Two men walk into a bar. The first man shouts, “The buck stops here!” and demands a shot of whiskey. The second man stands on a barstool yelling, “I don’t take responsibility at all!” and orders a hamburger with fries.
Which man can claim the title of President of the United States?
President Harry S. Truman immortalized the first saying with a plaque positioned prominently on his Oval Office desk. President Donald J. Trump smugly proffered the second expression at a Rose Garden press conference.
Leadership Isn’t Just a Title
Taking responsibility instead of blaming others is a basic tenet of practicing good leadership. No self-respecting leader would disown accountability as Trump does nearly every day while the country he purports to lead confronts the coronavirus pandemic.
The president displayed precisely this lack of leadership this week when he decided to stop funding the World Health Organization with the excuse of investigating the organization’s poor performance. He prioritized his ego in the face of an existential crisis.
Leadership is a State of Heart and Mind
From my vantage point, the leadership buck stops here: people practice leadership as an expression of who they are.
Trump’s poor leadership runs deeper than a series of bad decisions. The lying, the distortions, the shifting blame, the cruelty, the willful ignorance, the mean-spirited rhetoric, the misinformed proclamations and the hypocritical behaviors – all show us what he’s made of. It shows us who he is.
Metaphorically, Trump resides in darkness. In literature, the foreboding black sky of night represents a spiritual darkness. In a leader it’s a timeless symbol of human brokenness, of a person whose heart is filled with selfishness, hatred, or moral blindness.
Light is a timeless symbol, too. It represents knowledge, wisdom, revelation, goodness, love. Away from the Oval Office, heroes and heroines are leading from such hearts of light.
The people truly leading through the coronavirus disaster – in the emergency room, in the statehouse, in the virtual conference room or in the grocery store – understand their role as stewards for the greater good. They embrace the chance to do what’s right even at serious risk to themselves.
When this is all over – the lethal spread of Covid-19 and the Trump presidency – we will have a modern cautionary tale of what happens when a person without light in his heart comes to power.