“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The last 48 hours in America have brought Charles Dickens’ words into drastic relief. It started with an exemplary act of leadership by 50 prominent Republicans. An inspiring act. A noble one. Their Open Letter was courageous and uplifting as it transcended politics for the sake of principles. It was a proud moment for civil discourse, for what is best in America. Their willingness to draw a line in the sand for what is right and what is good brought honor to the practice of leadership.
By the very next day, the basic fabric of our nation was hanging in the balance. Put there by a leader whose prominence is matched by few others at the moment. He is the nominee for President of one of our two major political parties. Alluding to, or possibly even inviting, the assassination of our President or Supreme Court justices as a legitimate form of political disagreement. As the rest of the world looks upon us, we hang our heads in shame. Does this represent leadership to us? Until all of our national leaders condemn him, in no uncertain terms, he does these repugnant things in our name.
As a leadership expert and adviser to senior leaders around the world, I promise you they are watching. While reasonable people can disagree about the attributes of leadership, few would take issue with this one: leaders don’t shy away from speaking hard truths. On the contrary, when a moment of truth arrives, they rise to it.
Make no mistake. Our defining leadership moment is here.
Leadership in Moments of Truth
In my work with senior executives, we often talk about how to handle “moment of truth” conversations. In that context, people need to deliver confronting feedback, or walk away from a business deal while maintaining the relationship. Business leaders need to speak hard truths with clarity and skill. This isn’t easy.
One reason it’s tough to rise to the occasion is that we have few role models who do it well. Another reason is that people tend to ‘shoot the messenger.’ In business, this is just a metaphor, meaning you might take the fall for someone else’s poor decision. In politics, this notion is literal. Robert Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin, and Benazir Bhutto are all vivid examples.
The people who signed the Open Letter are more than acquainted with the life-and-death stakes of political life. All of them are national security or foreign policy experts and former senior government officials. All of them know very well the risks of speaking out in such a politically-charged environment as the one we have in America today. They spoke up anyway, loud and clear.
Donald Trump is also well-aware of what he’s doing. He invited gun owners with passion about their Second Amendment rights to take matters into their own hands. Against a potential President and Justices of the Supreme Court. I wasn’t sure if there were any bright lines left that Mr. Trump hadn’t crossed. Any room he’d left open for leaders to reject the sin but embrace the sinner. That line is firmly behind us.
It’s for God or history to bring Trump to his day of reckoning when he’ll be called to account for his actions. What has arrived now is the moment of truth for the rest of us. Do we allow this dangerous person, with vengeance in his heart and violent retaliation on his mind, to hold the mantle of leadership? Do we allow the leaders sitting on the sidelines to continue colluding in his wreckage? The conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke expressed it well when he wrote “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Burke wrote that 200 years ago. Yet its wisdom stares us in the face right now as a poignant challenge. The Republican leaders who denounced Trump’s candidacy answered its call. Those signatories have dedicated their careers to supporting Republican administrations. For many of them, standing for Republican values and policies is fundamental to their identity. Yet they told the American people that they won’t vote for the Republican Party’s Presidential nominee. And they detailed the reasons why. In that act, they brought Burke’s stand to life: There is no claim to goodness for those who do nothing. They also gave us a stunning example of what real leadership looks like.
Enough is Enough: Condemn Him Now
A century and a half after Edmund Burke, a very different political theorist and activist shared his version of Burke’s sentiment. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. said “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Today, as then, there is simply no room for clinging to personal preferences, partisan allegiances, or political ambitions.
To Republicans who are still endorsing Trump: look yourselves in the mirror and ask yourself, “do I stand for my country, or for myself? Am I able to practice leadership, or not?” If you keep your head down and let the clock run, you might not be able to look in the mirror again. Follow the national security experts in your party. Reject his candidacy now.
The choice is clear. As Dickens wrote: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
This is our moment of truth. If you are still on the fence. If you condemn Trump in private but defend him in public. If you reject his statements but endorse his candidacy. Please rise to the occasion.Please choose wisdom and hope. Choose Light. This is the very essence of leadership. And what goodness requires of us all.