Saturday, January 26, 2008


This commentary appeared in The Fargo Forum newspaper on Sunday, January 27, 2008.

Senator John Kerry said recently:

There are moments when America is ready to move in a different direction. I believe this is one of those moments. Barack Obama has the ability to be a transformational leader.

The theme of this presidential election is change. All the candidates say they are the one to bring forth renewal in America.

Are they, including Senator Obama, transformational leaders?

Our great success as a nation sets us up for decline as is always the case; we are not exempt from the patterns of history. Our problems are many: war, energy, education, health care, global warming, globalization, immigration, social security, an economic downturn, and our international relationships. The thinking that gave us continual progress in the past does not solve our problems today.

Our nation is in dire need of a transformational leader.

To avoid catastrophe Americans must look to new leaders with new energy and new ideas. Not all change is good. The change they lead must be guided by a renewed sense of commitment to our eternal values and core purpose as articulated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Transformation is not about a change in appearances, a reinvention of the status-quo, a repeat of the past, or quick-fixes to difficult problems. Transformation creates something never seen before. Something not foreshadowed or predicted by the past. Transformational leaders bring something new into being.

Such leaders have the ability to connect with the hopes and dreams of people and make them real. They inspire belief in a new idea or vision, they mobilize people around that idea, and they create a movement that takes us places we’ve never been before. They do not buy votes with false promises.

Transformational leaders are: passionate, courageous, single-minded, and have a strong value system—they stand for something, and they tell the truth about what is right and wrong in our society. They can also be ruthless, humorless, and self-absorbed as they fight for difficult change.

Like explorers transformational leaders are courageous in their pursuit of their vision. They are people of action—bold, tough, and with no illusions about threats to our freedom. They are real, complete, and mature people—they ring true. They exude the leadership we want to see in the world.

Transformational leaders embrace inevitable conflict in their fight for justice and fairness. They are willing to make enemies. They do not shun conflict; they confront it, exploit it, and ultimately embody it.

Transformation begins with hope, faith, imagination, and courage not experience in the old ways. Because transformation is from something familiar to something new, transformational leaders often do not have experience in what they advocate.

No first term president has ever been president before. No job prepares a person to be president. Abraham Lincoln served a single undistinguished term in the House of Representatives. Beware of claims of “vast experience.” Look for wisdom, compassion, and judgment often born in loss and suffering and rooted in diverse life experience.

Who can best lead and guide us through change that is increasingly rapid, complex, turbulent, and unpredictable? Who best can bring forth our vast untapped human potential? Who has the best instincts for navigating chaos?

Most of the candidates are not transformational leaders. Some are reformers: people who want to improve on existing programs and approaches. That is not sufficient today. Others are phonies too eager to win.

What qualities of transformational leadership do you see in the presidential candidates? Which candidates ring true? Whose life experiences fit the times in which we live? Who exudes character? Who can be elected?

Our choice might determine our national fate: glory or decline.