Last week, I decided to forego the mall and take my 11-year old son Santiago to a secondhand store to purchase him some dress clothes for a friend’s wedding. As I was hunting for suits in the boys department, Santi went on his own hunting trip and returned a few minutes later clutching a marble trophy and looking me right in the eyes. “Can I get this?” he asked. I looked more closely at the trophy and saw it had an engraving:
A courageous individual constitutes a majority.
I asked him why he wanted it. He said, “It will remind me to always stand up for what I believe in no matter what other people think.” I paused for a moment. Then, I looked at Santi and realized again how fortunate I was to live with one of my greatest teachers.
The engraving on the trophy inspired me to reflect more on courage, and the courageous individuals it might be referring to. Of course, Rosa Parks came to mind, as well as the young Chinese student who stood against the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. I also thought of Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, who singlehandedly blocked the vote on a bill which would have extended unemployment benefits to millions of laid-off workers. There was no doubt in my mind that these individuals firmly and passionately believed in what they were doing, and whether one agrees with their opinions and tactics or not, their courage could not be denied.
But there is a fine line between courage and foolishness. I believe that line is defined by timing, context, the message, and the messenger.
In 1863, nearly one hundred years before Mrs. Parks boarded that historic bus, Mrs. Charlotte L. Brown took a seat in the mid-section of a San Francisco railcar and was forcibly removed by the driver. Both Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Parks were African-American women of a similar age living under oppressive conditions. They posed no threat to others, but simply were tired and wanted to take an empty seat. So the context, message and messengers were much the same in both situations. But the timing was not right for Mrs. Brown and she all but disappeared from our history books. But for Mrs. Parks, history and society proved that the timing was right for her action to have a larger impact.
Likewise for Senator Bunning, he stood his ground as his allies continued to withdraw their support. Was he falling victim to timing or context? Perhaps his message was misdirected, or he was simply the wrong person to deliver it. Whatever the reason, his show of courage was quickly slipping into an act of foolishness.
Wise leaders need to have the courage to stand by their convictions no matter what. But they also need to look around and see who is listening. Are their listeners leaning forward with piqued interest or are their arms crossed with impatience and disinterest? Is this the right moment?
Senator Bunning decided that it was not his right moment. Mind you, I can’t really know whether he waffled on his beliefs and convictions; but his change in tactics suggest that he understood the time was not right and no one was standing with him.
As leaders committed to social change, we need to be mindful of our timing, context, messages and messengers.
Thinking, communicating and planning strategically are keys in assuring success. Much of my work involves getting organizations and communities on the same page with their mission, vision, values and strategic direction. And when that happens, the courageous individual can rest assured that her opinion will have a great and lasting impact.
P.S. Santi’s trophy is sitting on his bookcase. We also got him a designer suit, a shirt, tie and a pair of dress shoes – all for twenty-four dollars – and he looked impeccable. So the moral of this story is to check out your local secondhand store. You never know what treasures might await you.