I guess my mind has been stuck on super-heroes because I have been traveling in other countries on a day that means a lot to me—Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and inauguration day for Obama’s 2nd term. I made a decision a few years ago not to treat specific holidays as a day to relax, go hiking, take a 3-day weekend vacation, or have a picnic. I decided to try to honour the day and those in whose memory it was created. That means doing something for Veteren’s Day and Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. day (Labour Day actually is a day of rest). So while reflecting on the day and the events I was missing, I remembered that part of every rite of passage is the accompanying transition of our super-heroes to a state that is not so super.
I met with my weekly bunch of friends for our latest session on our theme of Superheroes. My friend Richard was leading it, and I know he likes to provoke people so I knew what to expect. Right from the start he created a rich multi-media presentation that called Gandhi a racist pedophile who said we shouldn’t fight Hitler, Dr. King a plagiarizing philanderer, Lance Armstrong a crooked drug king-pen, Mugabe a freedom fighter, etc. He systematically sought to unearth, unhouse, and unsettle any notions of heroes and villains we held.
Luckily, I had already gone through such falls from grace of my heroes (plus I wasn’t sure about all his accusations). Not only did I fall with my heroes in the past, but I came out on the other side. My friend sought to shatter the image of the heroes but he forgot one important thing: we are all a mixture of inconsistent actions and thoughts. The point is to take the good and choose the better history. Yes, Winston Churchill is hailed as a god of freedom while at the same time, denying that very freedom to Gandhi and India. Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence and said he would fight tyranny anywhere it reared his heads, yet he called Black people inferior while secretly fathering children with at least one slave. I will still quote the true words of Jefferson regardless of his missteps. I will still imitate the dogged determination of Churchill in the name of freedom even though his understanding of it was narrow. Likewise, I will still push for the truths that I have learned while still working on my own inconsistencies.
You see, the (second) problem with Richard’s attempt to bring low my super-heroes is that he thought we saw them as perfect in the traditional sense. Perfection is not a state, it is a process. You never arrive. Instead to be perfect simply means that you willingly and consciously undergo the process of unlearning and relearning, unlearning and relearning, in cyclical fashion. So I don’t admire someone for being “perfect” or faultless or not making mistakes or not making any big mistakes. Instead I admire how someone handles the mistakes she made. It’s what you do when you know you are wrong. That’s why I’ve told people with a clear conscience, “Imitate me. Be like me.” I’ve never meant that in the actual steps but in my honesty with my steps (or my attempts at honesty). I admire a humble, honest leader who messes up 10 times more than one who never makes mistakes. The reason? Even the one who doesn’t make mistakes, makes mistakes. It’s just that the humble one admits it. And that simple act opens everyone into the public process of unlearning and relearning. That act puts the leader on the same playing field with the followers, in the same boat, and creates a relationally more powerful bond of trust that engenders following more than any “perfect” leader could.
You have to be careful, though. I’ve seen leaders, in an attempt to be humble, “produce” missteps. These leaders will publicly admit these “produced” mistakes with great humility. However, you know they are produced because these leaders always feel the need to share a misstep that is safe, something that is a mistake enough to show they are not perfect, but minor enough to avoid endangering perceptions of the leader. In this way the pseudo-leader can be both humble and safe. A true leader, one who acts as a living sacrifice doesn’t think about self-safety, only authenticity that paradoxically increases the safety of the followers, students, community, congregation, group, or family. And you know these pseudo-leaders are not humble because they proudly use this public display of humility to show how humble they are or even to teach that humility, a characteristic they hold, is important.