When Pete Seeger died in January, we lost an American musical icon. We also lost a leader, and we who have dedicated our lives to guiding others toward positive change can learn a lot from his approach.
Pete wasn’t an institutional leader, per se, although he and his wife, Toshi, founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., starting in 1966. The Seegers used the boat and Pete’s inspirational tunes to make a real difference. You can swim and fish in the Hudson now, and the river has regained its health.
Pete’s leadership came mostly through his music. He created tunes that playfully and pointedly described our beautiful yet broken world, inviting us all to remake it, together.
He also knew how to build community. His concerts were not so much performances as they were sing-alongs. While most musicians (and leaders) want you to be impressed by their cleverness and skill, Pete’s shows united his audiences in a common sense of joy, motivating them to make a difference in their daily lives and in a particular social or environmental cause. And somehow, he made humanity and the natural world the centers of our attention, not himself. Never himself.
This kind of leadership is rare, and I wonder, as institutional life in our country continues to erode, if it will become even less common.
There have always been crooks and despots at the helm of various tribes and nation-states, and recently the world watched in horror as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych directed the slaughter of those protesting his broken promises and financial misdeeds. Leadership by brute force, in any setting, only serves to erode trust, the essential bond of community.
Parents who are good leaders in the home understand the trust factor. Most kids (at least before adolescence) feel as though they should obey their parents, no matter what. However, when children can truly trust that their parents will love them consistently and gently, provide for them, keep them safe, and set appropriate limits on their own behavior, they will follow their parents to the ends of the earth if asked.
Leadership in the business world can be tricky in that it’s not only about guiding a group of people in a common cause. Quarterly reports show whether profits are high enough, and if they’re not, the leader is usually considered a failure. However, the best management minds know that, given a good business model, performance will improve if employees feel a sense of responsibility to one another and to the customer.
As the pastor of a church, my role is multifaceted. I am a theologian-in-residence, a steward of sacred rites, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, a shoulder to lean on in difficult times, and sometimes a secretary and janitor. Unless I am also a leader, I will be ineffective in all the rest.
In the world of religious institutions, leadership matters much more than many think. Even if everyone is very faithful and very kind, your church, synagogue, temple, or mosque will fail without solid ordained and lay leadership, working in partnership.
Let’s spend more time and energy in our families, schools, religious groups, and sports teams teaching our kids the leadership skills that they will need when they inherit the world. Eventually, they will be in charge, and all of us want them to be prepared and successful. The well being of all we hold dear depends on it.