Leadership failures and leadership vision, Part 2

Shifting sands and quagmires

Last week I wrote about Nadav and Avihu, the oldest and second sons of Aaron, who were killed for what seemed like a minor transgression.
I wrote about what it means to be a leader, and how those in leadership positions must be held to a higher standard, to serve the greater good.
And I wrote about the special relationship the Jewish people have with God.

Today, on Yom HaShoah, as we remember the horrors of the Holocaust, I can’t help but think about a unique world leader and how his commitment to a special relationship – and to serving the greater good – helped the world recover from what, at the time, must have seemed like insurmountable devastation.

Seventy one years ago, Winston Churchill stood in Fulton, Missouri and gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” It’s the classic text about the beginning of the Cold War; perhaps one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century. Every student of politics has to read and study it. Watch it here and you’ll see why the imagery and language resonate even today.

But the Fulton speech also introduced into common language a phrase that Churchill had started to adopt: the “special relationship.” The “special relationship” was the exceptionally close political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military, and historical relations between the United Kingdom and the United States.
It was a unique bond that defined everything between the two sides and guided their leaders, at that time and for decades to come.

I was no fan of Margaret Thatcher when I was a child growing up in England. But her dedication to that relationship guided how she saw her role as a leader. When Thatcher met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time, he tried to drive a wedge between her and the U.S.
“I am an ally of the United States,” she said. “We believe the same things, we believe passionately in the same battle of ideas, we will defend them to the hilt. Never,” she said to Gorbachev, “try to separate me from them.”

Thatcher’s legacy and achievements may be topics of legitimate debate. But there’s no question about her leadership abilities and her commitment to this belief: that the special relationship was based on shared ideals and values that were worth defending by its leaders. And more importantly, that the relationship was bigger than the two sides alone. It stood for something. It meant something. And it was the job of the leaders to uphold that relationship and its values. Special relationships are special because they are held to a different, higher standard. Leaders uphold them because they symbolize a commitment, not an excuse.
They represent an ideal to strive toward, not a territory to conquer. They represent an expectation of service, not a demand for privilege.

Churchill and Roosevelt, like those who came after them, built their achievements through decades of trust and dedication. Through service. Through a commitment to greater ideals. Churchill said in his Fulton speech that the ideal of the British-American understanding was to uphold the idea of Peace and the United Nations.

Standing at Fulton, Churchill was able to see what Nadav and Avihu could not. He even used the concept of the Temple to explain his vision:

“We must make sure that [the common goal of global responsibility]… is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can someday be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.
Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon a rock. Anyone can see with his eyes open that our path will be difficult and also long, but if we persevere together … I cannot doubt that we shall achieve our common purpose in the end.”

And these lessons are just as critical to us today – perhaps even more so – than during the time of Nadav and Avihu. They are just as focused on issues of life and death, and leadership, and responsibility.

 

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