Despondency about the direction of America has become the new leadership challenge of our era. A Pew Research Center survey, released in March, asked Americans how they foresaw the United States in 2050. Pessimism reigned as people predicted that health care would be harder to afford, senior citizens would struggle to survive, the economy would weaken, income inequality would increase, and the state of the environment would deteriorate. Most respondents expressed little confidence that today’s leaders could find solutions
Now, more than ever, our nation needs true leaders at every level of our economy—leaders whose principles, ideals and values guide them; leaders who are driven by honesty and ethics, who care about customers and employees and not just profits, and who seek to strengthen the institutions that make American strong.
Alas, models of true leadership are hard to find in today’s marketplace arena, where some self-interested executives seem motivated only by gaining and retaining position and pleasing shareholders. Here are ten leaders, past and present, who can serve as exemplars for us in these leadership-starved times:
Pasadena baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in professional baseball with grace, grit, and gumption. Self-control and excellence were his “weapons” as he fought a lifelong battle for civil rights and justice.
Journalistic pioneer Cokie Roberts believed in the power and value of a free press and was a tireless champion of empowerment for women. Roberts helped shape National Public Radio and flourished in journalism at a time when few women could.
Immaculee Ilibigaza, a Rwandan genocide survivor, inspires others through her talks and writings. Buoyed by her Catholic faith, Ilibagiza has, incredibly, forgiven the people who killed her parents and siblings during the Rwandan genocide and serves as a shining example of humanity and grace.
Ben Ferencz, age 99, lead investigator and prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, tirelessly collected evidence against Nazis who committed war crimes during World War II. His conviction led him to fight, successfully, for an International Criminal Court to try those who commit crimes against humanity and to work for global peace.
Breaking down barriers for women and a role model as a NASA astronaut who literally encouraged others to reach for the stars, Encino’s own Sally Ride helped to design the robot arm for the space shuttle and was the first American woman – and the youngest at the age of 32 – to go into space, in 1983. Her legacy to teach children about STEM lives on through Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit she co-founded.
Corporal Desmond T. Doss stared down death as an Army medic during World War II, saving the lives of 75 men. A Seventh-day Adventist, he refused to carry a weapon as he served on the front lines. He never shirked his duty while standing firm in his convictions. He was the only conscientious objector to earn a Medal of Honor in WWII.
Walt Disney was a visionary who was a major innovator in animation and television. The creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Disneyland and other theme parks, Disney and his vivid imagination launched what has grown into one of the world’s biggest entertainment empires that thrive decades after his death. Disney Studios was established in Los Angeles and later moved to Burbank, where he died.
Cesar Chavez, a migrant farm worker who experienced harsh working conditions and discrimination as a child, fought for a better life for farmworkers in California and became a leading national civil rights activist through the use of nonviolent tactics and relentless persuasion.
Alan Mulally, former president and chief executive of Ford Motor Co., displayed unfailing optimism, curiosity, and open-mindedness as he led Ford to reclaim its place as a top global automaker. One of the best CEOs in American history, Mulally thought like a designer, motivated like a coach, and built collaboration like an ambassador.
Finally, the teens who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting are an inspiration for their confidence, social media savvy, and persuasiveness, which has elevated them to a leading voice in the national gun debate. They are a shining example of young people who, like climate activist Greta Thunberg, are demanding solutions from resistant and myopic politicians.
The examples set by these leaders is part of their legacy. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney once said.
Ritch K. Eich, retired vice president at California Lutheran University, established the Corporate Leaders Breakfast series for area business leaders. Formerly, he was chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, and the author of four published books on leadership.