Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill was filled with princes and paupers gathered to pay tribute to Bill Friday. This wonderful memorial to an iconic leader was punctuated by the benediction from his longtime assistant, Virginia Taylor, who likened Friday to the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations”
Former House Speaker Dan Blue challenged me to name someone who could take Friday’s place, who had the stature, the vision, the people skills and the ability to bring people together as Friday did. You will not be surprised that a long silence followed his question.
Friday was part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” men and women who fought World War II and returned home to create a nation never before seen. They understood sacrifice and love for country, knew what it was like to work hard to achieve a goal, had a passion for peace and wanted a better opportunity for their children.
We don’t have leaders like Bill Friday in place or on the horizon.
Why? The answers are both systemic and cultural. In government too few hold too much power too long, blocking others from rising. Today’s corporate environment is myopic, focusing almost exclusively on short-term outcomes like today’s stock price and next quarter’s profits. Devotion to what Shaw calls “the brief candle” is reflected in the way executives are evaluated and compensated. The market doesn’t reward product development, long-term health or leadership growth so it isn’t a priority. No wonder so many companies have to to go outside the organization to replace top management.
The lack of leadership also is a reflection on today’s culture. We are a narcissistic people primarily interested in our own wellbeing, pleasures and needs. Everyone wants to lead; we don’t understand why we don’t have many true true public servants working for the common good instead of using their office as a stepping-stone. The win-at-all-cost mentality divides us into winners and losers, has no room for consensus building, engenders incivility in public discourse and destroys trust in people or institutions.
Our demand for instant results combined with our self-serving, “what’s in it for me” mindset, is no environment for big, bold, futuristic dreams or dreamers. No wonder the handing off of the torch from leaders like Friday is not going smoothly.
North Carolina has been blessed to have the right leaders emerge at the right moment. In these highly troubling times we long for genuine public servants who will grab hold “this splendid torch,” intensify and carry its brightness throughout our state, share with us a grand vision, build consensus and work for the common good. Who is ready to receive the hand-off?