Moral Leadership


by Joshua Stearns, SCA Board Member and Alumnus

Almost everyone has heard at least some small snippet of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech, given at the March on Washington in August of 1967. It is one of the great speeches of our time. However, whenever I hear a recording of that speech, or see a video of it, I am struck by the moment just before Dr. King begins to speak. As he steps up to the podium, he is introduced to the crowd as the “moral leader” of the country. Perhaps this attribution seems so striking to me because it is hard to imagine someone in our society today being given such a moniker. Who is the moral leader of America today? What does moral leadership look like in 2007? A lot has changed since 1967″”and a lot has not.

We are still facing many of the challenges that Dr. King was facing, along with new challenges, but how we understand these challenges has changed dramatically. Dr. King was standing on the precipice of this change in 1967 and led the nation with compassion, with love, and with a dream. He led with an authority rooted in his faith in God, in men and women, and in democracy. In the years since the 1960s, Americans’ trust for government institutions, scientific specialists, authority figures, and experts of all sorts has eroded dramatically. We live in a radically pluralistic society in which we tend to define morality, ethics, and meaning from our own understanding of the world, not from specialists (such as scientists) or institutions (such as churches). What then does moral leadership look like today?

Looking out today at the various movements for justice in our country (and indeed, the world) we see all sorts of leadership. We see artists using photographs of arctic landscapes to advocate for the preservation of ANWAR. We see communities of locals and immigrants working together to start community gardens and farmers markets that create more green space, build community, grow traditional foods, and help each other make a living. We see co-ops developing to support local agriculture and produce biodiesel. We see book clubs, and potluck dinners, and freecycle, and environmental educators volunteering in local schools. We see SCA corps members and volunteers bringing communities together through diverse and vital projects that build a respect for the land, and develop people’s compassion for each other.

When we look for leadership we see it everywhere. But looking out over the country, and thinking about Dr. King, I wonder if this type of leadership is enough. How might we move ahead when we are all moving in so many different directions? I don’t have an answer. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Conservation and Environmental Leadership Links
SCA’s Conservation Leadership Corps (pdf download)

Naropa Masters Degree in Environmental Leadership

Environmental Leadership Program

National Conservation Leadership Institute

Institute for Conservation Leadership