In business, we often think of leadership as a set of skills. Innovating products. Managing risk. Developing talent. Cutting costs. Inspiring employees.
But Monday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley reminded us of the essential driver behind great leadership, beyond all of those important skill-sets.
In the aftermath of the tragic, hate-filled acts of domestic terrorism at Emanuel AME Church, it was not only action that was needed from the figurehead of South Carolina, but a clear moral stand. These murders come on the heels of months of interracial polarization, violence and pain. We’ve all heard the declaration that Black Lives Matter, as a recurring chant of protest. But changed only slightly, that statement becomes an aching, vulnerable question: Do black lives matter? Imagine a protestor sincerely asking: My fellow Americans, does my life matter, to you?
These questions have tormented America since its inception, and have come back now with a wrenching urgency.
In your mind’s eye, picture these nine innocent people in Charleston, simply going to church to join in community, to study the Bible, to praise and give thanks to God. And then, in their house of worship, a sanctuary, a place of refuge, they are gunned down. If those souls could look you in the eye right now, they might whisper these same questions to you: Does my life matter? Does it matter to you? In the face of this intentional, murderous ending of my life, will you take a stand and say “no more?”
Earlier this week, in an act of leadership and moral courage, Nikki Haley answered these crucial questions with a resounding yes. She moved swiftly yet respectfully to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds. Yes, she answered, black lives do matter. Your life matters. Enough is enough.
Haley’s moral courage provides a range of lessons about leadership.
For one thing, she showed the willingness to change course. In Haley’s five years in office, she maintained the view that the flag wasn’t a pressing issue, saying she could live with the compromise reached about where it now stands. In light of this, the safe play would have been to put the ball in the legislature’s court. They are the ones who have the power to remove the flag, after all, and many Republican Presidential candidates were content to play it safe by dodging the question and leaving it to the legislators. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and former nominee Mitt Romney were notable exceptions.
Bravely, Haley chose the bolder path. “We are here today to say it’s time to remove the flag from Capitol grounds,” she said. It was no mere rhetoric either. She backed up her conviction by promising to use her authority to call the general assembly back into session to get the ball rolling on removing the flag.
Second, she acted for the common good in a step that could jeopardize her own interests. Before last week’s ambush, 61% of people in South Carolina favored keeping the flag on the grounds of the state capitol. At first, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham defended the Confederate flag, claiming that it was “part of who we are” and not to be blamed for the act of a deranged killer. Yesterday, when asked why he didn’t immediately come out in favor of moving the flag, Graham said, “I’m a politician. I count votes.”
To her credit, Haley did not just do the right political thing, but the right moral thing. She put her own professional future in question by risking the support of conservatives in her state and in her party, who viscerally oppose her stance. She didn’t wait to count the votes. She led the way.
By today, it’s already tempting to some people to minimize her courage, because public opinion and even large corporations have adopted her view. But don’t forget, that wasn’t yet true a mere 48 hours ago, when she took her bold stand.
Third, she uplifted the dialogue on the flag issue by putting the focus where it belongs. Not on celebrating heroes of the past whose dreams were rooted in the soil of racist violence, and whose racial supremacy inspired the very hate crime that is shaking the nation. “My hope,” she said, “is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move our state forward in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven.”
Without a doubt, Haley’s speech on Monday turned the tide.
One by one, leaders of southern states have aligned behind the cause of removing the symbol that has caused so much pain. In Mississippi, GOP House Speaker Phillip Gunn said that it was time for his state to change its flag, which has been emblazoned with the Confederate insignia. In Tennessee, leaders across political lines are calling for the removal of Confederate symbols for their state flag. Similar discussions are being held in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Only the power of moral leadership could have wrought such a change.
As I reflect on the impact of Governor Haley’s speech I’m reminded of what another conservative leader has said on the importance of moral courage. “[N]o weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women,” Ronald Reagan said. As leaders, if we want to win the fight to make sure that we are all free, that every life matters, we must be prepared to do the right thing.
Because, in the words of the courageous Governor Haley, “it’s time.”