Americans have watched the events of the past week in horror and with sadness for our country. Following the unjust death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minneapolis man who died in the custody of four police officers, many of us have spoken with friends, colleagues, and more, sharing, among other things, the frustration of feeling helpless to “fix things.”
Despite tremendous progress on race relations, social mobility, and inclusion over the past few decades, our hurting country now requires leaders at every level and in every field to continue to address pressing problems.
And you may be just the leader our society needs today.
As you struggle to discover what you can do to improve our world, consider adopting the notion of personal leadership. Personal leadership implies two basic commitments: a commitment to principles, and a commitment to personal, individual work needed to bring those principles to life.
I have learned in my work at FEE that principles cannot simply be taught. Principles of every sort are rooted in ideas that are based on the personal values that a person holds. If I am to be successful in expanding the lens through which a young person sees the world, I must speak to her through values that she already feels to be true.
For members of Gen Z, these values include fairness, inclusiveness, justice, creativity, and peace. These are also values of the philosophy of classical liberalism, which just so happens to be my own political viewpoint. Additionally, classical liberals value individualism, free-market economics, limited government, and strong character traits necessary to live in a free society such as ours.
Strong character implies personal work. In his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the personal work each person must undertake to affect a “revolution of values” in society:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
As Dr. King counseled, we must seek more than immediate, “feel-good” fixes. As history shows, improving the world is a multi-generational project by countless individuals, so despite the fact that we often feel impatient to fix things once and for all, we cannot reasonably expect to end this week or next with a plan to last forever more.
Today, however, I suggest that we take this opportunity to make sure that we are examining the situation properly, understanding that, similar to how only an individual can work to change his own thoughts and actions, the individual is the most accurate and productive unit with which to evaluate all human action.
There’s a dangerous tendency at the moment for people to analyze recent events and come to poor, collectivist conclusions about “all” members of certain races or professions. The problem with this line of thought is that because only individuals can choose to act, we cannot assign to any group the responsibility for acts of violence, theft, or property destruction.
Therefore any notion of “collective” innocence or guilt is faulty. We must hold individuals, not groups, accountable under the law for their own actions.
FEE’s president emeritus Larry Reed asked me today, “Can you imagine running a justice system on collectivist principles? Instead of charging a specific individual with responsibility for his actions, we would just put a cardboard cut-out in the defendant’s chair, representing whatever group society dislikes at that moment. If found guilty, we would then punish lots of innocent people simply because they look, act, or believe similarly to that avatar.”
I don’t want to live in that kind of society, and I’m sure you don’t either.
FEE’s founder Leonard Read offered important thoughts about individual, principled leadership at a FEE seminar in 1961:
The important thing to realize is that ours is not a numbers problem. Were it necessary to bring a majority into a comprehension of the freedom philosophy, the cause of liberty would be utterly hopeless. Every significant movement in history has been led by one or just a few individuals with a small minority of energetic supporters.
The real problem, then, is developing a leadership, identifying and supporting individuals from different walks of life who care about, understand, and can explain liberty.
Let us personalize leadership.
The recent events in America that are sparking mourning, protest, and action are personal, as is the leadership needed to create, model, and adopt solutions to combat injustice and continue to improve the world. I believe firmly that, just as in previous crises, personal reflection, learning, and communication between individual leaders of good will will lead us to even better times in the years to come.