DR. CUMMINGS: Clap your hands!

September 22, 2013 

What makes us clap our hands and cheer and whistle and shout? Touchdowns? Concerts? A baby learning to walk? Of course.

What about Leadership? Are we clapping now that we have the leaders we voted for? Are we looking at honorable, unselfish, truthful and responsible leaders? Are we watching leaders who keep their promises when breaking them would be so much easier?

When I was in the Vatican in 1959, Pope John XXIII was the leader of the Catholic Church. He was a lot like our present pope, Francis. He loved to walk down Via della Conciliazione and mingle with the Italians and the visitors from all over the world. But, like Francis, he knew he had a very difficult job to do. Francis has to battle the Mafia-riddled Vatican Bank; John had to battle the close-minded Italian cardinals.

The cardinals wanted the Church to remain just as it had been for hundreds of years: an exclusive, secretive, rule-bound club. John wanted to open the doors and the windows and the secret archives, and let the fresh air blow in.

I watched Pope John address 80 Cardinals in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on Via Merulana one hot Roman day. It was not pretty. He explained in detail his plan for a huge convention; it would be called the 2nd Vatican Council, and he would invite men, and even women, from around the world to update the dogmas and traditions of the Catholic Church. When he finished his exciting, world-changing speech, not one cardinal clapped. Not one.

Leadership is not easy; sometimes nobody claps. Who claps when you have to “ground” your disobedient son? Who claps when you have to fire the guy who’s been working here for six years but never shows up for work? Who claps when you have to tell your best friend that you lied to him last week? Nobody. But if we’re going to be leaders, we have to move forward and suck it up. That’s what leaders do. They lead even when nobody claps.

Lee Ellis wrote the gripping book: “Leading with Honor, Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton” in which he describes the leadership lessons he learned as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, watching his wounded officers still leading their men. These American officers were beaten, tortured, starved and humiliated, but, Lee says, they picked themselves up and continued to lead with unselfish courage. And nobody clapped.

This week each one of us will face a decision; it might be small or it might be big. But it’ll be a decision that calls for leadership. We made a promise and now it’s time to deliver; or we’re in charge and a change must be made; or our family depends on us to do this. We won’t have a brass band playing or flags waving or crowds cheering. It’ll be very lonely and quiet. It may even be embarrassing. Worse yet, we might be threatened or challenged; the objections might be overwhelming. But we’re going to do it; we’re going to exercise our leadership. And someday, many years from now -- we will think back on this day the way Lee Ellis thinks back on Vietnam and the way I think back on Rome, and we will put our hands together and clap and clap and clap.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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