Accountable leaders know how to harness the immense power of a Mission that inspires, engages, and motivates people. The kind of Mission I am talking about is always rooted in some deeply personal motivation, in some larger Purpose that drives everything in the leader’s life. Yet this individual Purpose is a private matter. It is not necessarily what people buy into and sign on for when they support the Mission.
Enunciating the right mission and taking action on it in a way that attracts others to do the same, is a big part of what identifies someone as an accountable leader. Let me share a story with you that illustrates what I mean. There is an attorney based in St. Louis by the name of Jim Singer. I mention him because Jim became a man on a mission–the right mission.
Jim happened to come across the shameful true story of how a prominent, successful, and generous black ophthalmologist, Dr. H. Phillip Venable, was forbidden to occupy a home built on land that he owned in Creve Coeur, Missouri. This was back in the late 1950s; then, as now, Creve Coeur was a wealthy suburb of St. Louis. City leaders of the period put up all kinds of dubious legal and administrative obstacles to the integration of their city; they eventually simply seized Venable’s land, and that of eleven other black families who wanted to move into the elite, all-white neighborhood where they had purchased property. The pretext of the city leaders was that they wanted to build a park. Their real aim was to prevent African Americans from owning and living in homes in Creve Coeur.
A few years ago, Singer started doing some research about this sad episode, which was all too typical of the period. He was able to piece together the details of the story of how city leaders, notably the mayor of the town, John Beirne, pressured, humiliated, and intimidated the black families. Singer was able to paint a powerful picture of the extraordinary man in the middle of this controversy: of the twelve property owners in question, Venable alone opted to mount a legal challenge to the appropriation of his land by the city.
The Venables lost in court. The park was named after the mayor, John Beirne. And the Venables’ home was repurposed as the park clubhouse.
Six decades later, Jim Singer decided that it was time to write a new ending to that story. He launched a campaign to rename the park after Dr. Venable. That was his Mission. He had a clear objective, and he started designing and executing a definite plan of action in support of that objective.
Jim shared what he had learned with anyone who would listen. He wrote articles. He reached out to community leaders. He reached out to historical societies and universities. In short, he did everything he could to raise awareness about what had happened to the Venable family, and about what he felt needed to happen next.
“It was the wrong thing then,” he said of the successful efforts of racist city officials to exclude the Venables and the other black families from Creve Coeur. “And it is the wrong thing now.”
He started out all alone in spreading that simple message, and in advocating for a new name for the park. He was not alone for long, though. Hundreds of people, including my wife Renee and myself, eventually read his research and took an interest in the case, and in the proposed name change for which he lobbied so tirelessly began to attract media attention. Renee and I were moved, along with hundreds of others, to show up at City Hall and speak out on this issue.
In late 2019, the Creve Coeur City Council voted unanimously to draft an ordinance that would officially change the name of the park from Beirne Park to H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park.
I have two big points to make here. First and foremost, I want you to notice that Jim Singer is a leader. This is not because of any position he occupies on any organizational chart, but rather because of his ability to formulate and share a compelling Mission that engages and attracts others.
And second, I want you to notice that we really do not know what deep personal Purpose motivated Jim to do what he did. That is okay.
You and I do not have to know the closely held personal beliefs and standards that led Jim to take a stand on this particular issue and engage with others about it. There might have been a personal spiritual or religious standard at the root of all this. It might have been something else entirely. From a practical point of view, however, it does not matter (to anyone but Jim) what those beliefs and standards are. What really matters is whether others bought into the Mission he was moved to articulate and whether they found themselves inspired enough to support that Mission in some way. Speaking for myself, I was!
- What is a Mission — a clear objective accompanied by a definite plan of action — that your own deep sense of Purpose now inspires you to pursue?
- How can you communicate that Mission to others in a way that engages them and motivates them to join your cause?
- What commitments are you willing to make, and keep, in order to fulfill that Mission?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you will be in a position to join the ranks of truly accountable leadership.