Silent Leadership

by  Deb Costello  |  Light Your World

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?

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What People Are Saying

William Powell  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

I have to agree with you Deborah. While I’m happy that this particular person will not be actively perpetuating the deeds he thought necessary and appropriate (however misguided that was), I simply cannot celebrate the death of another human being and look at myself in the mirror.

From a more objective perspective, our celebrating in the streets over the death of Osama Bin Laden appeared strangely similar to the celebration in the streets by others when the Twin Towers collapsed. Not exactly the kind of affiliation we’re hoping to have.

Thanks for having the courage to share a possibly not so popular viewpoint on a very delicate subject.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I too was struck by the similarity of our behaviors as compared to those we saw almost 10 years ago. I know that this is a complex issue, and we all have more than one emotional response to this news. I appreciate your willingness to talk about this here. I am hopeful that by talking we can all come to greater understanding of ourselves and the larger world. For me, this is our only chance at ever eventually arriving at peace.

John E. Smith  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Hi, Deborah – interesting post and a wonderful quote.

The discussions you seek were happening, in my experience, but my social media network is front-loaded with people like Jim Wallis, Deborah Bolen, God’s Politics blog, Diana Butler Bass, Rodney Allen Reeves, and Roger Lynn. Some are well-known and some are just friends, but they are examples of people engaging in a difficult discussion about how our reactions and behaviors convey messages and values during significant events.

I even chimed in with a blog post at (The Strategic Learner).

Unfortunately, I see little attention being paid in the mainstream media to this discussion. They are absorbed by details of the operation and the usual analysis to nauseum.

I think your point about silent leadership is well taken. Silence from a leader indeed speaks volumes.


John E. Smith  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Sorry – forgot to mention that you can see posts and links from all these folks and more on my Facebook Profile (John E. Smith), if you are interested. If I had more time, I’d compile a nice list, but gotta go baby sit my granddaughter:)


Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  | 

I am grateful to know that these conversations are happening, John. My hope here was to challenge the leaders in my life, some of whom are part of the #leadchange group, to participate in this as well. I understand that Twitter is sometimes a difficult forum for use on more complex and challenging issues, but I KNOW this community cares deeply about character in leadership. I am almost hyper aware of my words because I speak to about a hundred students daily. Some of my Twitter leadership friends have thousands or even tens of thousands of followers. Their impact can be incredibly significant.

As for the media focus, I agree that they have clearly had other priorities, but I found out about this event through social media rather than CNN or other news sources. The role of social media, especially among our youth, is incredibly important. I encourage all of us to remember that we have tremendous influence.

I appreciate your words here and will definitely check out the sources you mentioned! Thank you!

Tara R. Alemany  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Thanks, Deborah, for opening up this difficult discussion. When my 13-year-old daughter saw the rejoicing on the television, her immediate reaction was to question why anyone would celebrate the death of another individual. She and I then spent time in prayer, asking for enlightenment as to how to respond to the situation.

That night, as I went to bed, I wrote the following to a friend of mine: “I hope the remainder of your weekend was enjoyable. Mine was, although the news of Osama bin Laden’s death has me shook up a little bit… It’s hard to rejoice in the death of anyone, even though I realize the War on Terror could never end while he was still alive. Yet, it will hopefully bring some closure for those still living with issues resulting from 9/11. All in all, very mixed feelings.”

You see, I live 90 minutes outside of NYC. My Uncle lives in Times Square, and actually watched from his balcony as the second tower was hit. I have friends and neighbors who were in the City that day. I know people who lost loved ones there, and who survived Ground Zero. That morning is indelibly burned in my memory as I tried for hours to find out whether my family was safe. Simply hearing the words “nine eleven” in succession brings me back to the powerful feelings experienced that day. My then 18-month-old son was home sick with me that morning as we watched the news footage, and had nightmares for the next 2 years about “the bad men flying planes into the buildings.”

I’m a follower of Christ. I choose not to hate anyone, even though there may be people whose actions I don’t like (or approve of). I have prayed for some resolution to this whole situation for years. Unfortunately, it seems as though there was no way the War on Terror could ever end when Osama Bin Laden was so set upon jihad.

Am I grateful that he’s dead? Humanly speaking, yes. Do I wish it had been of natural causes or something less intentional? Yes. Am I hopeful that the War on Terror has turned a corner? Yes. Am I afraid that Bin Laden’s death increases our danger? Yes.

Perhaps part of the “silence” you “heard,” was people struggling with a mixture of feelings that are hard to process. I don’t rejoice in his death. But his death gives me hope that I didn’t have previously, hope for healing and for peace. The only thing I posted online about it though was simply to thank my sister, who enlisted as a result of 9/11, and her military friends for their service during this time. In the long run, it’s the sacrifices of our military troops, their families, and the victims of terror that I chose to focus on instead.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Man Tara. I think you summarize a lot of what people are feeling about this event. You may be right in that It is this mixture of emotion that may well have silenced folks. I am not suggesting it is an easy thing to know what to say here. You said some powerful and deeply felt things in your letter. I know that there are many thousands that were far more deeply affected than I was, and I cannot begin to fully understand their emotional journey, but I do know that this hatred must somehow end or it will destroy us all. I sincerely hope you are right and that there is some good that can come of this death. I struggle to see that right now, but perhaps it will take time.

I appreciate your thoughts and willingness to discuss this issue. I genuinely hope that as we wrestle with this as individuals and a nation, we come to greater understanding of ourselves and the larger world community. As I have said earlier, I believe this is the road to peace.

Mike Henry  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

I’m wrestling with my response. Well, no, I’m really not.

It’s wrong to take a life. But it’s also wrong to allow someone else who has proven a disposition for that behavior to do the same. Bin Laden wasn’t spending any energy trying to convince the world that he’d turned over a new leaf. So for whoever that would have been next, I’m glad he’s dead; I’m glad they didn’t hesitate; I’m glad no one else was injured. I have new respect for our President because of the courage he demonstrated to act.

And, whatever else might happen as a result, also might have happened had we not killed him. He asked many people to sacrifice for his “holy” war. Now it’s his turn.

I agree it’s probably not “taking the high road” to celebrate. But that’s a minor offense compared to the crimes committed.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

First let me thank you Mike for allowing my post on this forum. I appreciate your willingness to allow this discussion and for your candor in your comment.

I want to be clear here. I don’t believe that there was really any other alternative to what happened here. As a nation we must protect ourselves. Osama bin Laden made every effort to make it impossible to do anything but kill him. I am truly grateful that we had the ability to find him and the well-trained, patriotic soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives for my safety.

I guess the real issue for me is how to make his death something that furthers the real goal, peace. There are a multitude of misunderstandings in the world related to religion, race, and culture. The offense of the celebration of his death is indeed small in comparison to the evil that bin Laden wrought, but these celebrations are the images the rest of the world sees. We were horrified when some in the Muslim world celebrated 9/11. Not every Muslim celebrated, but we painted the Muslim community with a pretty broad brush as a result. The Muslim community doesn’t see all our good works. All they see is us having a party. That’s not really who Americans are. I want Muslims to know this. We cannot stamp out terrorism alone. It will only end when every religion, every race, every culture says no more.

I know you are not alone in how you feel Mike. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think we can both agree that the real party can start when killing terrorists is no longer necessary.

Mike Henry  |  05 May 2011  | 

It’s your forum too. Besides, the best way to learn is to hear others’ thoughts. This is a great conversation.

Kevin McClave  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

I echo the thanks for your well thought and under-represented outlook, Deborah.

One of the reasons I hadn’t spoiken up more about the issues you describe is that I was actually struggling to articulate exactly what it was that bothered me about the celebrations of Bin Laden’s death. I think your one sentence tweet helped me to that clarity, and is perfect for that medium. Mikes response above also gives me further clarity on my own opinion of things.

I do not mourn Bin Laden’s death. I do not feel badly that he is dead. I do not wish that he was taken alive, nor did I have a prior preference that he not be. That they found him was the most important thing. His death is largely a symbolic one, but that does not take away the significance of it. I do worry that he has now become a martyr to his cause, which may in fact make him even more dangerous than he was alive.

Part of me despairs about the outright celebrations of this turn of events as a comment on the fabric of our society. It is for the same primary reason I am against the death penalty that I think I am troubled by this: we cannot compartmentalize so easily the spilling of blood. That we are desensitized to it enough to cheer executions, by brave Special Ops or by our government, is a statement on us as a people.

Carl Jung said that “you alweays become the thing you fight the most.” These are certainly words to keep in the forefront of our minds during these times in which we live.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Thank you Kevin for your thoughtful commentary. I had not heard the Jung quote before. I genuinely hope there is another route. I tend to be more humanist in my philosophical thinking, that we are always striving to become our best selves, but we have many needs that must be met along the way. (i.e. food, safety, love, education) It is only when we perceive our basic needs are unmet that we stumble and fall short of our best selves.

Thank you for joining our conversation and adding your insights.

Tara R. Alemany  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Hi, Kevin.

As a surviving family member of someone who was a victim of murder, I am FOR the death penalty. Not because I cheer on death or the vengeance that drives some to seek the death of others. Instead, what I despise is the fact that my tax dollars went for 22 years to house, clothe and feed a man who ruthlessly killed another. While I love our country, that doesn’t mean I agree with what we’ve come to see as “justice.” How is it justice that this man is now free, after “serving his time,” when my uncle’s life was cut short at the ripe old age of 24? Andy’s gone while his killer gets a second chance at life. It’s not to say that his life wasn’t destroyed that day as well. But while he was waiting for his second chance, I paid (along with my fellow tax payers) for everything he needed to survive. How fair is that? My only hope is that this man makes something good come out of his own life.

In Osama’s case, his path was clear. He followed it unwaveringly, and showed no signs of ever changing his direction. He’s gone. That’s an accomplishment, not a reason to celebrate. It’s a step in the right direction, and now it’s time to forge a new future.

Peace isn’t always about a lack of fighting among peoples. Peace must exist inwardly before it can exist outwardly. I think this step in our nation’s history will bring greater inward peace to those who lost loved ones as a result of 9/11.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  | 

Tara, I am deeply sorry for the loss your family suffered, and I do hope that there is some kind of peace for all those that suffered loss and pain on Septemeber 11 and in the almost ten years since. In the context of this piece I will not remain silent but will fairly state that I am not in favor of the death penalty. However I will save that particular discussion for another day.

Leigh Steere  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Deborah, I have had a whole mishmash of thoughts about this week’s events. Complete coincidence — but a leader from my son’s Boy Scout troop was in Pakistan for a business trip last week and had arranged to meet with Pakistani Boy Scouts to learn about their programs. Last night, I watched a video the Pakistani Scouts had prepared to say “hi” to their Colorado counterparts. The expression of brotherhood and the sincere desire for cultural exchange was moving. I found myself looking at their uniforms and listening to their greetings and thinking, “They are just like us.”

For centuries, humans have been uncomfortable with “difference.” Different skin colors. Different religions. Different political views. We continue to kill one another over these things. I do not agree with bin Laden’s views or tactics. But dancing in the streets to celebrate his death does nothing to create a world where we dialogue constructively about difference, instead of judging, attacking and purging.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Thank you Leigh for sharing you story and adding to this discussion. I learn from each person’s post, and I especially love your phrase “dialogue constructively about difference.” I believe that this is difficult and must be approached with openness and willingness to listen. I struggle with this in class as we discuss difficult issues together. My students are nearly adults and already have strong opinions about many issues. My hope is indeed that we can dialogue constructively, just as we have done here, knowing it is not necesary to agree with every person, but only to listen and honestly consider another point of view.

My friend Lali once mentioned that she has respect for people that can disagree with her intelligently. I could not agree with her more.

Thank you Leigh.

Tanveer Naseer  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

“Do not rejoice in the death of one man. Rejoice when there is peace.”

Brilliant Deborah. While I don’t think anyone would argue that Bin Laden’s death is bad thing, I do agree wholeheartedly that celebrating the death of anyone – regardless of how evil they were – shortens the gap between what we despise and what we aim to be as a society.

In terms of leadership, I think it also serves to remind us of the importance of focusing on purpose, which is why I loved your quote above. Sorry I missed it, by the way, as I would have gladly shared that nugget on Twitter. In fact, I’m going to do so right now.

Deborah Costello  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Thank you for your kind words, Tanveer. Let me return the favor by commenting on your phrase, “celebrating the death of anyone…shortens the gap between what we despise and what we aim to be as a society.” I have always struggled to express my fundamental dismay at some of society’s seemingly acceptable behaviors. Your words help me focus my thoughts. Thank you for joining our discussion.

Tara R. Alemany  |  05 May 2011  |  Reply

Hi, Deborah.

Thanks for having the courage to request a dialog around a topic you knew had to have many different viewpoints. I love the respect with which we have been able to share our differences and learn from one another.

I think that’s one of the marks of a true leader, to foster communication when it’s easier to ignore things. It grows people together in ways that nothing else can. So, thanks for stepping out in courage today. I’m sure that your students are blessed to know you.

This is going to be my last contribution today on the subject, but as I was reading through the other comments and your replies, I couldn’t help but wonder what some of the discussions were like when Adolf Hitler died. He couldn’t have become as powerful as he was without some supporters. Too bad we can’t easily tap into the conversations they were having 60+ years ago to see what they learned from the experience…

Deborah Costello  |  06 May 2011  |  Reply

Tara, I appreciate your kind words and too am grateful that we can have a respectful discussion without all of the posturing that is so common on so many sites.

I cannot begin to know the conversations on Hitler and certainly there were celebrations. Obviously the circumstances differed, but it would make for an interesting discussion.

If you are interested in finding out more about Hitler’s supporters, particularly women in Germany, you might consider Claudia Koontz’s challenging book, “Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics.” In it she discusses the roles of various groups of women inplayed in Nazi Germany, both in their actions and their silence.

I wish you well.

Deborah Costello  |  06 May 2011  |  Reply

For those following this discussion you might find this article from this morning’s NY Times interesting. If you have further thoughts, you are welcome to share them here.

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