Choosing to Follow

In an election year, candidates are eager to line up followers. To find the like souls who will check the box and move them to the head of the pack for the general election. I often wonder about what will be the key ingredient in our population of individuals that will catch the attention of the majority. Is there one thing we can all agree on or hold to be true? As truth sneaks further and further from our daily experience, is there any connection we can find with a potential leader?

In our leadership programs, we talk a lot about values. Specifically, how to appeal to the values your audience holds–pathos. But how do we figure out what those values are? How does any leader? We can make assumptions when we walk into a room–if I am talking to a group of rising college sophomores in the honors program at a Southern Ivy, as we do every spring, I might presume some interest in certain pieces of music, specific viral moments, movies. As I talk to a diverse group of newly-minted lawyers from the Commonwealth, as I will next week, I can guess that they have an appreciation for how arguments are formed, for how language works. When I meet with classroom teachers, as I did this weekend, I am betting that anyone who will take the time to drive to a small town to see Shakespeare and practice new ways to engage their students in his work, has hope for the future and believes that their students are worth the time to train and learn.

These assumptions may not hold for every group of college students, lawyers, or teachers so I have to adjust my approach through continual assessment–both with each new group and within each moment that I spend with them. It is by gauging feedback and response that I hone in on how to work with a group to achieve their goals so that they will want to return, to bring friends, family, students, to continue to grow our family.

A cynic might argue that my interest in the values my audience holds dear rests only on the (selfish) goal of building ASC’s network of supporters. And while it certainly could be viewed as self- (or company-) serving, I know that my motivation goes deeper than that. I believe that, by delivering a fantastic and illuminating experience for our groups, I will be nudging the dial to a place of more civil discourse as a country. By looking at clues that Shakespeare’s characters reveal about communication and sharing those with our attendees, I can increase our capacity to talk–and, more importantly–to listen. By approaching each event as an opportunity to create awareness of the ways language works to build faith (and the methods some use to tear that trust apart), to create community (and to destroy them), and to instill confidence (and, too often to stoke fear), I want to give tools to the folks we meet in Staunton and on the road to help them suss out what is worthwhile and what is distracting (or destructive) chatter. I want to find ways to engage more of our citizenry in critical thinking about the language we use, to truly examine the language we hear from politicians and the media, so that when we are faced with the decision that we are presented with in the primaries and general election, we can respond as followers to the best expression of our values. And, I hope that those we choose to lead us will push us to value noble and life-sustaining and life-enriching activities for the good of our country and of the world.