Key Themes of Citizen Leadership

Character counts

We are all co-creators of the world we live in. Through our actions and words and choices, we help shape our immediate communities, be that home, school, work, club, church, etc. As such, it is incumbent upon each one of us to explore and respond to the questions: Who and I? and How do I want to be in the world?  and in so doing, get very clear on a set of guiding principles that are your signature in the world — that allows you to say with conviction: I am a person I’d want to follow.

We are the final arbiter of our actions

Uncompromising and unapologetic adherence to our signature — to our guiding principles — is the stuff of personal integrity and public credibility — and in the longer term to our abilities to engage the confidence of others. More importantly, our adherence to principle is the stuff of a meaningful life.

Be a Citizen Leader

A citizen leader is a person who applies their character and the courage of their convictions to participate, serve, act and lead efforts that contribute to their communities and the common good.

Citizen is a deeply honorable title. Yes, it is most commonly a designation bestowed by an accident of birth or location. But it can be so much more. In a truer form, citizen is a distinction that we earn by extending ourselves to others and contributing to the world around us. Citizens are involved and engaged. They are participants. They are doers. They are not spectators. In essence, we earn the right to call ourselves citizens because we are willing to actively participate in efforts that better a community and improve life for all. In so doing, it is we who, by the virtue and the value of our contribution, transform a particular community.

Citizen Leadership is the school for engaging leadership.

I am of the mind that the person who has experience as an active citizen will possess the unique capacity to engage others as a leader.

By the same token, I feel wary of those who wear the mantle of leader, but who, on closer inspection, show little appreciable depth as citizens. I look to see whether an individual has in their history any evidence of service and contribution to their communities, or whether instead theirs is a record of activity undertaken largely for the purposes of self-advancement or enrichment. If the evidence supports the latter, I ask myself whether their conduct as a leader would be any different.

In my experience, self-serving behavior cloaked as leadership is a sham. It is the stuff of those who have traded integrity for expedience, for egocentric satisfaction, for selfishness. But it is not the stuff of engaging leadership, and it is certainly not the stuff of citizenship.

Peter’s Perspective: Legacy

My grandfather came over on the boat from Sicily at the age of 20, landed at Ellis Island in New York Harbor on April 30, 1900, settled among his Italian relatives in Brooklyn and set up shop as a barber. Four years later, he married a Sicilian farm girl, newly arrived in America from his home village of Juliana in the mountains above Palermo. He was naturalized as an American citizen on May 6, 1905. My grandmother gave birth to four children — three boys and a girl — and my grandfather made sure his family never wanted for food or shelter, in no small part because he had a great mind for numbers and regularly won at pinochle. He and the other Italian men in the neighborhood would play the game for hours after work. Several times a week, he’d use part of the winnings to buy ice cream or pastries at the corner German bakery for his kids. He’d help out his brothers and cousins with a loan when they asked. He’d take half a day off on Sundays to be with the family; otherwise he was in his shop.

At least, that’s the story that I was told by my uncle and my aunt. I repeat it because I like it. It is a pioneering, self-assured, make-your-own-way-in-the-world American story. Support a family by day by the labor of your hands, and by playing and winning at cards at night — it sounds tough. Treat the kids, and help out the relatives — it sounds tender. Work your tail off to provide, because that is our lot and we embrace it — it sounds noble.

But that is all I really know about my grandfather. He died before I was born, and my father never really talked much about him. So all I have to go on are these sound bites: provided for his family, always put food on the table, good at cards, a pioneer, gutsy and principled. That is the only memory of my grandfather to survive today. And since I am the only one of my generation to have heard these stories, I doubt that much, if anything at all, about my grandfather will survive beyond the tomorrow of my life.

I don’t know that my grandfather gave much thought to how he wanted to be remembered, or that he cared about being remembered at all. I suspect that he had his hands full just getting from one day to the next. As he lived and toiled and took care of his family, my grandfather was just being who he was. His memory would take care of itself. He died in 1953. History has all but forgotten him.

I doubt that much if anything about my life (or my interests or accomplishments, or failures for that matter) will survive beyond the brief memories of my contemporaries.

And what is remembered of me will take on a different form for the many people with whom I crossed paths along the way: parents, partners, lovers, friends, teachers, teammates, therapists, colleagues, coworkers, children, caregivers, casual acquaintances … the list can go on for pages. What is certain is that in the minds of most, the sound bites are all pretty much set. There is little that I can do to recast the image or impression that I have already left. And so while I might wonder, “How do I want to be remembered?” the reality is that in the fleeting moments that I might be recalled to mind at all, I will be remembered in ways that I can neither control nor change.

I used to get unduly wrapped up in the idea that I needed to leave a legacy. I used to feel pressured to be memorable or to do things that would be memorable. I don’t any longer. I don’t want the pressure. I don’t need the pressure on top of just getting from one day to the next. I know more clearly now that the memory of me and my life, like that of my grandfather, will prove to be little more than a handful of sound bites, remembered by few, spoken of seldom and forgotten too soon.

What a relief.

Now, I get on with the life I have in front of me, one day at a time. And I get on with my life with presence and with deliberate purpose. Sure, I still sometimes ponder, “How do I want to be remembered?” But much more often, I ask myself, “How do I want to be?” I focus less on when I am gone, and more on as I am, today. I try to pay attention to the right here, the right now — to the moments that, of their own accord, and without any help from me, coalesce into the hours, the days and the years of my life, today. I pay attention to my behaviors, my words and my choices that of their own accord show me who I am today. And I try to live the behaviors and words and choices that help me to be the person I strive to be, today.

I have grown to cherish the sacred nature of this work.

Excerpted from The Citizen Leader

Character: Be the Self You Want to Live With

When, by virtue of curiosity and humility, you are in touch with the truth about the qualities at your core (good, bad or indifferent), you can look to the future and ask:

Who or how do I aspire to be (that is different from who or how I am today)?

Why do I care?

What are my concerns or reservations about whether this is possible?


What do I need to do in the future to grow in integrity?

What do I need to do to grow in credibility?

Spend time pondering these questions with whole-minded curiosity, and welcome the responses that percolate to the surface with wholehearted humility. Seek insight in your responses — that is, look for a shift in perception that gives you a better and fuller understanding of your core, the person you aspire to be, and why. Your insight will help you decide on priorities for your continued growth as a human being, as a citizen and as a leader in your community. Finally, commit yourself to a regular practice of behaving and acting in ways that will contribute to your being that person. It is this regular practice that leads to mastery — mastery of both your personal integrity and your credibility. The reward that you reap over time will be a life that has more and greater meaning — a life that enriches your spirits and those of the people around you.

When you say and do those things that are consistent with the principles and values that you hold most dear and aspire to in life, you are taking principle-guided action. Indeed, if your point of departure as you set out in pursuit of what you want (i.e., your goals, objectives, desires) is to reaffirm your commitment to your principles and values, and if, as a result, you do and say only those things that are consistent with your values and principles, then your actions are and will be principle guided.

Yet it will come as no surprise to you if I say: We live in a world where it is tempting (sometimes encouraged, supported, even required) to focus more on what we want to have, or accomplish or experience, and then to say or do whatever seems needed to make it happen. Ours is a world in which the ends often justify the means, or, in real terms, where profit or power (or both) often take precedence over principle.

Since, in the most real way, what we say and what we do defines us, the important question is: Are you being the person you want to be — the person you want to live with? The real work of creating a life of meaning is to be the self you want to live with, rather than being a self you end up having to live with or, worse, a self you cannot stand. 

Excerpted and abridged from The Citizen Leader

Character: Curiosity and Humility Are the Prerequisites to Growth and Mastery

In Chapters 3 & 4 of The Citizen Leader, I guide you on an exploration of your deep truths and commitment to be an active citizen and engaging leader and alert you that this inquiry will demand your powers of introspection, reflection and curiosity. I ask you to draw on these personal powers to discern and define the guiding principles that are at the core of your being — at the core of your character.

I begin, early in Chapter 3, by having you to gather data about your guiding principles by both: stating your beliefs about yourself, and then observing your actual behaviors. That data, when closely examined, informs you more accurately of what is real and what is not. It is entirely possible that, despite what you might initially believe, your observations and the resulting information allow you to learn a bit more about yourself — and to identify the actual handful of principles that reside at your core. Good, bad or indifferent, that knowledge is essential if you are to understand your behaviors and actions, and to understand how and why the people around you interact with you and react to you the way they do.

As a next step in your growing self-awareness, I invite you — even challenge you — to find out what the people around you would say are the values or guiding principles that characterize your actions. And the best way to find out is to simply ask them: an inquiry that demands your continuing curiosity, and perhaps some courage.

This part is an exercise in humility. Humility derives from the Latin humus, meaning earth, and the Greek for on the ground. Humility, then, is a state of coming down to earth, of getting grounded in our humanity — of loosening ego in favor of finding out the truth about ourselves. Humility is the great liberator: It liberates us from the bondage of our own self-image, and it liberates others to care about us by helping us become more self-aware.

To succeed with this inquiry, it helps to suspend judgment about any beliefs you might have about yourself, or about what others are saying. It is far more instructive and enlightening when you listen, learn, seek to fully understand and be grateful for the courage and care that others are showing by agreeing to give you their feedback.

To truly find out about yourself, you must rely on both your humility with your curiosity, both when you give yourself feedback and when you ask for it from others.

This exercise is not for the weak of heart. Humility demands strength.

Excerpted and abridged from The Citizen Leader

Peter’s Perspective: What We Choose is Who We Are

I too am shocked and sickened by Rick Perry’s divisive tone and bigoted words in his Christmas campaign commercial for the Presidency. (As of this writing, YouTube “dislikes” are outnumbering “likes” by a count of 40:1).

Perry reveals a character that resorts to maligning and marginalizing minorities as a show of strength. He is really no different than the racists who denigrate African-Americans, the skinheads who slander Jews, and the bullies who mock Americans with disabilities. He is so insulting to the dignity of so many that, at the end of his 30 seconds, he is really just an embarrassment.

What I wonder about is this: There was a whole team of people involved in the polling, planning, scripting, shooting and reviewing of this ad. Of them I ask: What are your values and guiding principles? Are they reflected in this ad or do you find this ad repugnant? If the latter, how much further will you personally be willing to go in this ugly show of divisiveness and bigotry? At what point do you personally draw the line and say “enough.” (Before or after Gov. Perry goes public in favor of yellow stars and pink triangles?)

Our Declaration of Independence proclaims: We are all created equal and endowed with the unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Mr. Perry’s tone and words mock both. To the degree that you continue to support this candidacy or any candidacy that spews hate and bigotry toward any human being, you condone this mockery of human equality.

Today is your defining moment. Right here and right now is your time to ask yourselves, “Does this message reflect who am I and how do I want to be in the world?” There is no right answer. There is, however, the truthful answer. Go for the truth.

If your response is yes, that’s good data. Carry on.

If your response is no, that’s good data. Act accordingly.

What we choose is who we are.

I take heart in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “…in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock…”

And I find courage in the wisdom of Mohandas Gandhi: “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please or, worse, to avoid trouble.”

To acquiesce for a show of loyalty or to pursue victory at the expense of your values causes injury to your character — an injury that can be a lasting liability to your career and your conscience. 

It takes real courage to say “no”, especially if doing so might deny you something you desire. But by making the choice to say “no” when faced with events that could damn your own character, you safeguard the only thing that you can truly call yours — your integrity.

It’s up to you. In the end, you are the final arbiter of your actions.

In An Act of Citizen Leadership…

…Zach Whals, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student, addressed the Iowa Legislature about the strength of his family headed by his two moms. Mr. Whals spoke with conviction before the House of Representatives in an effort to dissuade and even admonish its members intent on amending that state’s constitutional and repealing the existing right of Iowa same-sex couples to marry.

In my past blog posts, I have regularly described a citizen leader as the man, the woman, the young adult and the teen who applies their character, their convictions and their courage to speak up, take action and lead efforts that contribute to the community and serve the common good.

In this video of his address, Zach Whals shows us what citizen leadership looks like, feels like and sounds like.

In an era when we are all being assaulted by others’ agendas, tempted with profit, prestige and personal gain, or taunted by peer pressure and political expediency, it is our job to be solidly grounded in who we are and how we want to be in the world, and have the courage to stick by that. 

Chapters 3 & 4: Character

The value of a leader is directly proportional to a leader’s values.

– A Golden Rule from the Notre Dame Executive MBA Program

In Chapters 3 and 4 of The Citizen Leader, I ask you to conduct a rigorous, thorough examination of your values and guiding principles. I will challenge you to substantiate what might start out as a broad bundle of qualities, and then I will guide you through a process that will help you clarify and define the handful of principles that truly reflects who you are, today. And I will help you articulate and explain who and how you aspire to be in the future, and why.

Your character consists of your values and guiding principles. They are your signature. They express who you are to the world. They are the substance you have with which to build and strengthen your relationships with others, or to weaken and break them. In these chapters, I will provide you with focused exercises to help you develop and maintain a quality of character that will inspire others to willingly follow your lead and want to participate, serve, act and persevere as you pursue your worthy goals. These exercises will also help you forge a strength of character that can, and will, hold steady in challenging times and circumstances.  

Peter’s Perspective: Citizen Leadership is the Prerequisite to Engaging Leadership

Q.  What exactly is a citizen leader? 

A.  A person who brings their character and courage to making a contribution on behalf of the community and the common good. 

Look closely at the people around you who are in positions of leadership or who aspire to positions of leadership.

Character: What are their guiding principles? Are their values ones that inspire you to want to follow their lead? Do those individuals regularly speak and act in ways that reflect the qualities they profess (or is it lip service)? Which individuals do have the qualities of character that would engage your enthusiasm?

Courage: Which individuals do have the courage of character to live by their values? 

Contribution to one’s community and the common good: Do the man and women who aspire to leadership positions participate in or champion efforts to better their world and create great places for us all to live, work and play? or conversely, Are their efforts regularly or largely self-serving?

Now, with the responses to these questions in hand, which of the individuals would you want to follow?

If you hope to be an engaging leader — that is, if you hope to have anyone want to follow your lead – then you need to be a person that others would want to follow.

And by extension, if companies or communities or churches or schools or civic and social organizations hope to grow their cadre of leaders – they need to insist that their men and women be people whom others would want to follow.

It starts with citizen leadership.

Peter’s Perspective: What is Citizen Leadership and Why is it Important Today?

Citizen Leadership is:

Character and courage: Men, women, young adults and teens getting clear on who they are and how they want to be in the world, so they act and speak with authenticity and with the courage of their convictions day in and day out, in private and public – at home, in school, at work, in their club, in church and temple, on a team, in a troop, in the support group, in the neighborhood.

Contribution to the community: Men, women, young adults and teenagers applying the qualities of their character as they participate in or champion efforts to better their world and create great places for us all to live, work and play.


We live among circumstances that test our character every day. We live in an era during that barrages from all sides and online by forces — whether psychological, physical, spiritual or other — that can leave us struggling to know: What is the right thing to do? How is the right way to be? To act? What is the right thing to say? Pressure from peers, parents, partners, teachers, bosses; professional pressure, social pressure, popular culture, and social media; prospects for personal gain, power, profit, prestige and position; noxious preachers and pundits, prejudice and fear mongering — they fog up our minds, and sicken our hearts.

I believe these forces are particularly treacherous for those who have not yet developed a personally meaningful set of guiding principles and who are struggling to hang on to a clear, steady sense of who they are in the face of a daily assault by these forces. I think, in particular, of younger people, just starting out, just trying to find their way and figure out the rules of engagement in our culture, in their world.

They, and we, all risk falling prey to the influence of those who would manipulate us for self-serving purposes. This is especially true in our culture in which the dominant forces – at least the very public dominant forces – seem to be profit/wealth, power, prestige and personal gain. These are amoral forces. They are not necessarily bad or good.

What is good is when the men, women and young adults who find themselves in the throws of these forces hold constant to their personal principles and act in ways that reflect those principles. That is the foundation of citizen leadership.

Citizen Leaders: All-Americans Hudson Taylor and Colin Joyner

Citizen leadership is:

Character and courage: men, women, young adults and teenagers acting and speaking with the courage of their character day in and day out, in private and public – at home, in school, at work, in their club, in church and temple, on a team, in a troop, in the support group, in the neighborhood.

Courage of character begins with their getting clear on who they are and how they want to be in the world, so they are or become the person they’d want to follow, and by extension the person others would want to follow.

Contribution to the community: men, women, young adults and teenagers applying the qualities of their character as they participate in or champion efforts to better their world and create great places for us all to live, work and play.

Hudson Taylor, an All-American wrestler and coach at Columbia University, has committed himself to eliminating homophobia from all levels of sports. His efforts have gained national and international recognition.

This is only about how we treat one another, how we speak to one another. It’s not about politics or religion or anything else. I just want to create a safe space for people.

Taylor created ATHLETE ALLY™, an online resource to encourage athletes, coaches, parents, fans and other members of the sports community to respect all individuals involved in sports, regardless of perceived or actual sexual-orientation or gender identity or expression. When you arrive at the website for the first time you’re presented with a pledge — ” I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” — and from there, you’re presented with other steps for action. Hudson says, “I created the Pledge so that we, as an athletic community, can take proactive steps to end homophobia and transphobia in sports. When we inspire entire teams and athletic departments to commit to a new standard of athletic integrity, we will change the environment in locker rooms and on playing fields.” 

Read the full article about Hudson Taylor in The Huffington Post, and hear him talk about his efforts in an MSNBC interview.

At Bowdoin College (the #6 ranked national liberal arts college), Colin Joyner is also attempting tearing down walls of homophobia in sports. Joyner, a three-time All-American tennis player and current men’s tennis coach, created Anything But Straight in Athletics (ABSA) with Kate Stern, Director of the school’s Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The group’s aim is to help closeted athletes come out by dismantling homophobia in Bowdoin athletics. Joyner has expressed a great hope that more schools will build programs like his ABSA.

Read the full article about his efforts in OutSports.