“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.” —Will and Ariel Durant, “The Lessons of History.” 1968.
Although history consists of the records of all individuals who lived in time, the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting and the story is littered with tales of heroes and villains. Sometimes these men and women are inadvertently thrust into the annals of history by sheer accident. Many have forged keen purposes and have ridden the forces of history to carve out a niche or have served in a position of titular leadership which gave them a platform for their actions. Their fates and our perceptions of them in the story of history can be interpreted through the lens of does “history create the individual” (Determinist Theory) or does the “individual create history” (Great Man Theory) with admittedly many degrees in between these polarities. Within this arena we can witness the role of the individual in history
In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union inaccurately read the forces of history that were derailing the communist state even though he had introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in 1986 to help preserve the Soviet state from the forces of democracy and capitalism. They were part way reforms designed to ward off the wave of resistance to communist autocracy in Eastern Europe brought on by the thirst for freedom during the culmination of the Cold War. But five years later in 1991, he came to a fork in the path of history and chose to cast his lot with a continuation of the USSR, a much safer course of action than to confront Communist Party leaders and continue an agenda for change but clearly one that ignored the currents of the time. His choice was dramatic and proved historically wrong because he tempted the forces of history. There was a powerful mandate to liberate the governments and people of Eastern Europe from the Soviet authoritarian system and bring them into modern times of the late 20th century. Democracy had prevailed in the Cold War. Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin who by sheer intuition continued to pursue the path of reform. Yeltsin, although flawed as a leader, saw the practicability of releasing the forces of change to liberate Eastern Europe. Gorbachev did not read the currents of change correctly and Yeltsin did.
Contrarily, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, forced with the greatest economic crisis in United States history (Great Depression, 1929-1939), who choose to introduce socialist legislation (Social Security, government-sponsored work projects, price controls, subsidies, etc.) crafted as the New Deal “to save democracy!” This was a radical departure for an American President to reach across the political spectrum to the far Left for solutions to a problem in a democracy. And this was done in a time where the radical philosophies were gaining traction because democracies had seemed inept to handle the unprecedented economic crisis. But Roosevelt determined that democracy was faced with a crisis that it could not solve alone by adhering to doctrinaire practices. He realized the need for pragmatic action. He too came to a fork in the path of history and chose a bold new course with a risk that clearly entailed courage. He correctly read the forces of history. He continues to be ranked by historians as one of the greatest Presidents in United States history.
So there is no mistaking that tales of skilled leaders in their field and in their context have exhibited the knack of being able to read the forces of history and establish a vision and plan of action that others cannot envision or who do not possess the force of will power to communicate and broaden into action. It is the genius leader that is able to take you to a place that you wouldn’t go if they hadn’t led you there. They communicate a clear and attainable vision and compel action by showing a clear path on how to achieve it. It involves taking a risk and exhibiting courage.
Shortly after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, before a joint session of Congress he announced an ambitious goal to land a man on the moon safely and return him to earth before the end of the decade. He consulted with the chief of NASA and was advised that it was a very challenging technological feat but attainable because the United States had a lead in this area of space exploration. The context for Kennedy’s communication of a vision was the success of the Soviet Union’s space program in 1957 when they launched Sputnik and then they followed this up by putting the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. In addition, the Bay of Pigs event, a failed attempt underwritten by the United States at overthrowing Fidel Castro in Cuba, ended in a fiasco and an embarrassing time in Kennedy’s early Presidency. Kennedy looked for a chance to redeem the nation’s status. So he communicated a challenge to NASA and American ingenuity that could save face for the United States in this low point of the Cold War. Enormous expenditures and human effort were provided for what was to be called Project Apollo. Then on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. The vision was realized.
Kennedy had communicated a vision and provided the resources needed within the context of a challenge to the country. He then turned to his scientists and empowered them to carry out the vision. The race to the moon and the bragging rights that went with it was achieved with an optimistic and articulated vision and a clear path to achieve it.
Years earlier, in a much more dire situation, another genius leader stepped up and it is safe to say “save(d) the world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny.” Adolph Hitler had launched his lightning war (blitzkrieg) across all of Europe, destroying governments, enslaving and murdering people and sending Jews and undesirables into concentration death camps. He now stood on the English Channel with an emboldened military swelled by the fruits of victory with only the small nation of Great Britain in his way toward total dominance of Europe. It was in that grim moment that the English people turned to Winston Churchill for some measure of hope. It was in the House of Commons during the Spring of 1940 where he gave his first address as Prime Minister. Churchill delivered his famous “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech and with steely courage he rallied his people to “…wage war, sea, land, and air with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us…”
Churchill realized that there was no other option than victory. The “monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” was a threat to western civilization as a whole. He also trusted that the indefatigable courage of the English people would be aroused and set an example for their ‘cousins’ across the Atlantic to join this monumental struggle. Churchill had a vision of a ‘no option victory’ which would necessitate a titanic effort of people whose backs were against the wall and the confidence that such action would be endorsed and enhanced by the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, the United States of America. He called it “our finest hour.” The results exhibited the vision of Churchill and the rescue of western civilization.
Both of those examples are storied in history because they addressed huge events—The Cold War and World War II. But vision can take place on a more regional or local level
No continent has faced more misery from famine, lack of fresh water, brutal dictators, massive amounts of refugees crossing borders, tribal animosities resulting in years of genocidal warfare, and paramilitary groups that use violence to intimidate and prosecute the opposition, than Africa. And in the midst of all of this turmoil, the people who a society should protect the most were the victims—-women, children, the aged and the poor. Leyman Gbowee of Liberia, an unmarried mother of four who lived in dirt poverty and saw the underside of how young girls and women were abused (she herself was abused by her first partner). Children of 12 were prostituted for less than a dollar a night; rape by a grandfather, uncle, or even a father was not uncommon; teen pregnancy affected 3 out of 10 girls in Liberia; and women were degraded consistently.
On two occasions Leyman failed to protect young girls, one that was called “pig” by the village in which she lived because she had no home and was dirty. Her mother had died in childbirth and the father was unknown. Another woman who was the laughingstock of the village begged Gbowee to take her daughter. She said no both times to rescuing these young girls because she herself lived in dire poverty and had to stay with her parents. She became angry at her own plight and thought about the two lives that she abandoned. Then in a defining moment she asked herself “Where is the hope?” This led her to create the Young Girls Transformative Project. “All we did was to create space. When you create commitment, you unlock intelligence, passion, commitment, focus, great leaders.” Education became the goal of women. Women in Liberia began to feel they had a voice and they worked to protect the rights of other women. When the tyrannical dictator Charles Taylor, who supported a rebel army in neighboring Sierre Leone causing a civil war, threatened the stability in Liberia, Gbowee and her partner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stared him down. He was removed from office and Sirleaf became the first elected black female President and Africa’s first black female government leader. Both received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Gbowee had a vision that had been fueled by years of setbacks and developed a plan to carry it out. WIPNES (Women in Peace and Security Network) exists as a working body to safeguard women’s rights and to advance their opportunities in Africa and Gbowee serves as its executive director.
In the above examples, each individual had to display a measure of courage. Courage can be exhibited in many ways but it always involves taking a risk. Kennedy was taking a risk by challenging the Soviets in a race to the moon. We could have lost the race and in the context of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, and the Bay of Pigs, it would have been another crucial setback in the Cold War. Churchill must have had some fears and doubts about his visionary proclamation. After all, Hitler had rolled up almost all of Europe, had the momentum, and was bent on a course of Nazi world domination. So too Churchill took a risk that involved profound courage. If England had not won the Battle of Britain, Churchill would have gone down in history as a leader who did not possess a grip on the reality of the situation and therefore lost. Gbowee had no pedigree to lead a group of women to change the lives of thousands of other women, challenge a faulty dictator, become a Nobel Peace laureate, deliver a TED talk and export her message to the United States. “I don’t have much to ask of you. Girls in this country have wishes for a better life. A girl in the Bronx…, a girl in downtown LA, a girl in Texas, a girl in New Jersey. All they need to do is to create that space to unlock that intelligence, unlock that passion, unlock that greatness in them. Let’s journey together.” Leymah Gbowee took many risks to fulfill her vision.
Not many of us are in the position of Kennedy, Churchill or Gbowee. Nor will we be faced with such a critical decision as that which faced Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. But there are many times in our lives that we consciously or subconsciously need to exhibit courage. We will have to leave our comfort zone and let go of the familiar. It might mean a complete change in jobs or professions; it could be a move to a different state or country with a purpose in mind; it could be a return to school to get trained in a new skill or profession; it could be a decision about a relationship; or, it could be taking a stand on something that can merit you opposition or unpopularity. And it means that you must have the courage to take a risk and in a sense to be brave. It is so much easier to have life done to you. It involves little energy and results in a passivity. It involves shrugging our shoulders and rationalizing that our fate is what it is. There are no setbacks because there were no attempts to make a change or address a challenge. There is no need to consistently be aware of the landscape of your life to equip yourself with the wherewithal to take on a challenge. And, there is no exhilaration of accomplishment or the peace that comes with knowing you displayed courage and bravery in meeting a challenge.
“Live the Life of Your Dreams: Be brave enough to live the life of your dreams according to your vision and purpose instead of the expectations and opinions of others.” —Roy T. Bennett,
The Light in the Heart.
I think that the important word in Bennett’s quote is brave. Because brave means that you were able to conquer a fear and show courage. Any individual who is facing a situation that can be risky and dangerous has fear. Courage is defeating that fear. There is no courage unless you are scared. When you have fear but still choose to act, that is courage. Fear and courage are brothers. If you don’t experience some fear and even setbacks, you will never be the best you. Fear is universally powerful and courage does not mean that you are not afraid. It means that you have been able to prevail over fear and shown bravery.
You can practice courage often by consistently trying new things. The challenges associated with trying new things produce courage. Big challenges call for big courage but even small ones help to maintain its strength. And rooted inside that action is a vision. It is not always precisely formulated in one’s mind or articulated verbally or in writing but it lies in the very chemistry of the action. Kennedy, Gbowee, and Churchill performed on larger stages but they each faced a challenge, took a risk and showed courage and bravery, and had a vision for their intended results. That is a formula that we can all employ to be the best you.
 Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and sweat” Speech http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/churchill-blood.asp