Let’s Leave, They’re Only a Buck Fifty at Safeway

If you are fortunate enough one of these days to drive along the central coast of California between Santa Cruz and Monterey, you will pass by field upon field of tall, thick-stalked, prickly leaved, some say prehistoric-looking spiny plants supporting a fist-sized vegetable that is poetically known as the vegetable of passion, the food of nobility, the thistle of love — the California artichoke. Artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to humankind. They are said to be an aphrodisiac. They were first cultivated for food in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. Early plantings were first made in North America by French settlers in Louisiana, and then brought to California by Italians in the late 1800s.

Castroville lies at midpoint along the central California coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey. This small town, population 6,700 or so, claims to be the “artichoke capital of the world.” In 1949, in Castroville, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first official “California Artichoke Queen.” Settled by the Spanish, and planted by Italian immigrants, Castroville is now largely populated by Mexican-Americans and Mexican farm workers who cultivate and harvest nearly four million artichokes from the Monterey region every year.

A mile or so south of town, Pezzini’s 100-acre farm straddles the coastal highway. A nine-foot-high green plywood “artichoke” gives direction to Pezzini Farm’s roadside grocery stand — take exit 414A. It’s not remarkable. Just an old, gray clapboard barn. Yet, it’s entirely unique.

In the back, wooden crates four feet on a side and four feet deep overflow with artichokes. Out front where I poke around, artichokes are heaped into bins, sorted and priced by size — I’m sure there is some official agricultural formula by weight or girth or something like that. To me it looks like: xs, s, m, l, xl, xxl, xxxl.

If you can’t wait to get home, you can buy an xxl freshly steamed artichoke right there (or if you prefer, some deep-fried artichoke hearts), along with as much dipping sauce as you like — homemade lemon-dill or garlic-mayo, or both. It’s a whole meal. There are a couple of picnic tables just out front, too.

So, on one of my visits, as I was finishing up the last bite of my artichoke heart, a 60-something couple drove up to the front of the stand, parked, got out. The couple poked around the stand for a few minutes, the husband following in the footsteps of his wife.

She closely examined the bins of different sized and priced artichokes — starting with the “xs” priced at $0.79 each, and moving down the line to the “xxxl” at $1.99. Perhaps no more that five minutes into their visit, she paused, turned to her husband, and insisted, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.” They got back in their car and drove off.

That one sentence unleashed in me a whole stream-of-consciousness. Part of me felt sorry for the woman. Another part of me felt fearful. My stream of consciousness went something like this:

Lady, get a grip.

These are right out of the field.

There’s no way you’re going to find this at Safeway, even if an artichoke there is only a buck and a half.

In that one sentence, I felt jolted by the rude and very real reminder that an important and meaningful part of my world is endangered. I dearly love my community. More accurately, I dearly love the unique character of my community — local mom-and-pop entrepreneurs whose businesses are personal expressions of creativity and courage, and whose survival is almost entirely dependent on our support: on us, the members of the community. In that one sentence, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway,” I was reminded that character survives only in direct proportion to the sum of our actions to safeguard it. Is our world so caught up in commoditization that we are blind to character?

Metaphorically, I believe Pezzini’s is each of the local entrepreneurs whose small businesses form part of the soul of my community. Their grocery store and farm stand represents each of the local entrepreneurs whose businesses offer an oasis of uniqueness and personality in a world mounded with food and furniture and clothing and coffee that all seems to come out of the same limited variety of molds. These entrepreneurs offer a taste of natural, no-artificial-flavor in a world dominated by corporate formula and chemical-infusion. They offer an encounter with robust authenticity — albeit one sometimes rough around the edges. And yes, at Pezzini Farms, chances are that an artichoke will cost more than it does at a strip-mall Safeway.

Chances are, the smaller guys will never be able to compete on price with the bigger guys. Such is the law in an economies-of-scale world.

Chances are, indeed, that my community (well, our communities) will increasingly include the cookie-cutter coffee shop, the big-box building supply hangar, the fast-food franchise, the monolithic bank branch, the identical-looking chain store, the gigantic supermarket, the mega-mart and the big bookstore whose name begins with a “B.” Stocked, supported, subsidized and sometimes supersized by suppliers and shippers originating from places unknown, these better-financed, lower-priced, reliable, predictable, formula-driven purveyors provide (and always will provide) products that we need and want, at prices that most of us can afford.

And for that let us be thankful.

But, chances are the bigger guys might not buy and stock the proudly crafted, local cottage-industry products that you’ll find at the small-guys’ stores. Such is the larger guys’ limitations in an economies-of-scale world.

I liken my community to a patchwork quilt with each store, each shop, each street vendor; each merchant, each market, each mom-and-pop shop; each Safeway, each Shaw’s, and each Shop-and-Save; each minimart and each mega-mart; each small guy and each big guy; each — a colorful, exciting, lively and vibrant patch contributing to the texture and warmth and uniqueness of my community. There is a need for them all.


The local entrepreneurs are part of our fabric. I value the texture that the proud, local proprietors contribute to my community. I’m mindful of my role as a member of the community today, and as a co-creator of the world I want to live in as I grow older. I’m mindful of the character of the community I want to inhabit. And I’m mindful, too, that that character will survive only in direct proportion to the sum of my actions, and those of like-minded individuals, to safeguard and support it.

So, I choose to channel my purchasing power in their direction. Not all, but some. Not all of the time, but some of the time — routinely, regularly. Not because I have to, not because I am told to, but because I want to, and because I care.

I take personal responsibility to support our local entrepreneurs. I choose to freely, frequently and gratefully pay a small premium to our local entrepreneurs as a purposeful, intentional investment in their survival. I have decided not to assess the price of uniqueness as a cost, not to have it weigh on me as an expense. Instead, I have chosen to treat the premiums I pay to the small business owners as investments — investments in supporting the character I long to enjoy well into the future.

I’m thinking that the premiums I pay are minimal investments in another day. I’m thinking that on another day, five months or even ten years from now, as I pass by exit 414A on the coastal highway, I will still see that nine-foot-high green plywood artichoke pointing the way to Pezzini’s small 100-acre artichoke patch and grocery. I’m thinking that I’m investing now, so that on another day, I and many more like me will still stop and sit down at those picnic benches, and that I and many more like me will still eat and celebrate and even give thanks for a freshly steamed artichoke right out of the field — even if someone else still insists, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.”

— from The Engaging Leader

Boy Scouts of America Fail

One month ago today, the Senate confirmed Eric Fanning as undersecretary of the Air Force — the second-highest civilian position in this branch of the United States Armed Services. Today, the 1400 members of the national council of the Boy Scouts of America voted to change its position on whether gay boys and men are welcomed to participate as scouts and troop leaders. As a result of today’s vote, Undersecretary Fanning continues to be unfit and unwelcomed to step into the role of a troop leader in the eyes of the Boy Scouts. Why? Because he is a gay man.

Fanning has been deputy undersecretary and deputy chief management officer for the Department of the Navy since July 2009. When Bill Clinton was president, Fanning was a research assistant with the House Armed Services Committee, a special assistant in the Immediate Office of the Secretary of Defense, and an associate director of political affairs at the White House. But because he is gay, the Boy Scouts of America consider him to be unfit as an adult leader for its young members.

Under the new guidelines enacted today, the Boy Scouts will no longer ban or discriminate against gay boys who have the courage to come out to their peers and their troop leaders. That is, until they reach the age of 18. The day they turn 18 years old, according to the new guidelines, these young men become unfit and unwelcomed to participate in Scouting in any capacity. Why, because at 18, they are gay men — no longer gay boys, but gay men. And that, according to the thinking behind the new guidelines, changes everything and renders these former scouts a danger, a menace, a threat to the teenagers who were their peers the day before. And it renders them unfit for the rest of their lives.

What idiocy is this?

It is the kind of idiocy that continues to allow employers in 29 states to fire an employee simply because he or she is gay.

It is the kind of idiocy that is rearing its ugly head in legislative efforts designed to permit anyone to refuse any and all service to gay men and women simply by invoking a First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression.

It is the kind of idiocy that carries with it the moniker homophobia.

And the new guidelines enacted by the Boy Scouts of America, camouflaged as progressive policy, do little more than reinforce this entrenched homophobia. For all intents and purposes, the national council is just passing the buck to the next generation of Boy Scouts of America leaders.

For my part, I have every confidence that this next generation of leaders will have more courage than the current timid group to stand up, to speak up and to act to assure the equal treatment and the equal respect of all American citizens — our Undersecretary of the Air Force included.

Related Reading:

Eagle Scout Zach Wahls Speaks Out Against Boy Scout Gay Ban: VIDEO

Boy Scouts of America Proposes Dropping Ban on Gay Members

Gay Man Confirmed as Air Force Undersecretary

Boy Scouts of America Proposes Dropping Ban on Gay Members

Boy Scouts propose allowing gay scouts but banning gay leaders

Mormon church endorses Scout plan: let gay boys join, keep out gay leaders

On Terror, Tyranny and Cowardice

On Monday in Boston, we were assaulted by two bombings carried out by unknown assailants for unknown reasons. This stealth act of terrorism, perpetrated on unsuspecting, peaceful and innocent civilians needs to be called out for what it is: cowardice.

On Wednesday in the United States Senate, we were assaulted by the tyranny of the National Rifle Association when forty-five sycophant Senators voted against background checks for gun purchases and transfers for reasons that they can neither articulate nor defend without deceit or deflection.

Today, Thursday April 18, 2013, is the anniversary of the day when two hundred and thirty-eight years ago men of courage stood up against tyranny at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, a handful of determined farmers standing in for hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens fought against a tyrant that neither represented nor honored the interests of the people.

Continue reading “On Terror, Tyranny and Cowardice”

The Road Ahead for the Boy Scouts of America: Bigotry or Decency

To the Board of Directors: Boy Scouts of America

Bigotry has consequences.
Each day that the Boy Scouts of America continues to condone the marginalization of gay boys, it fails to send a strong message to very impressionable heterosexual boys that all youngsters deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
As a result, wonderful, promising young boys die.
Would a Scout have come to Jadin Bell’s aid if the BSA were sending a more inclusive and less bigoted and homophobic message about gay boys and men than it is today? 
The young boys under the influence of the Boy Scouts of America would grow to be better citizens and leaders if they were encouraged to lead the charge against bigotry instead of being threatened with expulsion for doing just that – last week’s response on the part of the BSA to a troop in Maryland. What part of that respone is not repugnant? What part of that response does not reek of complicity in the ugly subculture of intolerance and hatred?The BSA is already on the wrong side of history. But you have to know that by now.

It doesn’t take courage to change at this point, it just takes common decency.


The FLIP Side of Leadership…and the Antidote

For every leadership development seminar I conduct, I ask each participant to gather some objective data on the topic of leadership ahead of time. Specifically, I ask each person to talk with a few of their friends, family, students, coworkers or acquaintances about leadership in the days before the seminar, and find out what they look for in someone whose lead they would willingly follow. The operative word here, I stress to my participants, is “willingly.”[1] Willingly means that we exercise our free will. Willingly means that we are not coerced, cajoled or backed into a corner to have to follow. Instead, we follow by personal choice, without reluctance, because we are favorably disposed to do so.

More often than not, the soon-to-be participants find, to their surprise, that the people they talk to respond by saying that they look for a similar set of qualities in their own leaders. Among the qualities they mention most often, and what the people say those qualities really mean, are the following:

Honestytruthful in both word and deed

Integrity: walks the talk, consistently; role-models behavior; holds himself or herself accountable

Vision: guides, shows the way; communicates objectives and goals

Competence: knows the business

Courage: adheres to his or her convictionsshows strength of character

Inspires: demonstrates personal passion; motivates others

Respects: treats others with fairness; remains open to others’ ideas

Listens: values others’ input and ideas; engages in two-way communication

Commits to helping others succees: strives to know the total person; develops the talent of others

Distributes ownership…and holds others accountable

Recognizes and celebrates others’ accomplishments: expresses gratitude; gives credit where credit is due, publicly

All of these are admirable qualities. All are typical qualities of exemplary leaders, as cited by scores of prominent practitioners, observers, researchers, writers and teachers in the leadership field. I am confident that, among these, you will find qualities that figure prominently in attracting and engaging your own enthusiasm and commitment to willingly follow the lead of someone else.

Unheralded scores of men and women honor the people they lead by regularly holding themselves accountable for behaving and acting in ways that reflect these qualities. To these people, we owe a debt of gratitude for shaping cultures of ethics, civility and service, as well as for creating great places to work and live. 

When my seminar participants ask colleagues about the qualities they value, they seldom report finding too many of these qualities in leaders or in their cultures. Far more often, participants report hearing people complain of a scarcity of these qualities among many who don the robes of leader, but who discredit the role by their actions. From my vantage point as one who often hears from those on the receiving end of leadership, their day to day experience differs radically from the ideals that they honor or hope for — is far removed, in fact, from the qualities that would engage their enthusiasm to willingly follow. In their place, I hear of a bleak set of leadership qualities being practiced by many who call themselves leader, but whose actions prove otherwise. Their actions show them to be but pretenders[2] who harm the people they lead by all too frequently choosing to disregard the qualities their people respect and require. Instead, they perpetrate a set of behaviors I’ve come to call the FLIP side of leadership.

FLIP is an inverted (or, worse, distorted) form of leadership whose adherents find it acceptable to:

F – Fearmonger, Fabricate claims and Falsify the record

L – Limit access to information or Lie about the facts

I –  Insult our intelligence, Impugn the integrity of their detractors, if not Intimidate them

P – Pursue Power, Profit, Prestige, Position, Personal or Professional Gain, Publicity or Pleasure, with callous disregard for principle or the interests of the community and the common good

A casual reading of the news and blogs in this first decade of the 21st century offers myriad stories of women and men in every office of leadership — be it in our business communities, religious communities, school systems, or in our national, state and local governments, or in our not-for-profit organizations — whose actions and behaviors illustrate the FLIP side of leadership. Their motivations have more to do with exerting control than with inspiring us to contribute; more to do with getting compliance than with engaging our desire or our willingness to commit; more to do with serving the immediate interests of a few than with the larger interests of the community they claim to lead. They might wear the label “leader”; they might hold the title “leader”; but they are not leaders. Rather, they are “handlers” posing as leaders. They do little to engage our enthusiasm or inspire us to willingly follow. Instead, they too often manage and manipulate the people under their cloak to follow out of fear, self-interest or self-preservation.

I have written The Citizen Leader partially in response to this practice.

I fundamentally believe that we are all co-creators of the world in which we live and work. Our families, our schools, our places of work, our places of worship, our neighborhoods and towns — all these constitute the communities that make up our world. Through our daily behaviors, words, actions and choices, we contribute to the character of those communities, and shape the world in which we live and work, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our colleagues, for our coworkers and for our fellow citizens.

I fundamentally believe that if we wish to avoid living under the FLIP side of leadership, then we must assume personal responsibility to check it, right it, reverse it. I fundamentally believe that if I myself do little or nothing to arrest this FLIP dynamic, I am condoning both its growth and the culture it produces. I own that while I lack the power to change the world, I do have the power to shape my world. And I own that not to take that seriously, not to act as if I am a co-creator of our collective reality, is an act of surrender and perhaps an abdication of responsibility. And so, I try to be mindful of the culture I want to live in as I age, and I try to match my behaviors and actions to that culture.

It’s up to us. We are the ones we are waiting for. We are the ones who can shape, change and transform our world by behaving and speaking in ways that offer an antidote to the FLIP side of leadership – in ways that will heartily engage the enthusiasm of the people we lead. At the risk of being prescriptive, I offer the following:

Where the handlers would fearmonger, fabricate claims and falsify the record in order to manage and manipulate the people around them, let us forge a shared understanding of what is real and what is not.

Where the handlers would limit access to information and lie about the facts, let us level with one another so that we may all make clear and informed choices.

Where the handlers would insult our intelligence, impugn the integrity of their detractors, or worse, intimidate them, let us inquire into the reasons for disagreement so that we may seek to better understand and better appreciate differing points of view.

Where the handlers would pursue power, profit, prestige or personal gain with callous disregard for the deleterious impact on people, community and culture, let us persevere with adherence to principles that shape a culture of ethics, civility and service.

It’s up to us.


[1] The workshop I refer to here is The Leadership Challenge Workshop, created by leadership researchers and writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. When I ask participants, before the workshop, what they “look for in someone whose lead they would willingly follow,” and when I go on to stress that the operative word is “willingly,” I am conducting an exercise using the “Characteristics of an Admired Leader” questionnaire authored by Kouzes and Posner an instrument they have been using since 1981 to collect data. For more information on the questionnaire and the data collected, see The Leadership Challenge (4th edition), Chapter 2: “Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership.

[2] One who makes a false or hypocritical show.

Corporate Citizen Leadership

The broader implication of Citizen Leadership for a corporation is captured in this question: As we pursue our goals, are we operating in a way that serves the common good? I believe we earn the right to call ourselves citizens because we are willing to actively participate in, serve in and lead efforts that better a community. I propose that a corporation has the same opportunity.

Now whether it acts on that opportunity is another story — and speaks volumes about the disposition of its leaders. And among the dispositions that thwart those efforts in our business communities: maximize wealth. I’m very familiar with it. It’s the mantra I learned in business school. It’s the message I’ve gotten from any number of leaders and consulting clients whose primary focus has been on building market value.

Yes we have fiduciary and legal responsibilities to our investors and shareholders. But in a citizen leader world, we also have responsibilities that extend well beyond our investors and shareholders to our other fellow citizens— not the least of whom are our employees, our clients and the people who live in our communities. In a citizen leader world, our pursuit of wealth (or power, or influence or reputation) does not give us license to degrade or damage the well-being of our constituents or our communities. Taking it one step deeper, in a citizen leader world, we are asked to act in ways that benefit our communities.

In 1886 [Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad] the Supreme Court allowed that a corporation is entitled to some of the same protections under our Constitution as is a natural person. That decision has been reexamined and reaffirmed any number of times since. Those decisions taken together have morphed into a short and succinct claim by our corporations to equal treatment under the law. Fair enough. It’s 2012. Now, 126 years later, if our corporations and institutions are intent on being included equally among We the People, then as a matter of course rather than as an exception, isn’t it also fair to at least ask that they act like citizens? Isn’t it also fair to expect that they act like citizens? And isn’t it also fair to expect that they, along with the rest of us, along with the rest of We the People, play an active role in promoting the common good (the general welfare)[1] .

In a citizen leader culture, we as a corporation recognize that we are all in this together. We look to ensure that our actions contribute rather than damage or degrade. We look for ways to give back rather than just maximize our take.

Heed the words of former Secretary of State and Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell who reminds us:

My responsibility, our responsibility as lucky Americans, is to try to give back to this country as much as it has given us, as we continue our American journey together.


[1] The full preamble to the Constitution of the United States reads: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


The Broader Implications of Citizen Leadership for Organizations and Corporations

Citizen leadership has a direct bearing on the organizations and corporations that are the driving force of much of our society and culture. Among the broader implications of citizen leadership for these organizations, large and small, is this: corporate character counts. In more familiar terms — corporate “culture” counts.

Despite what might be printed, published or circulated about an organization’s culture, in practice all we need to do is look at how our people interact with one another, and how individuals conduct themselves towards our customers, clients and communities. Those observations are all we need to discern our prevailing and dominant values. Nothing is 100%, of course not, but there are predominant patterns. Let us look to the patterns of our actions and decisions. Those patterns will speak volumes about who we are.

Is that the signature by which we want to be known in the world?

Because we are.

For example: if truth is a principle that you want to be known by, and you regularly act in ways that are truthful in word and deed, internally and externally, then that’s how you’ll be known. Actions reveal who you are.

But, your principles and values do not come free of charge. You have to be willing and committed to ante up, even when it cost you. That is called an investment — that’s an investment in your integrity and an investment in your credibility, in the bigger picture, an investment in your culture.

Another example; if truth is a principle that the people — say at XYZ Corp. — want to be known by, but they — the individuals who make up XYZ Corp. habitually misrepresent the facts — public pronouncements about truth and ethics notwithstanding — then that’s who they are and that’s how they’ll be known. They can rationalize or excuse their choice of actions for any number of reasons: competition, pressure for quarterly numbers or closer to home, compensation — individuals saying to themselves, I do what I get paid for — but here’s the thing, values  — like truth — do not lend themselves to a cost-benefit analysis.

Now there are those who just don’t care. There are cultures that hold, “We have money, we have power, we have influence. It’s a free country and we’ll do as we please.” At least we know where they stand, what they stand for, and what we can expect.

But, there is a more sinister school of thought — one that adheres to the notion that “Principle is okay, up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”[1]This is the culture that cloaks itself in principle — like truth — but if principle turns out to be inconvenient, then its members conveniently set it aside. In this culture, the overriding objective is “to win.”  And whatever currency “to win” comes in — be it profit, power, influence, reputation or the like — the ends justify our means.

For the Citizen Leader — corporate or individual — the ends do not justify the means. Instead, in a citizen leader culture, the means are routinely examined through the filter of our principles. Some of the means will need to be discarded because they do not fit with how we want to be in the world. Other means will present us with viable options — or more precisely, values-based options. These options safeguard our character as we pursue our goals — whatever form our goals take — profit, power, influence or reputation.

To borrow from the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

As to means there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own means. The man who tries means, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

When all is said and done, it is the individuals in our organizations, our corporations and our institutions who will decide on their means, and on their choice of actions. It is the prevailing pattern of these individual choices that will define our corporate culture.

And so we are face-to-face again with these two questions: Who am I? and How do I want to be in the world? It’s just that our scope has grown from personal character to organizational culture.

Culture doesn’t happen because we will it to happen. It happens because we and many other people in our community turn our wills into behaviors and words and choices that honor and demonstrate the values that we choose to espouse. Building culture — a purposeful culture — is an act of dedication and ownership — personal and collective. Everyone can be involved. Everyone can accept ownership and take responsibility. Now, whether everyone accepts that ownership, whether everyone takes responsibility by holding themselves and one another accountable – that’s another issue. Accepting ownership for oneself is an act of citizenship; asking others to accept ownership and holding them accountable, regardless of our position or title, is an act of leadership. Not to do so, especially if we are entrusted with the responsibilities of a leader, is an act of abdication.

It was a series of acts of abdication among those who were most entrusted with the mantle of leadership at Penn State that allowed for the incidence of child molestation and the ensuing lack of any meaningful investigation that we learned about last summer. It has been a whole history of these acts of abdication among the leadership at the Boy Scouts of America and among the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church that have allowed for the scandalous abuse of children and the ensuing evasion from prosecution for both the perpetrators and their protectors.

On the other hand, it is an act of leadership that we see being played out at Harvard today with the candid disclosure and investigation of cheating among some 120 students. In the words of Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education: “Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement, either at Harvard or anywhere else. We have held, and will continue to hold, every Harvard College student to that same high standard.”

So in the broader sense, when we view citizen leadership on the scale of an organization, a corporation or an institution — be it in education, sports, religion, business, media or government — character still comes first. Who am I? and How do I want to be in the world? The principles that reveal our culture still count.

[1] Campaign advice given by former Vice President Dick Cheney to associates when he was White House chief of staff.

Source: Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, by John W. Dean.

What is a Citizen Leader?

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.

The Citizen Leader: Why she/he is so important today!

Over the past 25 years, leadership experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been collecting millions of data points seeking to identify the qualities that people look for most in a leader — that is, in someone they would willingly follow. The operative word here is willingly. For 15 of those years, I’ve led a corporate seminar based on their work — The Leadership Challenge Workshop. I begin each session by asking my participants exactly the same question: what are the qualities you look for in a leader whom you would willingly follow. Time and time and time again, the results are the same. Among the top qualities that people look for most in a leader they would willingly follow are the following: honesty — meaning truthfulness in word and deed, and inspiration — they uplift the spirits of the people they lead.

Unfortunately, truthfulness and inspiration are not the qualities that a great many of the people I work with say they experience in their daily lives — in and outside of work. Let’s think about this. Let’s take a sober look at the world around us. Even a casual reading of the news and the blogs over these first 12 years of this 21st century offers a myriad of stories of women and men in every office of leadership in all of our institutions – government, business, media, sports, religion – who have supplanted the truth in order to pursue their ends and then taken to badmouthing their detractors — to impugning their integrity. Hardly the stuff of truthfulness and uplifting people’s spirits. As I look at the world around us today, it seems to me that we are more apt to experience a steady stream of fabrication and misrepresentation and then the maligning of those who want to set the record straight. Lying and maligning — are they emerging as new national norms rather than as exceptions? Are our inalienable rights being revised to read life, liberty, lie and malign all in the pursuit of power, profit and personal gain.

It matters. Truth matters. Civility matters. Are we really becoming a culture of cheats and bullies? It certainly seems we are becoming a culture that condones if not silently accepts and even applauds those who prosper regardless of the physical, emotional, spiritual or financial damage their actions and words leave in their wake.

The impetus for my work and my book The Citizen Leader: Be the Person You’d Want to Follow is to get the attention of the many people, especially our young people, who are at risk of being swept up if they haven’t already been swept up by this culture of cheating and bullying and to ask them to pause and examine the kind of world their words and actions are creating for themselves and for the people around them.

I believe that we’re all co-creators of the worlds in which we live and work. Our homes, our schools, our places of work, and our places of worship, our teams, our neighborhoods and our towns — all of these constitute the communities that make up our world. Through our words and actions every day, cheats and bullies included, we contribute to the character of these communities, and shape the world in which we live and work, for ourselves, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our coworkers and for our fellow citizens.

Now, even for those among us to whom cheating and bullying are repugnant, it still takes a strong and steady sense of self to deflect the forces that might tempt us to do otherwise. Howard Gardner, the eminent authority on education at Harvard, said recently that in the past 20 years that he has been studying professional and academic integrity, “the ethical muscles have atrophied” and that in part because of a culture that exalts success, however it is attained.

Even for those among us to whom cheating and bullying are repugnant, it still takes courage to speak up and push back from one’s core when faced with individuals in positions of power who would compel us to deviate from truthfulness or civility for the sake of short-term interests or gains.

I wrote The Citizen Leader in part for the young woman who fessed up to me during a seminar three years ago that she had been told to lie about product test results because her boss needed better results in order to continue to have their project funded. And she did. She intentionally misrepresented the truth out of fear that not to do so would be a career-limiting move.

Now, I know that I do not have the power to change the world (no matter how much I talk), but I do have the power to shape my world and be the person I can say proudly I’d want to follow. I have written The Citizen Leader to underscore this message.  I believe that for each one of us not to take our power seriously, not to act as if each one of us is a co-creator of our reality and by extension of our collective reality, then we surrender our character — we abandon the one thing we can truly call our own.

By way of The Citizen Leader, I encourage you and my readers and the people who attend my seminars to be clear on who you are and what you stand for today, so that today and tomorrow, you speak and act in ways that that are entirely consistent with your core.

We are the final arbiters of our actions. That power — our power — cannot be overwhelmed by the dictates of others.

When we own and embrace that, then we stand to create great places where we and the other members of our communities will want to live, work, play and thrive today and well into the future.

This is my core belief. This is my wish for each one of us. This is the foundation of citizen leadership.

Peter’s Perspective: Crafting Culture

The culture of our communities is, for better or for worse, the predominant pattern of our collective behaviors, speech, choices and actions. Our families, our schools, our neighborhoods, our towns, our teams, our troops, our places of worship, our places of work – all of these are the communities that make up our world. Each one of us, through our daily behaviors, speech, choices and actions contributes to the character of these communities. We shape the world in which we live and work, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our colleagues, for our co-workers and for our fellow citizens. As such, it behooves us to ask ourselves, what is the character of the culture that we aspire to create and live in as a community?

Whatever the answer to this question, and whatever the size or scope of our community, we have an opportunity to be more deliberate and intentional. We have an opportunity to choose how to behave and speak and act, individually and collectively, with renewed commitment, to craft a purposeful culture.

Crafting purposeful culture is an act of dedication and ownership – both individual and collective. Purposeful culture doesn’t happen because we will it to happen. It happens because we and many other people in our community turn our wills into behaviors and words and choices that honor and demonstrate the characteristics of the culture that we aspire to create. Everyone can be involved. Everyone can accept ownership and take responsibility. Now, whether everyone accepts that ownership, whether everyone takes responsibility by holding themselves and one another accountable – that is another issue. Accepting ownership for oneself is an act of citizenship; asking others to accept ownership and holding them accountable, regardless of our position or title, is an act of leadership. Not to do so, especially if we are entrusted with the responsibilities of a leader, is an act of abdication.

It is abdication among those who were most entrusted at Penn State that we now painfully learn about. (It is abdication among those who were most entrusted in the hierarchy of the American and Irish Catholic Church that we have painfully learned about for a decade now).

Crafting purposeful culture requires our full commitment. It requires ongoing conversation and dialogue between and among the leaders and the members of our communities to define the characteristics of the culture that we want to create or safeguard for the future.

During that deliberative process, we need to consider:

  • What do these cultural characteristics really mean?
  • Why do we each personally care about these characteristics?
  • How do or could each one of us turn these characteristics into tangible behaviors and action?

Our candid and collective consideration of these questions will better prepare us to engage other members of our communities in a conversation about the whats and whys of our culture. In turn, they will better understand the importance and implications of their dedicating themselves to taking ownership for their own behaviors and actions. Equipped with a clear understanding of the culture that we want to create collectively, we, the leaders, can more confidently distribute ownership to the other members of our communities for behaving, speaking, and interacting in ways that assure that the culture we aspire to, becomes a reality. They, in turn, are better prepared, and indeed expected, to identify and take action on what needs to be promoted, what needs to be protected, and what needs to be put to an end.