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Opinion

John Lewis’s Last Lesson for Leaders

Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld reflects on the lessons he learned from the civil rights pioneer and congressman John Lewis about voice, courage, integrity—and the dangers of being too patient.

Congressman John Lewis is arrested for blocking traffic outside the U.S. Capitol at a protest in support of immigration reform in 2013. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
Congressman John Lewis is arrested for blocking traffic outside the U.S. Capitol at a protest in support of immigration reform in 2013. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

While living in Atlanta in the 1980s, I was fortunate to get to meet the late congressman John Lewis. Then, in the late 1990s he generously did me a huge favor. He helped lead the Georgia Congressional delegation in sponsoring an expedited IRS review of a leadership institute I was launching during a crisis.

I always wanted to thank him publicly for that and had been planning to do so last spring.

It didn’t happen. We missed the moment. Lewis, as a civil rights pioneer, taught us much about voice, about courage, about integrity. And now, sadly, he’s now taught me another lesson—this one about timing.

Lewis was, of course, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders—Black and White activists who, in 1961, challenged segregated interstate buses in the South in 1961. He was arrested 40 times and beaten badly in such protests.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”

He joined Martin Luther King Jr. to plan the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was last surviving speaker from that milestone event. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, he led a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was among the protestors who were savaged by club-wielding police, suffering a severe skull fracture and other injuries. It wasn’t for nothing: the televised images helped accelerate the passage of the Voting Rights Act days later, freeing Black voters from the voter suppression of poll taxes and tests.

In Congress, he continued his battles for domestic justice and global human rights. “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something,” he said on the House floor last year. “Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”

He would have been entitled to leverage his early-life heroism for later-life comfort and riches but he never did so. He remained dedicated to the cause of justice.

One of the most moving moments at our 100 CEO Summits over the last 33 years was when we recently celebrated Ambassador Andrew Young’s inspiring leadership, his optimism about the power of business leaders to move society. We had a similar plan in place to honor Lewis at an event this June but deferred when the COVID-19 pandemic forced an online format. We unwisely delayed a planned in-person forum to this September, even though we knew Lewis was battling stage IV pancreatic cancer.

So while obituaries showcase Lewis’s wise admonishments about the dangers of silence, for me Lewis has furnished yet another lesson—about the dangers of patience.

Moved to tears in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, he proudly surveyed the Black Lives Matter Plaza ceremonies in Washington, D.C., one of his final public moments, celebrating the global, interracial voices of protest of this movement.

“It was not enough to come and listen to a great sermon or message every Sunday morning and be confined to those four walls and those four corners,” he said of his life’s work. “You had to get out and do something.” He did. And he did not wait to do it.
 

Department: Opinion
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