Are Leaders Born, Made – or Neither?

While reading Grant, Ron Chernow’s best selling biography of Ulysses S. Grant, I came across Amy Cunningham’s blog The Leadership Triangle, in which she asks if leaders are made, born or neither.

She suggests that we need to change our paradigm about leaders who, she claims, emerge more by context than either natural ability or training.

Ulysses Grant is an example.   Like Abraham Lincoln, who chose Grant as his senior general to lead the Union army to victory in the Civil War, he came from humble beginnings in frontier Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.   Neither Lincoln nor Grant had the formal education and elite influences of the first Presidents.   Both had their share of young life failures.

Grant, whom Chernow describes as the most popular man in America following the Civil War, was not a natural born leader nor did he have the training required for senior military service or the political experience to become, until then, the youngest President, elected for two terms.   Chernow believes he deserves more credit as a leader for uniting and preserving the Union while implementing the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction.

He seems to have had what Amy Cunningham describes as the Leadership Triangle of “competence, confidence, and commitment” to “ jump in with both feet because there is simply no other choice but to lead.”

Grant didn’t present himself as a war hero and never campaigned for the Presidency.   But he took charge when the times required it.

Near the end of his life, with help from Mark Twain he wrote what is still considered to be one the best presidential memoirs: interestingly enough recounting his war years without mention of his Presidency.

I concluded some years ago that the best leadership lessons are learned from biographies.   This is one of the best. Chernow helps us get acquainted with Grant as a devoted husband and father as well as a soldier and politician with all his flaws and disappointments.

While there is much to be said for talent and training, leadership happens when ordinary people are met with extraordinary circumstances.


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A Night of Hope

During its annual Night Of Hope on Thursday, October 12, the Community of Hope in Washington, D.C., raised over $400,000 – celebrating “Hope Across the City.”

Bob Sloan, for 25 years the CEO of Sibley Hospital, pictured here between me and Kelly Sweeney McShane, the C/H director for the past 17 years, received the annual Tom Nees Award for Exceptional Service. Bob was the founding board chairman in 1980 and has remained an engaged supporter in the years since.   He joined with me and others to start this faith-based ministry among the city’s neediest residents.

The Community of Hope has become one of Washington’s most respected full-service charities – during the past year providing transitional housing to over 1,000 homeless families and health care to 10,000 patients at several locations all across the city.

With the right kind of intervention it is possible to break the cycle of poverty for individuals, families and neighborhoods.  But it takes more than money and programs, as important as those are, to bring about personal and social transformation.

Faith communities bring hope without which little changes for the better.   Servant leaders like Bob Sloan, director Kelly Sweeney McShane and the entire Community of Hope family of staff, volunteers and generous contributors are the difference makers.

I am honored for this annual Exceptional Service award to be offered in my name.   May this legacy continue to give hope to the needy and inspire others to serve where needed.

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‘The Pastoral Role’

There came a moment when reading “When Breathe Becomes Air” (66 weeks now on the NY Times best seller list) that I put the book aside to reflect.   It wasn’t just that it is a heartbreaking memoir of a physician who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer and died at age 37.   I knew the ending before I started

I was struck by why Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon.   It was, he wrote: ‘to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.’

And then the sentence that gave me pause –

‘Had I been more religious in my youth, I might have become a pastor, for it was the pastoral role I’d sought.’

He anticipated a ‘pastoral role,’ to ‘forge relationships with the suffering,’ doing more than simply treating physical problems. He sought for compassionate relationships with his patients.

For over a year now since I first read the book I’ve been wondering: do most parish pastors, priests, and rabbis understand the ‘pastoral role’ this way?

Or are they expected to pay more attention to metrics of attendance, membership and money, than forging ‘relationships with the suffering.’ As rewarding as it may be, congregational leadership can be a painstaking, frustrating job unless motivated by a calling to stand with those who suffer.

Dr Paul Kalanithi knew that that at the end of life, if not sooner, we all will endure suffering and will need a ‘pastoral figure.’

He wrote his brief memoir knowing that he did not have long to live.   Shortly before the end he lamented:

‘One chapter of my life seemed to have ended: perhaps the whole book was closing. Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding in life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering.’

Fortunately, the doctor during his final days became the ‘pastoral figure’ he needed and wanted to be.  I think he wrote so that any of us may be that for someone, sometime.



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Is America Racist?

A friend sent me a WSJ article by Shelby Steele: “Why The Left Can’t Let Go of Racism.” It begins with a question, “Is America racist?’’

In the wake of Charlottesville he wanted to know what I think of the article and question.

I responded that even though racism exists in structures as well as individuals I wouldn’t describe America as racist. That is not a helpful generalization.

I prefer the word “racialized,’ used by Emerson and Smith in their book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.” They describe America as a “racialized society” since “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.”

Given our history of slavery, segregation and discrimination they argue that our culture continues to “allocate economic, political and social rewards to individuals and groups along racial lines.”  

We form opinions, often unconsciously, about people by racial categories before we know them.   Thus there remains among us a tendency to pre-judge people by racial stereotypes regardless of their character or abilities.   That leads to prejudice, racism and injustice.

People of color, by internalizing these stereotypes may be as much influenced by these categories as the dominant white population.

None of us can escape the influence of our racialized culture.   The best we can do is recognize and resist its effects in ourselves as well as in the public square.

I don’t care for Shelby Steele’s stereotyping people as being left or right, liberal or conservative on racial issues.   Labeling one another with a single political identity ignores the complexity of each individual.

I have ideas that some would consider liberal, others that might be characterized as conservative.   This is true with almost everyone.   Few of us are single-minded ideologues.

In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Jonathan Haidt cites research demonstrating that we all want one thing: to be treated fairly.

Working for racial fairness is neither liberal nor conservative, or perhaps it is both.


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If you are Jewish, African American or Native American you may not be that surprised at the rally and protests in Charlottesville this past weekend. You are not surprised when white supremacists spew out their racism and anti-Semitism.

If you are Hispanic, Asian or of some other ethnicity you too know what it’s like to be denigrated by a segment of the American population.   If it hasn’t happened to you, you probably know someone who has been rejected for being non-white (a term of derision itself).  photo from

If you are white and not Jewish, and have never, as far as you know, harbored or expressed white supremacist ideology, you may be somewhat surprised, even shocked that Klu Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to, in their rhetoric, “take America back.” The removal by the city of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was simply the trigger to rally for their larger cause.

Being white protects one from attack by white supremacists so we don’t think about it that much.   It hasn’t touched us personally.

We know there are some crazies out there but we may not be aware of the extent to which their ideology has taken root and is growing in the current political soil.   They have claimed common cause with Trumpism.

While being white is an advantage, it may also blind us to the presence of white supremacists among us promoting hatred toward people of color and of Jewish descent.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call.   Public officials have condemned the violence – a car driven into the crowd of anti-supremacists by a 20-year old from Ohio killing one and wounding many others.

But the deeper violence, if not terrorism is within the white supremacist movement itself embedded in the society around us.   People of color, of different ethnicities and Jews are meant to be terrorized, to be afraid and feel unwelcome.

Given our history, the rally in Charlottesville should not surprise us.

Do we have the courage to call out and resist the terror that white supremacists from across the country brought there?

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The Serenity Prayer – and The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

The Serenity Prayer, originally composed in 1943 by the pastor-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) for the troops in WWII, resonates as much now as ever in our public as well as personal lives.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,  Courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Since adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous thousands of people in recovery recite it daily.   Niebuhr may be relatively unknown but his prayer lives on as a quick guide to sobriety and sanity whatever our situation in life.

His legacy has been renewed in a new documentary film available on PBS:An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story and companion book by Jeremy L. Sabella.

Those of us who studied mid-twentieth century theology remember Niebuhr for among other things appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1948.   We read his major works including – Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man.

We remember that he was an inner-city pastor in Detroit before he became an ethics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.         .

He is described in the new documentary as a ‘public theologian’ for his observations on social ethics and the role he played as an advisor to public policy leaders particularly on issues of war and peace.

Martin Luther King quoted him in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Billy Graham followed him. In the 2008 presidential campaign both John McCain and Barack Obama cited his influence on their politics.

He is best known and followed for two primary thoughts.

  1. Corporate systemic evil must be restrained by force if necessary.

Having witnessed the carnage of WWI, Niebuhr abandoned early 20th Century utopian visions for the perfectibility of society through education.   While not giving up on social reform he recognized that evil is social as well as personal and must be named and at times restrained with force: making a case for just war.

  1. We must recognize and restrain evil in ourselves as well as the enemy.

Having witnessed the nightmare and future threat of atomic weapons following WWII, he warned U.S. leaders that the capacity for evil must be recognized in ourselves as well as the enemy.

A key petition in the Serenity Prayer is for “the courage to change.”

For Niebuhr this meant that –

  • Since evil is systemic as well as personal we must work for justice.
  • Given our propensity for self-centeredness we all need grace and forgiveness.

Serenity takes courage.


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How Well Do We Handle Adversity?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question having recently read Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandburg, CEO of Facebook and Adam Grant, a best-selling author and psychologist at Warton. It may be because of the people I know who have gone through very difficult times.

The book is Sandburg’s conversation with Grant after the sudden death of her husband.   Feeling that she and her young children would never find joy again she began talking, listening, and eventually discovering how she and others could rebound from life-shattering tragedies.

Life seldom works out as planned. Sandburg believes we need options and the agility to change direction.   She and Grant teach us how to develop resilience, to thrive in spite of disappointments, tragedies, and failures, even those of our own making.

Following its publication in April 2017 the Option B website ( provides a place to learn from other people’s stories who with resilience have faced down challenges including grief, illness, divorce, hate, violence, and incarceration.

When applied to our behavior patterns resilience is a metaphor drawn from the ability of a substance or object to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching or being compressed.

However, unlike a substance or an object we are not naturally nor necessarily resilient.   It must be learned, practiced and taught.

While at the Community of Hope in Washington, DC, I observed remarkable transformations of people who had given up on themselves.   They were zombies, the walking dead.   And yet with timely intervention it was as if they were resurrected to new life – I call them resurrection stories.

I saw resilience in that deteriorating neighborhood as well.   Buildings became habitable again.   The street was safer.   There were fewer evictions. The police were no longer adversaries. Health care was available. People found jobs and children improved at school.

There were still casualties, but enough resurrections to give us hope.

During those years of urban ministry we experienced our share of adversity.   The financial strain at times left us desperate. But somehow, we found the resilience to bounce back.

As a leader I had to learn emotional resiliency – to not give up, or give in to feelings of failure when a project or plan didn’t work out.   There always had to be an Option B.

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The Problem with Empathy

A few days after reading Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassionby Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, I was stopped in Washington, D.C., traffic.  A disheveled, crippled man made his way between the traffic lanes past my car with a hand-written cardboard sign identifying himself as a disabled veteran needing money.   In that brief moment I had to make a decision.

Occasionally I give to those who ask without thinking much about it. This time I didn’t. I had just read Bloom’s book and thought of shelters and programs in the city to assist homeless disabled veterans like this man.  It was a head vs. heart moment.   Following Bloom’s advice, I went with my head.

My unpredictable responses to pan-handlers is the dilemma Bloom describes in Against Empathy, as he argues for rational compassion.  For many well-intentioned people empathy is a natural response, an emotion defined by Bloom as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.”

Rational compassion, on the other hand he defines as understanding and responding to human suffering wherever it exists, in Bloom’s words: “simply caring for people and wanting them to thrive.”

Citing many studies Bloom seeks to prove that while emotions may motivate us to do good, empathy may be, and often is counterproductive, if not harmful.

At that red light I wondered if by giving to the man in the traffic I would be encouraging others to beg on the street rather than take advantage of the comprehensive programs to help homeless, destitute people?   I helped start such a program in Washington for that purpose, and I continue to support the Community of Hope and other compassionate ministries around the world.   I think that is a better way to give.

Early in the book, Bloom recognizes that arguing against empathy is a hard sell.   He notes over 1,500 books listed on Amazon with empathy in the title.     Yet as he demonstrates, empathy, which by definition is selective and biased, leads us to overlook greater needs.

For example, the outpouring of response to the horrific massacre of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.   A warehouse was needed to store all the unneeded and unwanted toys sent to the surviving children along with thousands of dollars to an otherwise wealthy neighborhood.   While, as Bloom points out, few of us are aware that more African-American children are murdered every year in Chicago than were killed at Sandy Hook.

Empathy “muddles our judgment,” the Yale News review observed.   “We are at our best,’ it said, “when we are smart enough not to rely upon it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

Does empathy make us better people and the world a better place?   Not necessarily, however well intentioned we might be to walk in someone else’s shoes.


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On Nurturing Our Networks

A life-long friend called last week because he had not heard from me in more than a month. Given our ages, (this is my 80th year – more about that later) he was concerned that perhaps something unfortunate had happened to me.

His call reminded me that I live within a circle of family and friends who care about one another.

As I age I am often reminded of a line from the Midshipmen’s Prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy, ‘protect those in whose love I live.’   That’s a wonderful phrase – ‘those in whose love I live.’ I have lived there all my life.

I owe a lot to this personal network. Keeping in touch is essential.   I don’t have to contact all of them every week or every month, but at least occasionally just to let them know that I care as much about them as they do about me.

Our networks extend beyond this inner circle.

A few months ago I talked with a friend about his career.   He was frustrated to the point of discouragement with his leadership role.   He had folded into himself and couldn’t see a way forward or out.   I asked if he had shared any of this with his network of friends and associates.   He had not.   I suggested that he call a few of the people he knew and trusted.   Let them know that he was thinking about a career change.

We recently talked again. He was encouraged after making a few calls and discovering that he had a network of people willing to discuss his ideas for new directions.   Doors he didn’t know existed opened. Who knows what the future holds but now he knows that he is surrounded and supported by a network of friends who care about one another.

In my conversations with leaders the topic often turns to ‘nurturing your network’ – what that means and how to do it.   It is especially important when approaching retirement when one leaves the natural network of an organization.

Our social networks begin early and remain throughout our lives, if we nurture them.

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How Optimistic Are You For 2017?

I’ve been listening to conversations and asking the question.

Some are cautiously optimistic; others pessimistic, a few seem to be hunkering down waiting for the apocalypse.

Late in 2016, Thomas Friedman published his most extensive book yet – Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

I began reading the book wondering about the source of his optimism.   Why does he believe we can thrive going forward?

Friedman describes his book as “one giant column” – 450 pages – about how our lives are being affected by three global changes, accelerating all at once: technology (Moore’s Law), globalization (the Market) and climate change (Mother Nature).

All of them are as threatening as they may be promising.

The title Thank You For Being Late is a comment Friedman made to a guest who showed up late for a breakfast appointment. Rather than an inconvenience he saw it as an opportunity to pause for what he calls ‘moral reflection’ in his otherwise unpredictable fast paced world.   Something he recommends we all do, faced as we are by inevitable disruptive changes in our lives.


The future of computer technology and Internet communication is a mixed blessing.   AI (artificial intelligence) will go beyond winning at Jeopardy, making decisions better than humans.   Robots will take over most manufacturing jobs. For better or worse social media can connect everyone on the planet.   Big Data knows more about us than we know ourselves.   Cyber warfare will be the international conflict of the future among nations.


Globalization is rapidly replacing national boundaries.   We can’t build walls high enough to keep the world at bay.   Everything we buy, the news we watch, our financial security is affected by uncontrollable events from beyond our boarders.

Climate Change

The planet earth’s biosphere, home for over 7 billion people, is deteriorating as we continue to fowl our own nest. Mother Nature, the whole global ecosystem, is being reshaped.

Friedman is not optimistic that these three accelerations, on their own, will help us ‘thrive.’  He warns that without intervention, technology, globalization and climate change are likely to cause more harm than good.

We are, he writes,

‘at a fork in the road where one of us could kill all of us or all of us could fix everything if we really decided to do so.’

He is confident that we can thrive since we have the capacity to innovate and adapt whatever the circumstances.

Beyond that we need what he calls a moral revolution, a revolution as surprisingly simple as it is difficult – a revolution from self-interest to the collective good initiated at a very personal level.

‘When I think of this challenge on a global scale, my own short prescription is that we need to find a way to get more people to practice the Golden Rule.’

Therein is Friedman’s source of optimism – not from the mega changes disrupting our lives but in small one-to-one relationships, something we can all do, every day – treating others as we would like to be treated – an admonition, he reminds us, found in every major religious tradition.

In a chapter near the end of his book Friedman asks, “Is God in Cyberspace?” a place, ‘where we are all connected and no one is in charge.’

His answer is “no” — “but He wants to be there.” God is not going to intervene to solve our problems.   However, as Friedman believes – “He is truly manifest if we all choose sanctity and morality in an environment where we are all free to choose anything.”

For the revolution to gain traction he says we need leaders “to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change.”

That may be some of the best advice for all of us including leaders in any profession for 2017 and beyond – face reality and make change.

In a sentence, the message of the book is: While none of us alone can control technology, globalization and climate change, together we can thrive, if we advance a moral revolution for the collective good.

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