I am blessed to live a wonderful town, the great Lamar, South Carolina. Lamar is a small town of less than 1000 people, and it has many of the possibilities and problems of any small Southern town.
The possibilities, I believe, far outweigh any problems we face. As any Human Resources rep will tell a prospective employee, “our people are our greatest assets.” Of course, that bit of treacle is usually a sign that the people are not considered the company’s greatest asset, and often precedes the stab in the back to the unwitting employee.
I do not mean it in that sense; in other words, I am sincere when I write that the residents of Lamar truly are the town’s greatest resource. There are dozens of residents who are ready and willing to pitch in at a moment’s notice to help out, often without being asked.
This phenomenon is quite American—and, perhaps, even more enhanced among Southerners of every race and background.
It is not, unfortunately, universal. Broadly speaking, it seems that civic engagement across the country is well below the traditional standard I believe exists in my little town. The drying up of civic organizations like the Kiwanis and the like is suggestive of a general decline in civic involvement.
By “civic engagement” or “civic involvement,” I mean the willingness of citizens to give of their time, talents, and treasure to help make their community a livable, enjoyable place. It seems that there is an increasingly tiny fraction of Americans in any given community willing to do that kind of sacrificial work.
Naturally, there are a hosts of reasons for this decline. The monetization of social capital—stripping away the lifeblood of a town’s economy via outsourcing, the lax regulation of ethically-dubious economic practices—has surely gutted many cities and towns. A rejection of Christianity and its emphasis on helping one’s neighbors—and of having a sense of obligation to those outside of your immediate self—likely further accounts for such a decline.
I would argue that another quality is overlooked: the quality of leadership. A lack of clear leadership with clear goals and a clear vision can bankrupt a community’s will to improve.
In the United States, we like to believe that any individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself. Indeed, I very much believe this old cliché to be true, with the allowance for notable exceptions. But many people—Americans included—need a sense of direction, of purpose. Good leadership helps to define direction and purpose.
I’ve had numerous conversations with folks in which they complain that “nothing is getting done” in their community, their State, their nation. I’ve been one of those folks. The obvious question is, “well, what is something you can do about it—and why don’t you try it?”
Part of the answer to the “why” of that question is inertia—or a lack of time. That’s fair—people work hard and have a million tiny obligations due to work and family. But I think a deeper answer is due to a lack of leadership, or at least to poor leadership.
Consider: most people want to do something—but they don’t know what “something” is, or how to do it! The answer to these questions are the leader’s responsibility. That doesn’t mean the leader dictates the solutions and demands that people do this or do that; rather, it means the leader helps provide vision and direction. “You want to fix this problem in your community, here is a possible solution, and here is how you can help achieve it.”
Often, with some guidance—some leadership—good people will happily go to work. Years of working in various organizations has taught me that people want to help out—they just don’t know how. Identifying the right job for the right person is challenging, but it encourages that person to get involved and to work hard.
By contrast, a lack of leadership can be corrosive to civic engagement. If the perception is that the people “in charge” do not care or do not have a plan—even a rough one—then residents will shrug their shoulders and say, “Why bother? Why should I put in the time when the people responsible aren’t doing the same?”
Even the perception of a lack of leadership or direction can be damaging. There might be plenty of work being done behind the scenes, but if people can’t see that, it’s often as bad as if nothing is being done at all. Indeed, it can be worse, as people might believe that things are being done without their input, or without giving them an opportunity to participate in the process.
Of course, in the absence of a strong leader, indifference is not the only possible outcome. Power abhors a vacuum, and some residents may operate outside of formal organs of power, organizing their own events and efforts to improve their town. If people don’t feel like they have a voice through their local, State, or national leaders, they may well take this path, though it is harder than working within the existing institutions.
A strong leader is not a bully or a braggart—qualities that are often the signs of a weak leader. Rather, he is invested in the future of his community, and is willing to cultivate civic engagement. He will put aside his own ego to work with others. He may provide the vision and the direction, but he knows neither can be achieved without the input and the output of his residents.