The Dangers of Cynical Leadership

“No poll can prove this, but I am convinced that people’s cynicism about politicians rises and falls with the politician’s cynicism about people. There are many frustrations in modern life, even in the best of times, which a demagogue can invoke. He may win some passing applause and perhaps even votes, but if he releases the worst instincts of people, we will reap the whirlwind.”
Sargent Shriver |Washington, DC | September 20, 1975

Our Quote of the Week, from Sargent Shriver’s 1975 announcement of candidacy for President of the United States, has us thinking about the dangers of cynical leadership. As we head towards the 2020 Presidential election and as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative that we support consistent, clear-headed, authentic leaders who have the best interests of the collective at heart.

A leader who acted with the intention of serving others and who was guided by his values, Sargent Shriver entered the Democratic primary on September 20, 1975. He entered the race during an unusually difficult moment in US history, just one year after President Nixon’s resignation and during a pronounced recession that was exacerbated by a worldwide energy crisis. The reasons he gave for running are worth noting, particularly in this moment.

“I want to tell you why I am running and why I am asking people to join in running with me. It may be hard for some to believe but it is not lust for elective office or power. I know too well, and in ways too personal, the sadness and isolation associated with the Presidency. So l do not approach this campaign in a spirit of compulsive ambition or naive exhilaration. The reason I am running is simply this: Given what I believe; what I have worked for throughout the last 30 years; what I see happening in this country and the world, and what I want to see happen; and given the lack of leadership to deal with our problems at home and abroad — I could not stand aside. Every candidate for the office of the Presidency in recent memory has believed that his was the critical hour. So, it is difficult to find language undebased by the rhetoric of the past to express how I feel about where we are as a people today. But we know — all of us in this room and the millions of Americans who are not here — that this time is different. There are many reasons, but none more compelling than this: for only the second time in this century, the forward movement of America has been reversed; we have retrogressed as a society. And it is this sudden, overwhelming reversal of momentum, that has generated the vast crisis of confidence we face today.”

Sargent does provide an example of strong leadership -- but the US has seen plenty of such examples. This past week, for instance, we have seen an outpouring of grief at the passing of the inimitable Rep. John Lewis, a tough-as-nails leader who gave everything, and risked everything, to fight for a better society for all of us. His sense of service and quest for justice fueled him for almost 60 years, and the legacy he has left us is breathtaking.

Unfortunately, we are living through a moment in which too many of our political leaders are too concerned with maintaining power at all costs, which is fueling an ever-spiraling pattern of distrust of and contempt for the social contract. Our situation is harmful and dangerous under any circumstances, but in a moment where collaboration has become absolutely necessary for our very survival, we simply cannot afford to be led by individuals who have little regard for our collective well-being.

Let us work together to promote leaders (and to become leaders) who will put the interests of our American family, and indeed of our larger, human family, ahead of everything else. We simply cannot afford not to do it.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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