The Myth That We Lack Good Leaders

There are as many of them as there ever have been. Sometimes, though, it takes us a while to recognize them.
by | June 28, 2012

Have you ever heard of Ralph Carr? Neither had I until Adam Schrager gave a presentation about him at a Governing event. Carr was governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943, and from Schrager's book, "The Principled Politician: the Ralph Carr Story," we learn that Carr was a rising star in the Republican Party until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In the fear and anti-Japanese sentiment that gripped the nation following the attack, Carr was virtually the only politician who spoke out against the internment of Japanese-American citizens. His political career ended soon thereafter.

Ralph Carr  
Ralph Carr

We hear regularly about the dearth of good political leadership in our time, but it seems to me that the incidence of good leadership is probably about the same now as it was in any earlier age. Sometimes it's easy to believe that our perception to the contrary is the fault of the media or our modern methods of communication. I think not. There have always been demagogues and unprincipled critics, and their voices were as loud in the public square then as they are now. Then as now, it is difficult to recognize some of the truly great leaders among us until long after the smoke has cleared.

Outstanding public leadership is often shaped by circumstances that we would not want to occur. There is no Lincoln without slavery and the Civil War, just as there is no Ralph Carr without Pearl Harbor and World War II. But more frequently, we are unaware of the many other good leaders among us, the ones quietly doing the work in their own spheres of the world and not engaging in a lot of image-building and branding. In other cases, their names are familiar but we do not recognize their value at the time. Nearly everyone in Colorado and many across the nation knew who Ralph Carr was; they just didn't recognize that he was right. He never wavered from his support for the civil rights of Japanese-Americans even as he ran for and narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1942.

After I heard Schrager's presentation, I asked him, "Was Ralph Carr a good politician?" After all, maybe a better politician would have trimmed his sails a bit and scooted through the storm to win the Senate seat. After his loss, one Denver newspaper described Carr's position on the Japanese-Americans as "a fatal blunder." Schrager's answer to my question? Yes, Carr stood on principle, was ultimately proved right, and although he lost the bid for the Senate, he did so narrowly and, had he not died in 1950, he might well have won another term as governor that year.

There are surely many good political leaders among us now. Sometimes, as with Ralph Carr, it may take a while before we recognize them. We at Governing make it our job to look past the swirling tweets, the pundits' diatribes and the intemperate blog posts and identify the most effective leaders who are among us right now. We celebrate their accomplishments as our Public Officials of the Year. The fact that the hard part is not finding enough candidates but narrowing the list down to a few tells me that great leadership is no more in short supply than it ever has been.

The column has been updated to correct the years of the 1942 Senate election and the 1950 gubernatorial election.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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