Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. Armand LaMontagne, 1997.

As Jan. 20 moves ever nearer and a change in national leadership approaches, our country is disturbingly polarized on whether the past four years improved us or brought us to the brink of apocalypse.

This schism raises the question of how we judge our leaders, and over the years many people of note have weighed in on the qualities needed for success.

Most opinions of the now twice-impeached Donald Trump have long been hardened, and as the president’s calamitous time runs down it’s instructive to review what makes effective and moral leadership.

One commentator with a certain reputation as a president himself, Abraham Lincoln, noted, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  

Further back in history but closer to home, Rhode Island icon Roger Williams observed, “Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap, not the least grain of it for the whole world.”  

Much later, admired television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow amplified the thought, advising, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

As a pandemic continues to dominate our daily lives while we try to process a home-grown attack on America’s capitol, here’s a thought from economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

Identifying that essence has occupied many who thought about it; here’s more of what they had to say:

“Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” – Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower 

“Leadership is something you earn, something you’re chosen for. You can’t come in yelling, ‘I’m your leader!’  – Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback

“Leadership must meet the moral challenge of the day.” — Jesse Jackson 

“The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision.” —Author and business consultant Ken Blanchard

“Doing what is right isn’t the problem. It is knowing what is right.” — Former President Lyndon B. Johnson

“There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.” – Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” —Rosalynn Carter

“A cowardly leader is the most dangerous of men.”  — Author Stephen King

“In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” – Harry Truman

Entrepreneur Jim Rohn provided a yardstick on leadership against which one might take the measure of a true leader:  “…be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant…”

As for the behavior we have recently endured, it’s nothing new in the annals of history. Even the ancient Romans were advised in one of their Latin proverbs, “It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself.“

 Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.


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