By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

Like everyone, I read with shock and horror of the unprovoked murders of nine African American members of the AME Church in Charleston last month. I thought, how can anyone have that much hate? In the days since the murders, I have watched and read with a similar level of surprise and admiration as, to a person, family members of the victims have offered compassion and forgiveness to the shooter. How can anyone have that much love?

I know this sounds more like a sermon than a political blog, but bear with me. As I have watched the events of the last two weeks unfold, I have been reminded of the political and ideological divisions that define and inform modern political discussions. The family members noted above, who hold no formal leadership positions (this is where I get to the leadership stuff!) have, by their acts of conviction and compassion taught us more about true leadership than all the words and actions of elected leaders, leadership gurus and academic scholars combined.

What passes for political leadership today (and in much of our history) is defined not by efforts to forgive and understand, but, rather all too often, by efforts to entrap, punish and play “gotcha.” When today’s elected leaders are wronged, or even think they might have been wronged, or want their supporters to think they were wronged, they choose to vilify their accusers rather than listen; distort rather than explain; and seek to punish rather than to forgive. This is not true leadership.

Because of how the families and friends of “the Beautiful Nine” of Charleston responded—with conviction, compassion and nonviolence—long overdue conversations have begun. Needed changes are coming and I don’t mean just the removal of a flag. I mean serious conversations about race, our shared American history, and social injustice. If this becomes the legacy of the unspeakable massacre in Charleston, it will have been brought about by the actions of “ordinary” people of compassion and conviction who were never elected to positions of power or influence who, nonetheless, displayed those qualities of leadership we so admire.

Imagine how different the conversations would be had these family members responded with the vitriol, anger, and lack of respect that has come to define political debate and leadership in this country of red and blue states. Had they chosen to respond with the bitterness, violence and vengeance that many expected, we would be having a very different and much less productive conversation. Rather than talk, each side would have retreated to their respective corners armed with sound bites and weary slogans, prepared to come out fighting, with one camp demanding angrily that the flag be taken down and the other demanding that its heritage be respected. Instead, because of the leadership of these few, we are talking to each other rather than at each other and good things will happen.

At a recent meeting of more than 350 local citizens on race and racism in my hometown of Greensboro, NC the facilitator outlined four “ground rules” for effective communication: Listen to understand; Speak with respect; Share the microphone and Assume others are acting in the same good faith in which you are acting. These ground rules, rather than those that define debate today—listen to plan your response; speak to be heard; share the microphone with no one and assume the worst of others— might help us to address the many vexing problems facing our society today.

Fortunately, it seems that some public officials are already benefiting from the example of these unelected leaders. Speaker Philip Gunn of Mississippi, the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, declared that the Confederate battle flag should be removed from the state flag. As the first state Republican to demand such action, Gunn stated “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.” – conviction, compassion and conversations.

The message is loud and clear. To all leaders, and would be leaders: approach your jobs as public servants with a heart and a mind dedicated to facilitating open conversations and attempting to solve the many challenges we face as a united people. Learn from the courageous example of forgiveness and humility shown by families of the “Beautiful Nine” and the world will be a better place for all of us!