Dr. Nicholas Harvey initiated a series at Edge Leadership entitled Policy for Liberation. The purpose of the event is to discuss hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations for Black liberation in US policy. In this excerpt, Dr. Robert Franklin articulates his thinking on “moral leadership.” Dr. Franklin serves as the inaugural chair of the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory University.

Dr. Nicholas Harvey: Since you raised the issue of leadership, which for years has been one of my favorite topics—you know, your recent book, Moral Leadership. And so, what, then, becomes the role? So first, let’s maybe allow you to offer your definition of moral leadership, but then to say, what then becomes the role of moral leadership in policy development for liberation?


Dr. Robert Franklin: Yes, well, I define moral leadership—and I listened to and learned from a lot of different thinkers—but moral leadership is fundamentally leadership of virtue, good practice, and intent. I highlight three virtues: courage, integrity, and imagination. But there are many, many others, and I allude to that in the book. But leaders of integrity, courage, and imagination who, secondly, serve the common good. Not just the people in their ZIP code, their denomination, their political party—the common good. And that brings us back to this expiring, almost utopian language in the preamble to the US Constitution: “we, the people” as a robust, inclusive notion. An audacious notion, and aspirational. Who’s serving the common good?

And then the third dimension—so, leaders of virtue, courage, imagination, integrity; serving the common good; and third, who invite others to join. And that is the leadership move, for me. A lot of good people doing good things, but they don’t particularly care to invite or engage others or persuade others. That’s wonderful, and I talk about the importance of moral agency, people who are guided in their everyday lives by their deeply held ethical values to respect others, to be inclusive, to forgive those who harm, and all of those wonderful practices and inclinations. But moral leaders are moral agents who also seek to engage, persuade, invite others to join them. And I think that’s part of the genius of everyone from Angela Davis to contemporary public intellectuals and leaders who are leading important movements—Cornel West, and any number of people that we could name.

So, how does that lead to the kind of liberation that you point toward? Moral leaders, moral leadership—the presence of one or two women or men of integrity, courage, imagination, seeking to challenge people, to serve the common good—represents the single most important predictor of whether or not an organization will remain relevant and effective and ethical. There have to be people willing to—back to your phrase you used earlier that goes back over 100 years—speak truth to power. A.J. Muste and some of the early pacifists, I think, were among those who first gave voice to that notion. The great Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel, popularized it in his Nobel acceptance speech. The people, the prophets, the innovators that we need to preserve human freedom, liberation, and democracy, the rule by the people—a people who are willing, courageous enough to speak truth to power. And we should celebrate them; we should stand with them and protect them. That’s who Martin King and others were, and often those leaders pay a dear price for that courage.

But I think ultimately, if we’re going to talk about moving from the public conversation, public opinion, to changes in public policy and law and the promises that the government keeps, we’re going to need some conversation starters and moderators who help move things along that continuum. That’s the topic that I’m particularly interested in, and in the book, I try to highlight both well-known figures but also invite the readers, invite people viewing and listening now, “Who are the people in your life who have impressed you with attempting to move our conversation about the good life and the just society closer to fruition?”

And I have a wonderful little heuristic device, I think. It seems to work well, so I don’t want to compliment myself by calling it wonderful; I think people should test it. But we all know about Mount Rushmore, that monument in granite out in South Dakota—and there’s a long story there that I won’t go into—but four US presidents are carved in stone. Sixty-foot-tall heads. And they represent four moments in the American drama. Washington representing the birth of the nation; Jefferson representing the growth of the nation—think about the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the continental United States. You think about the development of the nation; where we get all these interstate highways and roads and big dams and projects? That was Theodore Roosevelt, and the development of young America. And then finally, the preservation of the nation, so Lincoln.

So those four presidents are carved in, in part for their significance. I ask people to imagine that there is a commission charged with identifying four—just to keep it a manageable number—individuals who are worthy of being acknowledged as contemporary moral leaders—again, defined as leaders for the common good. Who impresses you most? And I just open the class, you know, weigh in on that. And it’s wonderful, I think, and it’s exciting to me to hear the names. People have quickly thought through this. “Who has really impressed me?” You know, everyone from Greta Thunberg on climate justice and protecting the planet; to Malala Yousafzai, Afghani girl who’s advocated for girls’ education; to Dr. Fauci in public health; to Bryan Stevenson in criminal justice. And I think it’s that kind of process.

And now, let me just conclude this long-winded answer, Nick, with, at some point, the state of Georgia is going to have to reckon with Stone Mountain as a monument to the Confederacy. Other monuments, statues, things can be moved, lifted, destroyed, you know, with relative ease, but that one is really quite unique. And what Georgia, what Metro Atlanta decides to do about that memorial to white supremacy will be an interesting test for all of America. We haven’t got there yet. But I hear the growing discontent and concern about, “What are we going to do with this thing?” And as you may know, it’s interesting, for the first time in its history, the Stone Mountain Memorial Commission has appointed an African American leader to lead that conversation. So, this could be a very interesting moment. I often use this exercise as a way of thinking about very concretely—pun intended—concretely about what we’re going to do about Stone Mountain and its future. Leave it alone? Destroy, or provide additional into what’s already there, or altogether new? If you erase it, do you put something else on the board?

So, thank you for indulging me. Long-winded answer.


Dr. Harvey: Sure, sure. Robert, one of the things that I liked in the piece was the “moral agent” idea. Because so often, we think of the moral leadership piece, and it falls into sort of our traditional leadership paradigms of the singular leader. You know, that one prophet? But at the moral agency piece, we can all be moral agents wherever we find ourselves. And then, certainly, we understand the role of single leaders in certain organizations, but we have groundswell organizing now, right? Even our organizing is taking on a different form, and there’s a good conversation that’s going on right on Edge Leadership about forms. So there are opportunities there, and one of the things that I hope to do is sort of continue thinking about moral agency as we transform these forms, and how that relates to policy, to liberation, and the relationship with politics and power. And so, I think that will be another one of our coffees sitting in the man-cave, I guess. [Laughter]

In our previous presidential campaign, both parties talked about the soul of America. You’ve talked about your role in terms of religion and law and, again, moral leadership. From what does America need to be redeemed?


Dr. Franklin: Hmm. I think most historians, most sociologists and public intellectuals, and others who think and write about—in these somewhat, you know, poetic terms—about the soul of a nation, although that is a kind of romantic notion that goes back, you know, centuries. People who have thought about the spirit of the law, the spirit of nations, the soul of nations, etc., would acknowledge at least two grand sins that are there and present at the very beginning of the Colonies and that lead to the Republic: the dispossession of Native American peoples of their land, and secondly, of course, the enslavement of African bodies and souls.

And I think that a number of other manifestations of the unchecked abuse of power are certainly present here, because “We the People,” and the promises of the Constitution, and the amendments that immediately follow two years after passing a constitution, you know? A hundred-plus days of, what, 30, 40 men, arguing about what the constitution should say in Philadelphia, and then after all that hard work and envisioning of some of the smartest people in the country, two years later, they have to come back and add amendments because, “We still didn’t quite get this right! We got to fine-tune this.” Which is part of the beauty and excitement of public policy—it’s that notion that we can improve upon this. But we need thoughtful, sincere leaders; I like to call them “moral leaders,” but some people may not be comfortable with that language. But certainly the notion of leaders for the common good, I hope, can be a more generic and inclusive notion that really gets at how we can improve our communities, our nation, our government, as we move forward.

So, I love the way in which you are emphasizing moral agency. And, again, I stand by the claim that moral leaders are people who can really make the difference. When we get stuck as a society, not clear about how to move forward when we face an impasse or a crisis, which currently has created the dysfunctional politics in American life—even just today, the deliberations about whether or not there’ll be a bipartisan commission to examine what happened in this country on January 6, and the inability to find/build consensus around even looking at trying to discover the facts and evidence of what occurred—when there’s a denial and resistance there, then we’re facing a really profound challenge.

We need truth-tellers, and they are there. There are the Liz Cheneys of the world. Or even in this state of Georgia, the Geoff Duncans, the lieutenant governor who’s announced he will not run again. In part because people in one of our parties have said, “We don’t really want to hear the truth, know the truth. We just want to stick by our guy and stand with him no matter what.” And that’s not democracy. So, I wish they’d be at least intellectually honest about the fact that they’re saying no to the American tradition, and yes to a more autocratic, Soviet, or other forms of authoritarian rule. I think there are many in America who would prefer that. They should be honest about that, and we should not count them as patriots.


Dr. Harvey: I think this is a good opportunity, perhaps, for us to hear from folks in the chat. Our convener, Danielle, is here with us. And so, if you could pose some of those questions?


Danielle Coates-Connor:  Yeah, great.


Dr. Harvey: We’re ready. Please. Thank you.


Danielle: It’s so amazing to hear your ideas, Dr. Franklin, thank you. I’ve been sitting here with so many questions. One of them: In your description of the moral leader, you point towards this idea that there is a common good, there is an aspirational “we, the people.” And I’m wondering, in this particular time of polarization—I think you were just touching on this a little bit, but I want to get even more pointed—how do we create a common good in this moment, and especially when that feels like it’s requiring the compromise of people’s basic rights and safety in order to get to a common place? How is common good defined in this time period of polarization?


Dr. Franklin: Yeah, fascinating and thorny question. I always like to go back to first principles and go back to the most fundamental promises we make and language we employ to describe why America is different. And our commitments to certain fundamental rights and responsibilities are, I think, one approach to how we might recover and establish and expand a sense of the common good. This requires constant dialogue, constant revision. And the presumption is that the people participating in the dialogue are honest brokers, that they will respect facts and evidence and truth. One of my favorite quotes from John Adams, the second president of the United States, was that [paraphrasing here] “Facts are stubborn things, and no matter what our inclinations, wishes, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” So, we should listen to John Adams as he tries to insist that there are certain things that are just kind of non-negotiable: “This, actually this, is what happened. And if you don’t want to affirm that or accept that, at least admit you’re engaged in delusional thinking, and in some ways you disqualify yourself from being taken seriously.”

I think if serious brokers, serious representatives are to come into the room, we need another Constitutional Convention, maybe, some adaptation of what was decided in Philadelphia. Bring people together, and let’s talk about your excellent question, Danielle. “What do we want most? What are we committed to? What promises are we making?” You look at the Bill of Rights in 1791, and that First Amendment itself is this bold declaration. “Congress should make no act that abridges people’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom to protest and demand redress of their grievances.” So, from the very beginning, there was acknowledgement that there would be grievances, there would be things people don’t like about their government. But that First Amendment says so much in terms of, “But Americans are the kinds of people who are willing to have the conversation—the argument—to listen, and to modify.”

And I’ll just pause with: One of the interesting observers of what was unfolding in early America during this period, of course, was the French sort of social observer, journalist, Alexis de Tocqueville, who, in his two-volume Democracy in America, having traveled other parts of Europe and the world, he comes to America, observes, “What’s going on here?” This revolution occurred, the British stepped back, or were kicked out, and now America’s on its own, building this new government, and you have all these idealists, and they’re interesting too, because some of the idealists are both utopian and hypocrites. Like Thomas Jefferson, and people like that. But let’s see what’s going on in America. And de Tocqueville offered this wonderful observation. He says, the genius of America—“the greatness of America,” in his words—“lies not in her being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Her ability to repair her faults. And I would pose and ask the question of your viewers and readers now: Does America still possess the capacity to repair its fundamental faults?

And as Dr. Harvey opened this conversation, what were those faults from what we needed to be redeemed? How do we heal the soul of a nation? Well, we’ve got to have an honest conversation with, and reckoning with, how this nation treated the First Nation peoples. Native American Indian peoples. And, of course, with the 1830 Indian Removal Act, led by a president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, who essentially said, “Okay, let’s get the Native Americans out of Georgia and all the states east of the Mississippi and move them west to these reservations.” We need to reckon with that! We’ve had some discussion. The other is African enslavement. And so, I think that if we are going to repair, we’re going to need strong institutions to do their work, and then we’re going to need moral leaders who can lean in, help us have the honest conversation. And that’s strong institutions—the Supreme Court, Congress, and others, who, on occasion, actually do the right thing—and then the moral leadership to help hold us accountable. Don’t let us get away with delusional thinking and lying to ourselves. And right now, we’re living through a case study, with a former president who has tried to discredit our strong institutions and our courageous moral leaders; think Liz Cheney and others. How do we get beyond this moment?

I don’t know how we’re going to go forward. I know what could happen, and that is that leaders from across the political spectrum agree on the facts, agree that we will look at what’s happened on January 6, and work together to repair a potentially great nation.

Edge Leadership began in 2020 with a series of in-person and online convenings. This article and multimedia story series features the thinking of Edge Leaders. Follow these talented, sector-crossing, forward thinking social change agents at @EdgeLeadership2020 on Instagram, via NPQ’s channels, and by joining our online platform experiment.