I am fortunate to be the parent of a child who graduated from university in the pre-COVID era. Watching my son participate in a commencement ceremony at Yale, the rite of passage after four years of intense study, was both a privilege and a pleasure.
For the uninitiated, attending a Yale commencement feels a lot like being an extra in a scene from “Game of Thrones,” where the streets are filled with people and pageantry. All around the extensive campus, the roads are closed to vehicular traffic, creating safe passage for thousands of graduates from all 13 schools in the university to process toward Old Campus.
They are led by a marching band and professors in full regalia, while bystanders, family and friends crane their necks from the sidewalks for a glimpse of their student, waving wildly when that person is spotted in the crowd.
The procession eventually spills into the quad at Old Campus, where soon-to-be graduates are greeted by 15,000 applauding loved ones and an orchestra that heralds their arrival. It’s a heady experience, to say the least.
The day of this graduation, Yale conferred honorary degrees on a number of accomplished luminaries including former Secretary of State John Kerry and Grammy-winning songwriter Stevie Wonder. Yet, it was witnessing Lewis receive a doctorate of laws degree that was the most profound moment of them all.
Lewis waited patiently on the stage for his turn to be hooded and receive his degree. When his name was finally called, the entire audience, on stage and off, leapt to their feet, the crowd unphased by the steady rain that had begun, dampening clothing and seats but not their spirits. Deafening and prolonged cheers rang out from every direction, and I saw more than a few misty eyes in the crowd.
People of all social and political stripes recognized that they were in the presence of greatness. This humble man, slight in stature, turned to the audience with a face full of love and acceptance, strength and gentleness. We all knew that John Lewis was the giant among us.
While millions are mourning his passing, we might best be served by remembering the lessons in leadership that his life represented and seek to emulate his good example. Lewis came from modest beginnings, the son of sharecroppers, a background that imbued him with the character that shaped him as a leader.
Four important pillars of leadership were revealed by his actions throughout his life:
1. Principles and values are timeless
As a young man, Lewis was introduced to the principle of nonviolent protest, which was underscored by an important value: that one should show love to individuals who might be thought of as enemies. He carried these principles and values throughout his lifetime, from his early years protesting segregated lunch counters in Nashville to staging sit-ins in Congress in 2016 to fight for gun-control legislation.
While participating in lunch counter sit-ins, Lewis was subjected to hot coffee and condiments being dumped on his head and cigarettes being extinguished on his body, but his response as he later recounted was to “accept the way of peace, the way of love, as a way of living, not just a technique.”
Lewis taught us to stand for something, and to make our position on what we value unequivocally clear by our actions. For most of us, demonstrating principled leadership and honoring our values is far less risky within the confines of an organization than they were at a lunch counter.
2. Dare to disrupt
Lewis’ life is a testament to the power of building a coalition of committed people to achieve essential change in the world and possessing the courage required to do so. As a college student in 1965, he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and organized a peaceful voting rights march of 600 unarmed people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.
The protest soon turned violent as Alabama state troopers armed with clubs, whips and tear gas descended on the marchers in what would later become known as “Bloody Sunday.” Seventeen people were hospitalized and 50 treated for injuries in their attempt to cross that bridge, Lewis among them. He was bludgeoned with a billy club at the hands of a state trooper and rendered unconscious with a concussion.
Shortly after that protest, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for which Lewis and others had been marching.
“Find a way to get in the way,” he said in recent years. “Find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. Be prepared to speak up and speak out, be courageous. When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to get in the way and make some noise.”
Clearly, he lived by his own advice. Over the course of his life, the civil rights icon was arrested at least 45 times for protesting for change and equality, a fact that he wore as a badge of honor.
When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to get in the way and make some noise.
3. Align with others who inspire you
Large-scale sustained change requires persistence, a reality that Lewis understood. He spent more than 50 years of his life working to reform a system of social injustice in this country that he viewed as scourge on the promise that is America’s grand experiment in democracy. His resilience in navigating the often-tortuous path to change would have been far more difficult without role models, individuals who had been on the journey before him and could teach him what was possible.
For Lewis, meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were pivotal moments that inspired him to contribute in ways he may not have imagined without those encounters. “They inspired me to get into trouble, “said Lewis.
That led to his participation as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders in 1961 and his distinction as the youngest person to speak at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, on the day of King’s now famous “I have a dream” speech.
Lewis could have been indelibly marked with resentment when King was assassinated 1968, followed two months later by Robert F. Kennedy, on whose presidential campaign Lewis worked. Instead, he was inspired by King’s good example. “He taught me to be hopeful, to be optimistic, to never get lost in despair, to never become bitter, and to never hate,” Lewis reflected.
4. Legacy matters
Receiving a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis late last year was perhaps one fight Lewis knew that he might not win. Regardless, he pressed on over the final months of his life seeking to inspire a new generation of activists for racial justice, encouraging them to “get into good trouble” as he has done.
Lewis became a bridge, linking the individuals and experiences of his generation with today’s proponents for social change, bringing the lessons of the past to illuminate the realities of the present. His legacy is perhaps best summed up in his own reflections in this video, and with these words:
“We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work. There is still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
I hope that many will accept his challenge.
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, July 2020.