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"The Vocation of Leadership"

Reflections on a Historic Inauguration Day

January 20, 2009

Thomas F. Flynn, President, Alvernia University

The Vocation of Leadership. That is the topic on which I was asked to share a few thoughts on this momentous day in our country’s history. Either half of this topic is itself worthy of reflection—the meaning of vocation, the meaning of leadership—never mind an assignment to talk about both.

And to do so as we await in less than an hour an occasion that few among us expected to see in our lifetime: the removal of the last great color barrier in our society, with the election of a person of color to be president of these United States.

I confess that, as on election night, when I found myself unexpectedly emotional, my heart is again full today. Some of that emotion arises from the soul of a baby boomer, some from the memories of social activism from my own college years and some from my experience as a former teacher-scholar of American Cultural Studies.

This weekend, reflecting on this talk, I found myself thinking of a few of the prophetic documents and speeches in our history:

  • John Winthrop’s plea to those first pilgrims before they embarked for the Massachusetts shore in 1620 that their community should serve as an example, like a “city on a hill,” to inspire godliness and goodness;
  • That famous Declaration, 150 years later, that “all men are created equal,” a promise left unfulfilled for generations of our countrymen and countrywomen and, notwithstanding great social progress, even today a work in progress;
  • The great healing inaugural speech of President Lincoln, following the oath of office administered by the supreme court chief justice who had declared slaves to be less than human;
  • Dr. King’s stirring speech, now almost a half century past, reaffirming both the inspirational power of the American idea and the long journey still ahead for the liberation, equality, and respect due his people . . . And his final speech, five years later in Memphis, the night before he dies, a remarkable reflection, in which at the conclusion he evokes powerfully a vision of his people someday entering the promised land, though he suspects he himself won’t live long enough to do so.

Reflecting on these great moments, I found myself wondering whether historians will someday cite as similarly significant today’s address by a bi-racial, multicultural American, now called by his fellow Americans to be a leader in a time of almost unparalleled crisis—at home and around the world.

I hope so. And with you I hope and pray that President Obama will somehow be worthy of the faith, hope, and love that so many feel for him today.

We recognize prophetic leadership in individuals like Dr. King, whose memory we best honor this week not by tributes or even holidays from work and school, but by—

  • a recommitment to respect for human dignity and affirmation of our diverse, yet shared, humanity;
  • a recommitment to service, particularly to the underserved;
  • a recommitment to peacemaking, in our own circle of family and friends and well beyond;
  • a recommitment to social justice, here in America and globally;
  • a recommitment to values that, here at Alvernia, are embodied by our Franciscan foundresses, rooted in the Christian gospel, and yet also shared around the world by women and men of goodwill with many faiths and differing belief systems.

But prophetic leadership, we do well to remember, is exercised by many without the titles and positions that bestow power and authority. Servant leadership is an opportunity open to us all. Think of men like Dr. King and women like Mother Teresa.

And servant leadership, we do well to remember, can emanate from those of us who, unlike these larger-than-life figures, are merely ordinary people sometimes able to contribute in extraordinary ways.

So in this spirit, today as yesterday, we also do well to remember, with Dr. King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the often unnamed pacifist heroes of the southern bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins, whose commitment he celebrated by quoting what he called the “ungrammatical profundity” of one elderly woman protestor: “My feets are tired, but my soul is at rest.”

Her simple declaration expresses the undramatic heroism of a person with a deep sense of calling that fuses mind, body, and soul. A person both active and at peace. A person, that is, with a genuine vocation.

Growing up in a very religious Catholic family with grandparents whose two sons had both become Jesuit priests in their early twenties, I had as a young boy an intense, very focused understanding of vocation. It was a calling, to be sure, but a mysterious and elusive one reserved for a select few. One might seek it, but membership was limited. And it would be lived in a seminary, monastery, or convent.

Years later, as a “baby dean,” I was introduced by my oldest friend (himself a young dean) to Frederick Buechner’s simple, yet profound, definition of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.”

Imagining myself as responding to “the world’s deep need” has always seemed to be claiming too much for my modest work, first as a faculty member and later as an administrator. Yet for those of us fortunate to work in colleges and universities, especially at a special place like Alvernia, our vocation is rooted in a profound sense of service, a commitment to education. There is great danger in the presidency (or in any campus role) of exaggerating the importance of the various issues that ebb and flow on our campuses. Yet the growth of our students—intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual—is indeed serious, important work worthy of a life and a career.

“Deep gladness,” in contrast, captures perfectly for me an essential dimension of a genuine vocation. It suggests not simply happiness but a profound satisfaction and inner joy. It implies the marriage of talents and skills with values and personal goals. It has a spiritual element, not necessarily a religious one, but has thoroughly secular applications. It suggests almost the impossibility of imagining ourselves doing anything else!

Whatever one’s politics, do we not sense in President Obama a commitment of deep vocation that goes well beyond rhetoric, beyond partisan politics, even beyond his specific positions and views. A woman or man of vocation is, by necessity and by gift, comfortable in her or his skin. Literally and symbolically.

Such a person can indeed do many things, can work in different jobs, perhaps even in different careers. But Buechner’s concept of “deep gladness” sets a far higher standard: it suggests the full deployment of our values, our social philosophy, our personality, our leadership style, our spirituality and/or our religious faith. It is a call to do well and to do good.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.” Today, there is no question that, whether a call from God or from a more secular source, assuming the American presidency provides the challenge and the opportunity to respond to “the world’s deep need.”

Heaven knows, that both America and the world need prophetic and inspirational leadership. Let us hope and pray for President Obama that he responds fully and well and that in so doing he indeed experiences “deep gladness.” And let us hope and pray that all of us, whatever our work and our values, find the “deep gladness” that comes from tired feet and a soul at rest.