Throughout history, we have witnessed unscrupulous men assume power and use their positional authority to lie, manipulate, and incite their followers to engage in unspeakable acts. It took the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week to finally supply the remaining piece of evidence that such abuse has been occurring for some time in America. We can no longer say, “never in this country.” Like most people around the world, I experienced a range of emotions as the events of last Wednesday unfolded. Anger, disgust, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness. Natural reactions to the shattering of a previously untested (and perhaps unexamined) belief in the inviolability of American exceptionalism. Although the events are certainly different, these were emotions reminiscent of those I experienced in the aftermath of 9/11.
Events like these represent crucible moments. Opportunities to reconstruct the systems of values and beliefs that unite us as families, communities, and nations and that determine the actions we take. Crucible moments also test us. Do we take a step back as a society, double down on failed strategies, and exacerbate the very conditions that produced the moment? Or do we evolve and create a new paradigm that not only changes the rules of the game but the game itself? This choice between regression and evolution is fundamental. Unfortunately, history tells us that we usually choose the latter. Just look at the ongoing conflict in many regions of the world. The Israelis and Palestinians, for example, have been locked in decades of unresolved conflict despite the emergence of many crucible moments. And yet, there have been bright spots. A notable case was the end of apartheid, the ushering in of a democratic government, and the avoidance of an almost inevitable civil war in South Africa in the early 1990s. What are the factors that account for these exceptions? And what can America learn from them?
The answers to these questions deserve a much longer, thoughtful post. But let me offer perhaps the most important reason. In the case of South Africa, it was the presence of two leaders – Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk – who, despite their individual imperfections, had each reached a level of developmental maturity to see the sub-surface structures contributing to and holding in place the system that they aimed to dismantle. Mandela and de Klerk were able to appreciate the complexity of the country they were being asked to lead. Where most people saw a country divided by race (a “black and white” view of reality), they saw a multi-colored kaleidoscope of value systems. It was these value systems that they sought to reconcile. Rather than pursue the failed strategy of leading with anger and recrimination, they led from a far more powerful place of curiosity and compassion. The result was the end of an oppressive system without the widespread violence and bloodshed most feared would occur.
The situation in America is, of course, different in many respects. But perhaps the differences aren’t as clear as we might like to believe. What divides us as a country is every bit as troubling and complex as what existed in South Africa and elsewhere. Do we have a Mandela and a de Klerk with the wisdom to see this complexity and who are ready to lead us as a country? I am hopeful, but doubtful. What I am certain of is that our families, organizations, and communities are calling on us – you and me – for the same qualities of leadership. They are asking us to channel our natural emotions of outrage into the productive capacity that comes from curiosity and understanding. They are pleading with us for the maturity to know that such a channeling is not a sign of weakness but a demonstration of power and effectiveness in the very best sense of those words. They are hoping that we will be patient with each other, compassionate towards those who differ from us, and capable of seeing the common values that unite us. The failure to step up and lead in this way has the potential to rip apart families and communities, undermine the foundations of our institutions, and inhibit the steady march towards a better future for all. If this sounds alarmist, perhaps it is. But perhaps we have received a much-needed wake-up call to emerge from a relative state of complacency and slumber that will force us to grow up and lead with the wisdom that people need and deserve.