by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

A few weeks ago, my wife and I attended a wonderful performance of “Wicked!” If you have not seen it, I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the lines between good and evil get quite blurred! As is probably too often the case, I saw significant implications in the performance relative to modern politics. However, one particular line really stood out as a reflection on today’s political environment. When Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, notes that the Wizard of Oz rose to his position of power and prominence by lying to the people he was supposed to be serving, he defended himself claiming “besides, they were the lies they wanted to hear.”

As I pondered those words, I considered how often it seems that many of our current elected leaders are willing to tell the people the lies they want to hear instead of the truth they need to hear and I am afraid it happens more often than any of us might wish to admit. They say that their candidate or party lost a rigged election instead of acknowledging their message, candidate or campaign was just not as effective as that of the other party. They tell their constituents that they can have expensive new programs without increasing revenues or the debt while knowing the math just doesn’t add up. They promise easy, sacrifice-free solutions to difficult and complex economic and social problems.

As we approach Veteran’s Day, a time to honor all who have sacrificed so that we can live in this wonderful country we call America, I wonder how things might be different today if our great leaders of the past had chosen to tell people the lies they wanted to hear instead of the truths they needed to hear.

What if, in 1783, when faced with a potential military coup to overthrow the fledgling government, General George Washington had said to his disgruntled colleagues, “Let’s do it,” instead of imploring them to “give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue” by supporting the Congress and the new nation. Had he chosen to support the coup, General Washington would have had the enthusiastic support of his frustrated and unpaid soldiers, but he instead chose to stand up to them and save the young nation.

What if, in 1858, when running for the United States Senate, candidate Abraham Lincoln had chosen the easy path, telling voters that everything was going to be alright and this issue of slavery and secession would just go away? He might have gained some support and even a seat in the US Senate, but at what cost? Instead, he acknowledged the long road ahead arguing that “a house divided cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” staking out a position that he knew would anger many voters on both sides of the aisle, but preparing the nation for the difficult challenges ahead and the deadly conflict that would save the union and its government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

What if, in 1933, newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt had chosen to ignore the monumental economic problems plaguing the nation (and the world) and promised an easy path forward instead of acknowledging the challenges and hard road ahead? Indeed, Roosevelt opened his speech promising to deliver the hard truths the country needed, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” In so doing, the new President offered hope and a practical path forward to a nation much in need of both.

What if, on the evening of June 5, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had chosen to tell the thousands of anxious soldiers what they wanted to hear instead of what they needed to hear? He could have told them that the attack was off–the weather was too bad, the enemy too strong or we are just not prepared to move forward. Or, he could have promised them an easy victory with little sacrifice. Instead, he said, “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.” Inspired by their leader’s honesty, the next morning, many of those young men went to their death to defend democracy and our America.

What if, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner by birth and heritage, had chosen the path of so many before him and placated his southern colleagues with arguments of states rights or gradual change. He could have paid lip service to civil rights or left it to the courts. That would have been the easy and politically safe thing to do. But instead, he stood before the American people and spoke the painful truth, “It is wrong, deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.” With these words, President Johnson knew he was delivering the South to the opposing party for at least a generation, but he did it anyway because it was the right and moral thing to do.

These men are considered great leaders not because they told people “the lies they wanted to hear.” They are great leaders because they told people the truths they needed to hear despite the very real potential negative consequences to their political futures. That is what real leaders do and that is what we need from our leaders today more than ever.