When I was elected NYSUT president in 2005, one of my first responsibilities was to address the closing session of NYSUT's Leadership Institute. I had just returned from Chicago, where the national AFL-CIO went through a grueling battle over leadership that ended with a walkout before the convention ever began. The walkout led to a loosely held together band of unions called Change To Win. Unfortunately, time has demonstrated that nobody won. Today, it's rare for anyone to refer to Change To Win as a real federation; the AFL-CIO has not regained its full strength; and pacts between groups of unions to safeguard their turf have undermined the notion of one national labor movement. Sad but true.
I suggested to the institute graduates that a very small part of the fight in Chicago was about issues, although there was certainly a lot of frustration and concern about the attacks on labor and our diminishing presence in the work force. In fact, I argued, the split was about ego and a power grab.
Ego, of course, is part of leadership. The more someone denies it, the more likely they are consumed by it. That's not to say ego is bad. In one of his most famous sermons, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it as "drum major instinct — a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.'' Dr. King's concern, of course, was with those who achieved leadership by bending the truth, violating the law or promoting evil, as in the case of what he termed "tragic race prejudice.''
The key to taking advantage of the instinct to lead is the ordering of priorities. Is your goal to advance a vision, let's say of equity and fairness, or is your end goal self-aggrandizement or advancing your own ego by grabbing and concentrating power? Dr. King wanted to be remembered as a drum major, but as a drum major for peace, for justice, for righteousness.
For those of you who are local leaders and local presidents, you, just like me, can probably admit to ego being at least part of what you do, if not why you do it. You are on the front lines. That front line, I told the class of 2005, is not the last line of defense, but the first line of offense. You make decisions. Sometimes you make them after long deliberations, sometimes because you've prepared your members for the possible outcomes and sometimes from the instincts and skills that led your members to place you in a position of leadership. As John F. Kennedy said in his preface to "Profiles in Courage," leaders aren't put in office to be a "seismograph" measuring the rumbling back home, but rather to lead with the vision that brought them into office.
As a leader, the decisions you make must always be about your vision and never about fear of criticism. To lead is to take the initiative, leveraging your strength and understanding your limitations.
NYSUT is blessed with leaders at every level who understand that we are strong because together we are willing to lead. Leaders, great leaders like so many of you, are not afraid of missteps in the process because you know that the missteps are far outweighed by the successes.
Sisters and brothers, Theodore Roosevelt, almost a century ago, said it best:
"It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the bestknows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
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