Friday, May 8, 2009

Leadership and Kairos: The Gay-Rights Tipping Point and Moral Implications for Leaders

Sharon Olds says, “When you speak from your real spot, people are not indifferent,” and Thoreau (Walden) notes, “Our whole life is startlingly moral.”

And I realize as I think about both quotations that my previous reflections on the moral basis of leadership and its connection to securing human rights for gay persons as the civil rights challenge of our time contain a number of assumptions that are never clearly spelled out, and which may cause some readers to miss my point. Because I haven’t articulated the “real spot” from which I’m speaking . . . .

And here’s that real spot: lately, I’ve been watching the horrifying fragmentation of a leader I once admired and supported, the demise of her effectiveness as a leader, the eclipse of her reputation—all rooted in kairotic decisions this leader made about gay persons intimately connected to her as a self-professed transformative leader. At a critical turning point in her career as an academic leader, this administrator was faced with a life-altering decision either to stand by her gay friends and supporters, or to repudiate them. To stand up for what she claimed to believe about gay people and gay rights, or to prove herself false in making those claims.

She chose the latter. And her career is falling apart as a result. The decline in her ability to provide sound, effective leadership in the academic institution she serves is rooted—absolutely so—in crucial choices she has made first to ditch and then to attack a number of gay persons who had been among her strongest and most persistent supporters.

In making the decision to behave this way, this leader gave a clear signal to those she leads that her leadership rests on shaky moral foundations, and the considerable support she had managed to build up for her vision and her strategic plan because people bought into the values underlying both began to evaporate. She is now at a point at which she is embattled on all sides, unable to garner support from almost any quarter, and subject to constant scrutiny and critique, no matter what she does.

People now talk about this leader as someone who would be willing to do almost anything to anybody, no matter how vicious, to save her own skin. If she could treat her friends who happen to be gay the way she chose to treat them at the turning-point moment in her career, while professing to oppose homophobia, what might she do to anyone who has the misfortune to incur her wrath, they ask.

What makes this situation horrifying—tragic, to be precise—is that it could have been avoided. This leader could have come to the kairotic crossroads and walked down the other path, the path consistent with what she claimed to value in academic life: opening doors for the dispossessed, creating an inclusive dialogic community of scholars, helping that community engage the culture at large through public discussions of important issues, and so forth.

Tragic, too, because I happen to know that a number of this leader’s strongest advocates—including the gay persons she kicked to the curb when it was expedient to do so—begged her to take the path she did not take. And warned her that, in taking a path leading to moral bankruptcy, she would tear apart everything she had sought to build as an academic leader, and would destroy her reputation.

In some cases, it clearly makes a huge difference—all the difference in the world—when leaders undermine the moral foundations of their leadership. Granted, this has not always been the case, when gay lives are at stake.

There have been times, in fact, and there are still places, in which leaders actually consolidate their leadership by marginalizing gay persons. The leader whose demise I’m watching works in a church-related college. She is one of several female leaders under whose administrations I was happy to serve in church-owned colleges or universities, precisely because these were women leaders. I think it’s extremely important to create social institutions that provide women as much opportunity as men have to fulfill their talents and exercise leadership.

Because this academic leader works for a church-related college, some of her counselors have persistently cautioned her to take a cautious gradualist approach to gay issues. Some of these counselors have told her to keep silence about gay issues, because those issues are too volatile for most church-affiliated folks to deal with today, and she will impair her reputation if she becomes too identified with gay people and gay causes.

And that approach has worked effectively in any number of church-affiliated colleges and universities for years now: force gay colleagues and employees to remain closeted, and threaten them with punishment if they come out of the closet. While claiming to stand for love and justice, seek to destroy the reputations of gay colleagues and employees who have displeased you, by insinuating every base thing possible about them, knowing that they have little legal recourse to defend themselves in many areas of the country and in many church-related colleges.

And when one thinks about the way power has been stacked (and used) in many church-affiliated colleges for years, one can see how close to impossible it has been for gay members of academic communities to fight and win: I have seen church-related institutions in which leaders use surveillance devices to spy on those they target, and armed guards to intimidate them; in which they compile bogus dossiers full of manufactured documents to support their case against employees they have targeted; in which fancy attorneys earn huge salaries while assisting in the destruction of the livelihood and reputations of gay persons, even as they have to know that their behavior, as advocates of justice, is despicable. And in which boards of trustees sit by in silence as all of this takes place . . . .

However, the climate in American higher education today is rapidly moving away from such homophobic practices. The clear trend in higher education is to open the door as wide for gay persons today as the academy has sought to open it in the past for people of color and women. Though churches and their institutions continue to drag up the rear, it is increasingly difficult to be a persuasive, well-regarded leader in American higher education today, even in church colleges, and to keep silence about gay people and gay issues, or, worse, to engage in overt discriminatory behavior against gay persons.

I want to sketch a context here for a sea-change in some cultures, in which it becomes a moral imperative to oppose homophobia, to break silence about the lives of gay persons and about how saying nothing in the face of injustice implicates one in injustice affecting those lives. Up until recently, the prevailing wisdom in many political quarters, including among many liberal Democratic leaders, is that one would be exceedingly foolish to say too much about gay people and gay issues, or to align oneself too closely with gay lives and causes. The price of solidarity was too high . . . .

That wisdom is becoming dross before our eyes. The sea-change that I have described in American higher education, which made it unwise for the leader who undermined her leadership by repudiating her gay supporters to refuse solidarity with these supporters, is happening right now in American culture at large, and in American political culture in particular.

Perhaps it was wise even a year or so ago to approach gay people and gay lives gingerly in the political realm. Following Kerry’s defeat, there was all sort of whispering in Democratic circles about how the Democratic party had shot itself in the foot by advocating gay rights at a time in which the prevailing trend in American culture was against enlarging the sphere of rights for gay persons.

In my view, we are now at a tipping point in our culture in which leaders who fail to see the extremely important moral implications of gay rights at this point in history will undermine their effectiveness as leaders, if they do not speak out now. Right now. Not down the road. Now, when speaking out matters tremendously, because it decisively helps to tip the balance.

The understanding of what is moral, when it comes to gay issues and gay lives, is rapidly shifting, right at this moment, in our culture. A religious right which only a few months ago continued to celebrate its exclusive ownership of the word "moral" when it comes to consideration of gay issues is finding that the word has slipped from its hands and now belongs, in the mind of many Americans, rightfully to those who support and defend gay human beings, far more than it does to the morally bankrupt leaders of the religious right.

I began this reflection by sketching a kairotic moment in the career of someone I once admired, in which her savage treatment of her gay supporters doomed her career. I am using the word “kairotic” deliberately here.

The prevailing "wisdom" that is rapidly coming to be unwisdom in our cultural and political life is the wisdom of chronos, wisdom dependent on taking the long view of history, calculating this or that trend against the backdrop of gradually unfolding time. Political wisdom often depends on making sound prudential judgments against precisely such a backdrop.

But within the gradually unfolding, long span of chronos, there is also occasionally a significant interruptive moment, the moment of kairos, in which our pragmatic judgments are put to the test, and we must choose: this path or the other? To take a stand or to remain silent?

Kairotic moments demand a choice. We really have no option except to respond to them, yea or nay. It is in their nature to demand a response. Martin Luther King, Jr., realized that point brilliantly when, against the prevailing wisdom of many advisers, he chose—because he had no choice—to break silence and condemn the Vietnam War. Even though he was told that doing so would doom the civil rights movement, by diluting the concentrated force of its zeal for rights for people of color, by bringing issues of war and peace into the picture.

Lyndon B. Johnson saw kairos staring him in the face, too, when he became president, and, against the advice of many wise counselors who told him that the Democratic party would pay a steep price in the South if he promoted civil rights, he did what was right rather than expedient—the only thing he could do—and led the nation finally out of the legal segregation that persisted in many areas of the country despite decades of opposition to segregation.

The only thing he could do, that is, if he wished to exercise any leadership at all, in any area at all, because in the final analysis, leadership is always moral, always susceptible to the intrusive demands of kairotic moments—and how could it be otherwise, when “our whole life is startlingly moral”?