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Where worlds collide: a blueprint for leadership in the trenches

By Walter Earl Fluker

Thirty-seven years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.’48, I have often wondered what it will take to rekindle, recreate and reenact a movement wedded to spirituality, moral imagination and public action.

What are the resources that will allow us to speak against the vexatious dirge of machine culture? In a society where difference is often more important than the common bonds of humanity, what might be a way out of the labyrinth? As the world tilts toward the exigencies of AIDS/HIV, genocide, poverty and war—all concerns that disproportionately affect people of African descent—and reaches far beyond any conventional understanding of political violence, we have all asked ourselves: Is there a place for my voice? Where can the solitary soul stand, make a difference?

Indeed, we are standing now at the intersection where worlds collide, an appropriate metaphor for the current crisis in leadership. Here, personal values clash with institutional norms. Here, we contend with systems dictated by power and money that inform public policy and where the powerless are swallowed in sociopolitical tsunamis as catastrophic as the national tragedies we have witnessed in recent days.

Our charge at the Leadership Center is to develop a new generation of leaders who are spiritually disciplined, intellectually astute and morally wise; leaders who are willing and able to stand at the intersection where worlds collide. Moreover, we believe that the discipline of leadership studies provides an intellectual framework, which embraces spirituality, moral imagination and public action in ways that allow us to address the overwhelming issues and challenges of our times.

In many respects, King’s life and ministry are testaments to what is at stake in the development of a new generation of leaders who stand at this juncture. His legacy of leadership provides a critical resource for answers to the above questions as we enter a new century beset by ethical issues and challenges. More than any other American leader in the 20th century, King challenged the nation to take seriously the role of spirituality and ethics in resolving what author Robert N. Bellah called the most important unresolved contradiction in our history: the tension between “self-reliant competitive enterprise and a sense of public solidarity espoused by civic republicans.”

It was King’s spiritual genius that provided him with the tools to lead a revolution of values that expanded the moral grammar of American history and culture from parochially applied democratic principles to concrete proposals for inclusiveness and action. This amazing feat, performed in a brief period of our history—from 1954 to 1968—was no doubt the nation’s finest example of what Jewish theologian Martin Buber called “turning”: the act of repentance and social reconstruction, a charge Buber made to individuals and nations alike. In issuing the charge, King also changed the leadership equation. Public leadership no longer exclusively belonged to the strict province of position, power and privilege, but also to the marginalized moral minority—those whom King labeled “transformed nonconformists.”

Surely, you have given thought to these issues and despaired at the intersection where worlds collide, where the cries of the little ones are drowned by the cacophony of the politics of indifference; where the insatiable thirst for recognition overshadows the truth; where avarice dictates public policy and socially-constructed realities crash and burn.

Who dares to stand at the intersection where the real battle will be waged for the world’s soul and where we as committed citizens aspire to a more noble and humane existence?

This is our greatest challenge at the beginning of this millennium.

Walter Earl Fluker, Ph.D., is executive director and professor of the Leadership Center.

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