Sep 15

Courage is the Key to Great Leadership

What does it mean to be a great leader? As a new member of the Presidential Leadership Academy, this question has been rattling around in my brain for a few months now. Is it honesty? Intelligence? The ability to mediate a situation, or organizational skills? If you google “qualities of a great leader,” you’ll come across a virtual heap of different traits, a never ending parade of virtues which each seem to outweigh the last. It’s overwhelming, to be honest. Out of this mess, one clear question arises: Where do I start?

Aristotle had an idea about 2,300 years ago. “Courage,” he said, “is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees the others.” In other words, any great trait or skill a person has will always remain hidden unless they have the courage to use it (Aristotle). You can’t be honest if you don’t have the courage to tell the truth. You can’t be innovative if you don’t have the courage to try new things. And these aren’t the only leadership qualities that would be affected. Confidence, decisiveness, and trust are just a few of the traits that suffer in the absence of courage.

Most of the theory going into this entry comes from a remarkable article by Bill Treasurer, whose title is the eponym of my own post’s. In it, Treasurer asserts that “all courageous acts represent one or more of three main types of courage.” We can look at them now to better understand how courage plays an innate role in practically every aspect of leadership.

Type 1: Try Courage. This, Treasurer says, is “the courage of initiation and action.” This is the type of courage you use by stepping up to the plate in a challenging situation; it’s even used when you decide to become a leader in the first place. It’s what’s invoked when you’re trying something new–perhaps pioneering new projects no one else has tried before either. Try courage involves being innovative, and not being dissuaded by the difficulties of fielding problems you aren’t used to having. This is the quality that drives all modernization and departure, and it’s a crucial for leaders in a world that’s developing as fast as ours.

Type 2: Trust Courage, or “the courage of confidence in others,” is the courage that allows a leader to delegate responsibilities to others without being paranoid that they will somehow muck it up (Treasurer). It’s the lack of fear needed to let go of control in certain situations. Perhaps most importantly, it means being open to new ideas and directions suggested by others. As Winston Churchill put it, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” The best leaders are good listeners. But to really be able to consider new ideas, leaders must have the courage to let go of control and trust that another person’s way of doing things may be better for the group (Churchill).

Type 3: Tell Courage. This type of courage is all about using your words, harking back to the first half of the aforementioned quote by Churchill. The courage of voice is essential when it becomes necessary to bring attention to an issue that is uncomfortable, but must be addressed. It’s also often useful when providing tough feedback, and especially when sharing an opinion you know will be unpopular (Treasurer). Most of the time it’s easier to stay silent about a problem, because making people dislike you is a very real fear which I think we can all relate to. However, every leader will come across situations where critical, uncomfortable discussion is essential to progress, and whether this happens can often be the difference between success and failure. In these cases, tell courage is of vital importance.

From these categories, we can derive even more qualities of a great leader. Not only do all superb leaders possess a great deal of courage, they also try more, trust more, and tell more than others.

Being brave is not easy or pleasant. Most of the time, it involves dealing with something distressing, frightful, or overwhelming. The good news is that everyone has the ability to be courageous. Fear, by all rights, is simply an invitation to courage, and as future leaders, we all have already accepted this invitation. Now it’s our turn to put that courage inside of people, helping them to develop as we try, trust, and tell our way to becoming a better leader.

Aristotle. “Aristotle Quotes.” Brainy Quote. Brainy Quote, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

Churchill, Winston. “Winston Churchill Quotes.” Brainy Quote. Brainy Quote, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

Treasurer, Bill. “Courage is the Key to Great Leadership.” Octane Magazine. Entrepreneurs’ Organization, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

Sep 15

The Ethics of Environmental Justice

This week in class we had some lengthy discussion about the many aspects of ethics, morals, and fairness. Today I’d like to apply what we deliberated on to an often overlooked subject pertaining to all three of these concepts: Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (United States Environmental Protection Agency). In other words, it involves making sure that everyone is able to partake equally from the boons their environment provides.

To be clear, a person’s local environment is a resource, in this sense. A clean, healthy environment, in fact, is what’s called a public good–something everyone is able to use and benefit from, since no one owns it (If it was owned, it would be called a “private” good)(EconPort). This is why my post today is titled “The Ethics of Environmental Justice,” rather than the “Morals” or “Fairness.” Ethics are basically morals held up at the cultural/societal level, and the value of shared public goods is clearly institutionalized–it’s even supported by law, in many cases. As with fire departments and paved roads, the environment is something we don’t need any qualifications to use. It belongs, in part, to everyone, so everyone should have their fair share of the benefits… right?

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever travelled between rich and poor communities that, regardless of how the environment should be treated as a public good, it certainly is not. For example: Ever notice how wealthier communities not only have nicer houses, but also cleaner air, more public parks and gardens, and stores that sell healthier food? Or how poorer communities (especially ones highly populated by racial minorities) are often very polluted, with trash in their streets, smog in their air, with hardly any food options in their vicinity besides some drug stores or a fast food restaurant (Mohanty)? It’s because the richer population has turned a clean environment into a private good.

When wealthy people are unhappy about something, they have the resources (i.e. money, stocks) to make it worth a company’s while to make it go away. So if a rich community doesn’t want a factory pumping grime into their air and water, for example, the company that owns that factory will relocate it to a place where those wealthy people won’t complain: a poorer community. Granted, the residents of that poor community may very well complain, but unlike the wealthy, they have no financial standing to influence a company which is only interested in money (Mohanty). Similarly, if a rich community wants a public park, or a store that sells lots of organic produce, they have the money to build and/or entice businesses to come install these things. Poor communities do not, and are left with their littered streets and greasy food. Since the companies that often dictate how clean an environment is are almost always driven by money, richer communities have the ability to literally buy a better environment, while poor communities continue to live in squalor (Mohanty)(Shiva). Remember, buying something can easily be equated with owning it, and once it’s owned, a good is no longer a public resource (EconPort).

To help put this in perspective, we can observe a fairly recent occurrance. California’s been going through a very bad drought this year. So bad, in fact, that the state’s governor Jerry Brown had to issue an executive order that all cities and municipalities cut water consumptions by 25-36%. This might seem like a fair way of balancing the shortage, but some of the more affluent Californians were quick to disagree. Steve Yuhas fumed on social media, “[People] should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful” (Durden). Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy estate of Rancho Santa Fe, a practical Versailles of Southern California ranches, gated communities, and country clubs which easily consume five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In an interview, Yuhas defended his first statement with the argument that he paid “significant” property taxes in order to live where he did. “And, no,” he added for good measure, “we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” When Governor Brown called for a reduction in water consumption by 25%, Rancho Santa Fe’s consumption rose by 9% (Durden).

I wonder, Yuhas, who do you consider unequal to you when it comes to the consumption of the most basic, organic, life-giving substance? The people who aren’t as wealthy as you? Or the racial minorities associated with that lack of wealth?

A strikingly similar example of this exploitation of the poor communities occurred in India when a Coca-cola plant was discovered to have been siphoning water out of a reserve poor Indians had been using to feed and water their families. Eventually the plant was coaxed into finding water elsewhere, but by then those who had been relying on the water source–who were already suffering in extreme poverty–had been forced to live in drought-like conditions for months (Shiva). This is an instance where, rather than have a large factory destroying their own landscape, American investors outsourced the environmental repercussions to a much poorer region, while simultaneously managing to pay its workers there significantly less than anything they’d make in the United States (Shiva).

There are many more examples of this sort of outsourcing, exploitation, and assumed ownership of the environment on the part of rich individuals and corporations, but I think by now you’ve got the idea. The environment, which should be the most implicite of all public goods, is being bought and sold exclusively by the wealthy elite. And hardly anything is being done to stop it. I didn’t come to you today with a solution, but I do hope this has brought this important issue of Fairness (with the capital “F”) to your attention. Rancho Santa Fe and Coca-Cola got away with what they did with barely a slap on the wrist, and they aren’t the only ones. My question to you is, what more can we do in order to stop environmental injustice?

Durden, Tyler. “‘We’re Not All Equal When It Comes to Water’ –Rich Californians Blast Conservation Efforts.” ZeroHedge. ZeroHedge.com/ABC Media, LTD, 16 June, 2015. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

“Environmental Justice.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 June, 2015. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Duke University Press, 10 Jan. 2013. Print.

“Private Goods v. Public Goods.” EconPort. Experimental Economics Center, 2006. Web. 8 Sept., 2015.

Shiva, Vandana. “Vandana Shiva: Our Violent Economy is Hurting Women.Yes Magazine. n.p., 18 Jan, 2013. Web. 12 Dec., 2013.

Aug 15

Lose Yourself in Service

When people ask me what I do in my free time, the first thing out of my mouth is almost invariably, “community service.” I’ve been volunteering through various organizations since I was six years old. First, it was Girl Scouts, which I stuck with for eleven years, going so far as to earn my Gold Award my senior year of high school. When I was fifteen I joined a group called FISH, a Presbyterian youth group which was open to all faiths and which made yearly trips down to Pittsburgh in order to help local volunteers with the homeless situation there. Now in college, I’m a member of a student org called ServeState, which has me doing more volunteering than I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, I’ve been elected service coordinator for this semester, meaning it’s my responsibility to plan and run the multitude of service events our group is involved in each week.

Outside of school, this work dominates my life; between planning each venture, participating in the actual events, and following up on our group’s performance, I spend around ten hours each week focussed solely on community service. It makes keeping up with school work a constant battle (I’m taking nineteen credits and two honors-level classes), and my social life outside my club rarely extends beyond some nice chats, which occur during power-walks between whatever projects I’m working on at the time.

Sometimes it can be beyond exhausting. But I wouldn’t trade out of this responsibility if you paid me. Here’s why:

I know what I’m about to say is bound to sound abominably cliche, but I’ll run the risk. Service has changed my life. It has so in a multitude of ways. I’m sure you’ve heard of people returning from mission trips or volunteering excursions with stories about their “new lust for life” and how “their eyes were opened to the world.” Kind of melodramatic, right? Wrong. In my experience, the act of serving those less fortunate than you does just that: opens you up to a fuller, healthier life. But this time, you don’t have to take a starry-eyed volunteer’s word for it. This time, I come bearing proof.

 In 2013, a study released by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute has shown volunteering to be linked to better mental, emotional, and even physical health. “These findings,” the study states, “show that the benefits of volunteering help strengthen communities and have real, measurable health benefits for the people who volunteer” (UnitedHealth Group). The study sorts these positive benefits into four categories.

The first is, quite generally, health. People who volunteer regularly simply report feeling healthier and happier (Optum Health). I can’t help but relate. A hard day of service–whether it’s washing dishes at a soup kitchen, doing yard work for a nonprofit, or painting the walls of a homeless shelter–might tire you out, but the exercise always leaves behind a satiated feeling. Not only did you just get a good workout, but you also experience the added feeling of accomplishment that comes with helping to make a community stronger.

This in particular may assist in explaining the second benefit: lower levels of stress. Those who volunteer often report a better ability to manage and minimize stress (UnitedHealth Group). This comes as no surprise, especially when you consider how exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones (WebMD). But even people who participate in forms of service with no physical activity involved exhibit less signs of stress than those who don’t volunteer at all. And it probably has a lot to do with the next benefit of service.

Volunteers often feel a deeper connection to their communities and to those around them, often leading them to derive a sense of purpose from their work. This purpose almost inevitably leads to greater self confidence, as well as an enthusiastic work ethic (HelpGuide.org). I know the purpose I gained while volunteering throughout my childhood has influenced me in particular, pushing me to pursue my current career goal of working to improve the poorer communities of North Africa. The feeling of pride and pleasure one feels after visibly boosting the quality of someone’s life, even just a little, is enough to keep you coming back. Each experience builds on one another until service becomes a lifestyle, and the things you learn throughout your work are firmly ingrained in your personal identity.

The things you learn as you volunteer have a lot to do with the fourth benefit, which is engagement. Simply by working with many different organizations, volunteers tend to learn a lot more about their community than those who do not (HelpGuide.org). And some of the things you learn can be quite enlightening. I often talk about my trips to Pittsburgh with FISH as one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. As we worked with the network of homeless shelters throughout the city, I remember talking to several of the residents. I learned a lot about them–how they lost their homes, what their childhood was like, and how they were getting by now when they had so little. I learned that most of them had worked, and continue to work, extremely hard, and that they still had dreams for a better future–a sharp contrast to the American stereotype that casts homeless people as lazy freeloaders mooching off of taxpayer money. Had I not volunteered in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I ever would have understood the extent of the disadvantage some experience in our country, simply by being born into the wrong neighborhood.

There are more benefits to service work. I’m sure I could write a book about it, if I had the time. But a few things are certain:

Service makes you healthier. Service makes you happier. Service makes you more knowledgeable about the world around you, introduces you to some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, and reacquaints us to one of the most simple pleasures of being human; watching your community blossom from the work you did with your own two hands. So try it for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find that those who lose themselves in service are the ones who have the most to gain.

“Exercise and Depression.” WebMD. WebMD, LLC, 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

“Study Reveals Volunteering Makes Positive Impact on People’s Health.” News Medical. AZO Network, 19 June, 2013. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

“Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits.” HelpGuide.org. Helpguide.org, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

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