‘You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet’

A few months ago my husband and I attended a birthday party for one of our neighbors. It was his 90th birthday, and he was the life of the party, charming us all with his good humor, fascinating stories and sincere interest in the people there.

We saw him again a few evenings ago at a neighborhood cookout and once more were delighted to be in conversation with him. Only from his wife and other friends have we learned that he was a courageous World War II pilot, built a successful career after the war and played a decent game of golf until hip and knee replacements put an end to that.

The more I learn about him the more I believe he exemplifies the ingredients of true leadership: Courage, Vision and Charisma.

I hope that, without too much trouble, we can all think of men and women who are living examples of courageous, visionary and charismatic leadership. At the top of my list is President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. Another trait he has in common with my neighbor: age has not dampened his curiosity or his interest in the great social issues of our time.

Father Hesburgh is legendary, in part because of the courage he has exhibited over and over, standing strong for peace and justice. President Dwight Eisenhower in l957 named him to the Civil Rights Commission where as an outspoken member and then chairman, he continually fought for humanitarian causes.

Under his leadership, Notre Dame became coed in 1972, and a couple years prior resumed post-season football. Father Ted made sure that all proceeds from the 1970 Cotton Bowl went toward minority scholarships. If you visit the Smithsonian you can find a photo from June 21, 1964 of Theodore Hesburgh holding hands with Dr. Martin Luther King and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

His vision for higher education blossomed during his 35 years as head of Notre Dame. During that time enrollment doubled, 40 new buildings were added, and the endowment grew from $9 million to $350 million. Father Ted raised the average faculty salary from $5,400 to $50,800. Those are just highlights.

I am pretty sure that no one can behave consistently with such courage and vision without upsetting some people, but Father Ted Hesburgh sure seemed to keep building strong and affectionate relationships with students, colleagues and world leaders. He held 16 U.S. presidential appointments and was a confidant to six American presidents.

In the meantime his congeniality and support were always available to students. In 1971, in a Time magazine article, he was described as “…so popular among his students that Notre Dame may well be among the nation’s most disruption-proof major campuses.” This in the time when we were horrified at events occurring within some university settings.

This kind of charisma cannot be faked. It arises from a tenacious belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. Like a memorable perfume, it emanates from a deep source, a compassionate nature that inspires caring for people, no matter their location on the planet nor their ranking in whatever system they inhabit. True leaders have this. Those who try to fake it by adding a veneer of charm in order to advance their own agenda — well, eventually they are found out and stripped of respect.

So this man has a lot to teach us about leadership. Once in an interview when asked to give an account of himself. He answered in one word, “priest.” Were he a plumber, a corporate manager, or a kindergarten teacher, would he have made a significant positive impact on our world? Were he a Muslim, Unitarian, or Jew would he stand eloquently for peace and justice? Should you call on him in his office in the library that bears his name, would he welcome you in for a chat? Well, I answer all these questions with a resounding “Yes.”

If you want to learn more, many of his works are easily found online. Also, on public television you can catch a documentary about Ted Hesburgh entitled “God, Country, Notre Dame.”

A favorite quote from Father Ted, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee area resident. Her web site is www.coachingconbrio.com and she can be reached at (414) 305-3459.

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