President’s Day: 4 Virtues of a Leader
Monday, February 17th is Presidents’ Day. The holiday is traditionally the time when we particularly remember two of America’s great leaders: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This year, as we reflect on their abundant virtues, let’s consider them aspirations for our nation’s future presidents.
Humble leaders are not easy to find. But all of the truly great leaders share this quality. They are the kind of people who don’t consider any task beneath them.
A story is told of a soldier who rode out of his encampment on a bitter winter morning and noticed a group of fellow soldiers building a wall. They were struggling to raise a heavy beam to the top of it as their leader stood by giving orders. The rider approached and asked the leader why he did not join in the effort to lift the timber. The startled man responded, “But I’m a corporal, sir!”
The stranger dismounted his horse, approached the struggling crew, and with all his strength, helped them to set the beam in place. Then he said to the corporal, “The next time you have a piece of timber for your men to handle, send for your commander-in-chief.” The helpful, humble stranger was none other than George Washington himself.
Today’s American president is unlikely to be in the woods where soldiers need help with literal “heavy lifting.” But we should seek one who is neither too lofty to be concerned with the needs and problems of regular people, nor so prideful as to think of others as helpless dependents.
There is another aspect of humility, too, that is essential to good leadership. It’s the willingness to learn from others; the teachable spirit. In other words, it takes a measure of humility to become wise.
The book of Proverbs tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus, again, we see the link between wisdom and humility. We also see that wisdom involves, from the very beginning, the recognition of an authority that is above every human being, and an accountability to that authority.
The Proverbs also tell us that one who is wise is both “slow to speak” and “slow to anger.” We should seek leaders who do not speak or behave rashly and are not easily provoked. One of the surest marks of wisdom is the ability to listen first and long, and to show self-control in a challenging or frustrating situation.
Righteousness is a word that gets a bad rap today, and that is unfortunate. I’m not talking about a “holier-than-thou” attitude or the pursuit of legalistic rules with no moral basis. When I say we should seek “righteous” leaders, I mean simply that we should look for individuals who are determined to do what is morally right, in all situations.
Of course, we can only expect this quality in those who acknowledge that some things are morally “right” and others “wrong,” and that these do not change. We often hear people today talk about being “on the right side of history.” Some think that means being able to correctly predict how humans, in the future, will judge our actions today. But the reality does not involve guesswork. What is morally right does not change from one century to the next.
In response to a person who expressed hope that “the Lord is on our side,” Abraham Lincoln once responded, “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”
Our nation will be blessed when we choose leaders who have that earnest desire to discover what is right and to do it, no matter the cost.
Fortitude, or courage, is perhaps the crowning grace of a great leader’s qualities. As C.S. Lewis explained, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
In other words, fortitude is the strength and integrity to act according to what one has humbly learned to be right — no matter the cost. In today’s society, where so many feel unconstrained by moral law and some even mock virtuous behavior, this strength of character is more important than ever.
On this year’s Presidents’ Day, let us pray that these traits would grow in abundance in our current and future leaders.
Rita Dunaway is a constitutional attorney, the author of Restoring America’s Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture and co-host of the weekly radio program, “Crossroads: Where Faith and Culture Meet.”