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Jay Paterno: We Demand Great Leadership, But Are We Worthy of It?

by on June 30, 2011 6:00 AM

As we celebrate the upcoming birthday of the United States, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what this country means to each one of us personally. At 235 years, we are older than most nations. Our system of government remains well over two centuries after our Constitution went into effect in 1789.

The past two weeks have given me a lot to reflect upon, starting with a White House community leaders forum I attended. After the briefing, I went to the West Wing and talked with Vice President Joe Biden in his office. He came in having just finished lunch with President Obama. The topic of their conversation was Afghanistan and the deficit talks – not exactly lite fare for a Friday lunch.

Two days later I sat around with people I know well. I listened to them complain about the worthless politicians, political process and how little leadership there is in government. The criticism was aimed at everyone on both sides of the aisle.

Criticism is easy and cheap. Solutions cost a lot more.

This became clear to me at the White House forum. Some community leaders used the question-and-answer period to rant about problems in their community they wanted the president to fix. One man stood up and suggested that the president do something "big." He didn't say what – he just wanted something "bold" to be done.

Leadership is what everyone professes to want from anyone or everyone in Washington. But leadership is a two-way street.

After the recent ESPN "Difference Makers" taping in Eisenhower Auditorium, Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski talked to me about team members helping to take ownership of leadership. I thought of the community leaders and people looking to elected officials to do it all for us.

The question that emerged in my mind was, "Are we, the citizens of this nation, worthy of great leadership?"

The best leaders often tell us what we don't want to hear. There's an old saying: "Am I to lose your friendship because I tell you the truth?" It paraphrases something from the Bible: "Am I therefore to become your enemy because I tell you the truth?"

That is the question that we, as Americans, must answer before we can foster the bold leadership we profess to want, yet often act to deny. We turn on the politicians who make hard but unpopular choices. Too often we send the wrong signal to those we elect. If the truth isn't palatable, avoid it or you are therefore to become our enemy and be voted out.

On the left and the right, we place strict litmus tests on issues we take personally. If our leaders fall short of complete adherence to the markers we have set, we consider them to have "sold out." Ultimately, cooperation and compromise are seen as faults. The leader who compromises will face a challenge to retain his or her seat in the next primary.

In our sometimes idealized collective memory, we hold up the Founding Fathers as people standing for principles and never wavering. Anyone who knows our history knows many of these men had doubts and second-guessed themselves throughout the process of forming this country. Ultimately they gave ground on some things to gain ground in others.

The truth is that cooperation and compromise are what helped our Founding Fathers deliver the nation and the Constitution we love to the land we call home.

I am not sure the process would have played out the same way today. The news cycle we have now would be critical of large-state representatives for giving in to the idea of a bicameral legislature in which all states got the same number of senate seats regardless of population. Imagine the outrage from cable news commentators if Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Southern states but not in the border states in 2011, rather than 1862. But compromise was reached, allowing progress toward the larger, long-range goal.

As we look at our ship of state, we see the lighthouse and the rocks we need to avoid. We have to find the course to get to port, but we argue over the hands on the wheel. The budget-deficit issue illustrates the point. Most agree we need to shore up the finances of the government. But woe to the Republican who agrees to any tax increases and to the Democrat who agrees to cuts in spending on valuable social programs.

The immediacy of our news cycle from day to day and minute to minute does not favor the leader who takes the long view of governing. Yet, ultimately, the best leaders are the ones willing to weather a loss in the day's news cycle to do what is right for the country.

The question is whether we, as a people, are willing to stand where they stand and be able to see what they see.

If we can do that, we are a nation worthy of great leadership. If we cannot, we deserve the failures of leaders who learn the lessons of the real messages we send to them each election cycle.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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