”
The role of authority in government is not only to uphold moral, ethical, and intellectual standards but also to guarantee social and political freedom, and to act as a barrier against centralized, arbitrary, and despotic power. We use authority to protect our rights, to provide order and security, to manage conflict, and to protect individual freedoms. The authority of the American government originates from the Constitution. The moral authority consists of the felt obligations and duties from shared community values, ideas, and ideals. From a democratic perspective, the very nature of authority must be moral in form and genuine in content; otherwise, social unrest, chaos, and coercion will be the norm. Moral authority rests on voluntary consent. Democracy, by definition, cannot exist without values. And that is what is central in the minds and hearts of the electorate today. And the voting public is looking for those values within the hearts and minds of our leaders and future leaders.
Many Americans have become disenchanted with the politics as usual, the lack of ethics in government. Unfortunately, government and the political process is often viewed as dominated by special interests, egomania, and self interest, rather than notions of the “common good” for Americans. Citizens feel caught between the crossfire of self-interested politicians and vindictive self-serving candidates and their surrogates.
The government is only as good, decent, and moral as the citizens who put them in office. Individual integrity, responsibility, and accountability are the best check on political abuse. Americans must find the common themes and values that transcend whatever cultural differences there may be. We must all be able to identify, articulate, and appreciate the core values of America. We need to reaffirm our national civic values — the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — that bring us together as a people. Our core beliefs of principle and honor must be a guide to our actions.
We are in the midst of political and leadership discourse at nearly all levels of government. The fact of the matter is: the bottom line criteria in the minds of the voters come down to the overall character of the candidate. For without good character, being a good orator, a clever debater, or a slick campaigner, just does not cut it. President John F. Kennedy said it well, “Courage, not complacency is our need today. Leadership not salesmanship is what is required.” To put it bluntly, we are right to demand good character of our leaders and to believe that character and discipline are inseparable from moral leadership. It was John Locke who said “The discipline of desire is the background of character … for the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” In effect, when character is lacking, the public will have diminished confidence in the leadership and the people become restive and demoralized.
Americans are searching for noble leaders of virtue at whatever level of service… local, state, or federal. We, as an electorate, must be willing to put personal self-serving interests aside and make hard choices based upon the fundamental principles on which this Republic is founded. If we want to find heroes in our leaders, we must first demonstrate heroism in our own actions in the election booth or wherever and in whatever we are engaged. A genuinely principled people will place the mantle of leadership on those of competence, sound character and genuine virtue.
Dr. Robert L. Heichberger is a resident of Gowanda and Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at SUNY Fredonia.