In my leadership class we have been watching the film “Remember the Titans.” The film is an explosion of leadership, both good and bad. It demonstrates how people can lead by example, in their words, and also in their silence. The leaders that are able to learn, to grow, end up being the most effective. Those that stick to their negative and counterproductive ways eventually fail. No leader is perfect, but there are plenty of moments when a leader inspires others and demonstrates how important leadership is, especially for youth.
There are dozens of scenes I could talk about, but there is one that struck me as we watched it. The film is set in 1971 and racial tensions are high. A school has just become integrated and the story is of the journey the football team makes to adjust to this integration. In the scene, a black coach has been appointed the assistant coach of the team and shows up to meet the white head coach. The head coach says almost nothing while a white assistant coach makes racist remarks and belittles the black coach. What strikes me most was not the racist assistant. His stance and hatred are clear and do not change throughout the film. Mostly I notice the head coach’s silence. By refusing to speak, to stop the racist remarks, he is in fact complicit in them, silently supportive of the behavior. He leads his coaches with silence.
This might be lesson enough, but this week, an event of significance occurred in the US killing of Osama bin Laden. As I watched President Obama’s speech, the media commentary, and the videos of celebrations that followed, I struggled to gather my thoughts and consider what I might say to my students the next day. My leadership class meets 1st period, and I was literally still in the parking lot when they met me Monday morning ready to talk.
I was grateful that I had friends on Facebook that had discussed the situation. I was most grateful for a post I read almost immediately from my friend Lali deRosier that helped me think about this situation. Her words: “I am glad for the American families that will find closure. I am thankful for the efforts of our servicemen and allies. I am appreciative for what this means for the war against terrorism. I CANNOT rejoice in the death of a human being. I am better than that, and so are you.”
The next morning we watched President Obama’s speech in class and discussed the situation. I hope these actions helped my students think about this event.
Later that day I eagerly turned to Twitter and some of my favorite leaders for their wisdom and guidance on this historic event. I found the usual blog posts on human resources and corporate leadership, but almost no comments on bin Laden’s death. Finally I tweeted one thought, a single sentence. “Do not rejoice in the death of one man. Rejoice when there is peace.”
Perhaps everyone needed time to think so I came back Tuesday. Nothing. Now Wednesday. Maybe I should say something, drop a thought into the #leadchange feed. The silence made me wonder. Is this too political? Am I so far off the mark? I said nothing, complicit in the silence.
In the end we all know that bin Laden’s death will not bring back any of those lost on September 11, 2001 or in the years since. His death will not stop al-Qaeda or terrorism. In fact, we may be ever more targeted by those angered by his death. So what were people celebrating through the night after the announcement? American superiority? Vengeance? Death? And what does it say about me if I say nothing about any of this?
I am worried, worried about the character of our citizens, especially our youth. You may think that the response to this is obvious. Why speak what everyone else already knows? But I only needed to watch two minutes of celebrations to know that not everyone thinks the same way I do. Those that care about leadership need to talk about this, not because we always agree, but because in our silence we are already speaking.
I do worry about the hatred and evil we hear spilling from the mouths of those who live to spread such things. But I worry more that there are so few voices stepping up to counter this hatred. When you watched those celebrations on Sunday, what, if anything, did you say to your children, to your colleagues, to whatever audience you have gathered at your blogs or on Facebook or Twitter? Can we actually afford to be silent?