Barack Obama and the Message Beyond the Photograph

Barack Obama and members of national security team in situation room. (photo by Pete Souza)

Barack Obama and members of national security team in situation room. (photo by Pete Souza)

Just before I logged on to check my email and found a request from Red Room asking authors to blog about leadership, something interesting happened. I came across a scrap of paper I did not recognize and on which the following quote was typed:

“The leaders I met, whatever walk of life they were from, whatever institutions they were presiding over, always referred back to the same failure, something that happened to them that was personally difficult, even traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom – as something they thought was almost a necessity. It’s as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.”

How could such an extraordinary instance of serendipity mean anything other than that I needed to spend some time delving a bit deeper into the issue of leadership? There was no name attached to the quote so I had to conduct a bit of research before learning it came from famed organizational consultant Warren Bennis.  Even prior to mysteriously encountering Bennis’ quote, like much of the country I had been thinking–indeed, like much of the world– about the subject of leadership and all the known and unknown roles it plays in our lives.

We are, after all, living in an era that saw the people of Egypt, one of the oldest and universally treasured nations on the planet topple one of the longest-reigning rulers. And we are, in these United States, preparing to observe our once-every-four-years mass ritual of marching off to the polls to decide who shall win the honor of regulating the varieties of joy and pain that define our daily lives.

The Message Beyond the Photograph

When I read the above quote, it made me consider Pete Souza’s now iconic photograph of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb, and other members of the national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room as Navy Seals carried out “Operation Geronimo” on May 1, 2011, and ended the life of Osama bin Laden. I thought of some of the highly-publicized “failures” (they will not be recounted here) in their individual lives and marveled at how they nevertheless had arrived at such a profoundly definitive moment in humanity’s collective history.

The captured moment itself was one filled with dread, uncertainty, hope, promise, courage, and agony. Yet the “iron” that Bennis speaks of evidently is already in their souls or they likely would have never taken the calculated risk they did. Moreover, while they all may have lived through other events that “created the resilience that leaders need,” this one perhaps confirmed the depth of the power of such resilience.

But does any of this really matter in the greater scheme of things? Should it matter? Why?

Maybe Because…

Ours is an age in which entire biographies are frequently reduced to thumb-sized apps or 140-character Twitter tweets. The good news about this 21st century development is that it has fostered communication and a sense of human interconnectedness on unprecedented personal, community, national, and international levels. The not-so-good downside is that it trains our attention spans to shrink to ridiculous capacities. Fascination and humored captivation hold for all of 60 seconds and then disappear with the click of a key. In the meantime, life in realtime keeps adding to the flesh and blood picture with greater complexity and urgency.  Bombs continue to rain down on families with no interest in war; nature continues to intensify the meaning of the word “disaster”; human beings continue to enslave and rape other human beings; and disease and hunger to destroy lives like huge silent earthquakes.

But again: so what? The potential danger is that we too readily assess information before allowing time to understand it; and, too quickly dismiss it before determining the long-term impact of our newly-acquired knowledge. Another way to put it is like this: the frenzied rush of accessing and dispersing information takes the place of cultivating knowledge, and in the absence of knowledge we fall prey to its opposite– ignorance.  One thing the year 2011 has made very clear is that knowledge informs choices, and the choices we make in one part of the world often determine how people live, or die, in other parts of the world.

Leaders  get to call themselves leaders because ordinary people empower them to do so. But are we ordinary people empowering ourselves to choose the best leaders for the world? Or, are we failing to grasp the significance of some of the most important events of our time and thereby setting ourselves up to make choice as cataclysmic as one planet crashing into another. It may not be the most fun topic to tweet about but it is worth considering.

by Aberjhani
© May 2011

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