There never was a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous. –Benjamin Franklin
Today is the 4th of July and Independence Day celebrations will soon be taking place throughout the United States and by Americans living across the world. I could give you a lesson in U.S. history or talk about the founding forefathers. Instead, I’d rather discuss what was important to those who guided their people down a road that lead to independence from one of the world’s strongest nations of the time: freedom.
We could begin a debate here about politics and political parties and go back and forth about voting booths and the like. Or, we could discuss the fact that slavery was still legal and women didn’t yet have the right to vote in that era of American history. But, I’d like to go to the root of what most Americans today hold dear: freedom. How laws are made, what forms of government we have and even the role of women in society… well those are all relevant and important topics. But, it is impossible to get to that point without the first essential step to the process: freedom of expression. Be it George Washington or Patrice Lumumba, all truly great historical leaders understood that dialog matters and that we can build nothing great until tyranny is removed and the freedom to speak one’s ideas is respected.
Whether they are born to be kings or queens, come up through the ranks unexpectedly, are generals of large armies, are destined to take over a multi-billion dollar business empire or are president of their local high school junior class; great leaders have always understood that they must always be people of integrity first.
I spend most mornings brushing up on what is going on in that vast continent most of us hold so dear: Africa. The news seems filled with tales of corruption, mismanagement, short-term planning and the like. I’m sure that these stories are (sadly) true. But, I’m interested in hearing about true African leaders. Not those people we call minister or president or MP.
I am talking about real, everyday people like my aunt who died last week, (May God rest and keep her soul). She was a leader, a peacemaker and a quiet revolutionary. She didn’t call attention to herself and none of you will even know her name. But, she led a struggle quietly to see her son freed from prison in Eritrea. He is most probably in one of that nation’s secret prisons as I write this today. She did all that she could and spoke her truth regardless of the risks. She did what it is unsafe to do: exercise her freedom: freedom to think, to speak, to believe. In her old age, she never shied away from using all that she had, her voice; not to incite people to violence or hatred; but to spark dialog. She understood what all great leaders do: that we can build nothing of substance without discourse. It triggers a process that makes us creative, challenges our views and makes us better, stronger families, communities and nations.
She taught us by example and her words were taken to heart by her phenomenal daughter, Freweini. If one day, I was able to be one-tenth the woman she was, I would call my life a success. For, you see, true leadership isn’t about how much money you earn or how many people have to listen to you and follow your orders. It is instead about how many people want to listen and follow your example.
I am sure that all of you have examples of true leadership in your families. I would like you to share those examples with us here. Because, my aunt is your aunt. If we both create our family trees and trace them back far enough, we will find that our branches inevitably connect at some point. After all, we all started from the same first people. Whether you, like me, call them Adam and Eve; or you have some other creation story that your culture uses instead… we are all related ultimately. And just as my aunt is your aunt and you have ownership of her greatness; well, we too share in the communal heritage that is your family.
So, take a few minutes away from grilling hot dogs or after the fireworks show is over and honor your ancestors here. Tell us a few lines about what examples of excellent leadership they have shown for you, and for all of us.
Why? Because dialog matters! And thankfully, there are still a few places on earth where freedom of expression and opinions is still respected so that we can do just that: talk.