A citizen leader is each one of us, the man, the woman, the young adult, even the teen who pauses to take stock of the kind of world that they — that we — want to help shape for the people we care about, and then acts to make it so.
A citizen leader is an active participant in her world – not a passive observer. She chooses to be engaged, not because she is told to but because she wants to. She chooses to be engaged not because it looks good on a CV or résumé, but because she cares deeply about the people and places that stand to benefit by her actions.
I believe that acts of citizen leadership are a training ground. They are the proving ground for each one of us who hopes to engage anyone else to willingly follow our lead. Our acts of citizen leadership are where we learn the basics, where we learn the essentials of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. It’s where we learn that the prerequisite to effectively reaching out and engaging the human spirit of others is reaching inside to understand and engage our own.
This reach inside is a journey of self-discovery. This reach inside is a journey into self-awareness. And it is a candid and courageous exploration of character. For the citizen leader, character is what comes first! Character is the essential material of which a citizen leader is built.
So, let’s talk about character.
Character — it’s the embodiment and the expression of our guiding principles and values. It is who we are on the inside, and what we show on the outside. Our values — they’re the promises we make to ourselves about how we will behave, both in private and in the world at large. For some of us, we talk about them. We share them. We promise to live by them — we promise to walk our talk. We give other members of our community the expectation that we will conduct ourselves in ways that are consistent with our values. By keeping our promises, by living up to our stated values, (even when no one else is looking), that’s where we build our personal integrity and our public credibility. In essence, that’s where we build and strengthen our character.
The lifelong journey of the Citizen Leader calls on each one of us to have the curiosity and humility to carry on an ever-deepening exploration of our guiding principles and values — and by extension our integrity and our credibility — our character. My role in this journey, in this exploration, I pose questions. I ask you and everyone who has the courage to be a citizen leader to hold these two questions in the palm of their hand and reflect on them regularly: Who am I? and How do I want to be in the world?
I trust that your humble and curious consideration of these two questions will help you discern and define your moral compass.
Who and I? and How do I want to be in the world? I trust that your humble and curious consideration of these two questions will help you get clear and clearer over time on the set of principles that are your signature in the world.
And, I trust that at some point during the journey, you will arrive at the conclusion and heartfelt conviction: I am the person I’d want to follow.
This uncompromising and unapologetic adherence to guiding principles — to your personal and public moral compass — to your signature in the world — this is the stuff that allows you to engage the human spirit and the confidence of others. And that’s what allows them to conclude: you are a person I’d want to follow.
In his Commencement Address in 2005 at his alma mater USC, Neil Armstrong offered the following observation to the new graduates:
“Some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident; you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources. What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation are your principles and values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.”
For the citizen leader, character comes first!
But it doesn’t stand alone. There’s more.
The twin element of citizen leadership is contribution.
A Citizen Leader is an individual of character and contribution — contribution to his or her communities, contribution that benefits the common good.
We earn our stripes as a citizen when we extend ourselves to others and contribute to the world around us. Citizens are involved. They are doers. They are activists. And the objective of their efforts has everything to do with making a contribution to the common good.
In essence, we earn the right to call ourselves citizen leaders because we are willing to actively participate in, serve in or lead efforts that better a community. When we do that, when we actively and willingly participate in service of the common good, we give meaning to our lives and we transform the world around us.
As I’ve said before, I am of the mind that our acts of citizen leadership are the proving ground for each one of us who hopes to engage anyone else to willingly follow our lead. I am of the mind that the person who has experience as a citizen leader will possess the unique capacity as a leader to engage the human spirit and confidence of others — in essence, to be a truly engaging leader.