April 24, 2013

Leadership and Marion Barry

Two nights ago, I was at a Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) meeting. The meeting was held in order to address the $2.6 billion sewer and storm drain system improvements the city is required to make. Faith communities across the city addressed city officials, impressing upon them their desire that this project incorporate jobs for D.C. residents and green, neighborhood revitalization. One of those city officials was council member Marion Barry.

As you may know, I'm new to D.C. So, all I've known about Barry is what I have seen in the press. It has never been positive. He appeared to be a broken, despised city official.

Broken was right.

Despised was wrong.

I was in no way prepared for the enthusiastic reception this man received from the 800 participants in the meeting. The applause he received made it almost impossible for him to get through his 3-minute public response to the requests made by WIN to city council and DC Water–filled with third person self references, of course.

I'm glad Barry supports the action WIN is taking. I do too. But I couldn't help but reflect on how beloved this man is in this city.

One thing that quickly became clear after moving to Washington was the influence of power. Public perception and identity is critical to so many Washingtonians, and not just those that work in the public sector. It seems to me that it is a learned practice for many that come here to be always on guard. It seems that people do this to manage what power and influence they have. But it also presents a veneer of perfection.

Marion Barry cannot display that kind of perfection in leadership. His very public moral failures don't allow him to pretend that he is somehow a flawless authority in this city. And it seems that this is part of the affection people have for him. He is a person who has failed, who has succumbed to addictions. And normal people can relate to that.

It's a critical lesson in leadership. A lesson that many Washingtonians, no matter what sector they work in ought to take note of. People want to follow leaders who they feel understand their human experience. Even Christian Scriptures attest to this–it's what the incarnation is all about. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus did not succumb to the temptations that Barry has. And I certainly am not condoning his behavior. Nonetheless, Barry, in the most unfortunate of ways, displayed an awareness of the brokenness lived out by many he was tasked to serve. That is something many leaders struggle to connect with and something to be pondered.

There is a way to bridge this connection that doesn't require getting caught with drugs and prostitutes: presence. Be with the people you are called to serve. Not just when you're up front, leading the way. Get a sense of the tastes and smells of everyday life. Listen to the stories of those you serve. This is how you gain trust. This is how you discover the right kind of accountability and authority. This is how you ought to lead.

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