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Leaders Are Built, Not Born

June 13th, 2020 by dk

Leaders are not born. They are built by the movements they have been chosen to lead. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had barely a year in the pulpit when outrage over Emmett Till’s mutilation led his neighbors and parishioners to begin the Montgomery bus boycott.

Who will rise up to meet this moment?

It will almost certainly be someone  whose name we don’t yet know. King was 26 when the bus boycott began. He was almost 28 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Young people are better built for the long, hard work ahead.

Those who worked in the Occupy movement are quick to say that no leader is necessary. The decentralized Internet has made Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups function with less reliance on a single leader.  Indeed, a leaderless movement is much harder to stop. It cannot be decapitated if there is no recognizable head. Assassination is too great a risk.

They may be right, except for the remaining power of our mainstream news organizations. They simply don’t know how to sustain an audience’s attention without focusing on a single leader. Social media is emerging as a powerful alternative, but it is still fueled largely by legacy news coverage.

Witness the recent coverage of COVID-19. The White House formed a task force to monitor the pandemic’s progress. The committee may have been active, but not visibly so. Only after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing became must-see viewing did the story of the pandemic really break into the national consciousness.

Dynamic leadership upsets the status quo. In the early 1960s, television news was only 15 minutes long. When Dr. King’s rallies and marches captivated the nation, Walter Cronkite implored his bosses at CBS to double his newscast to 30 minutes. NBC followed immediately. ABC resisted for over a year before finally doing the same.

Local Black Lives Matter protests have already identified a half dozen new voices that are rising to meet the moment. None of them are older than King was when he began. Other cities are seeing a similar dynamic. It’s young people who simply will not be denied. We should support them every way we can, mostly by letting them lead us.

Former President Barack Obama cannot lead the movement for justice and equality that is just beginning to form, but he can help identify and promote a leader who may be emerging. Oprah Winfrey hasn’t written any best-sellers, but she has created dozens with her recommendations. Obama’s endorsement would have a similar effect.

Former presidents often have an outsized impact on issues that matter to them. Jimmy Carter raised awareness about the need for affordable housing without becoming the leader of Habitat for Humanity. Racism and police violence are much more difficult topics, but Obama always said he wanted to be a transformational character. This may be a better opportunity than anything he did while he was living in the White House.

Obama always kept his focus on the arc of America. Who will paint the picture of what’s possible for us?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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