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Leadership Lessons from Georgia's John Lewis

As all eyes are on Georgia in today's Senate election run-off, I've been thinking about how we choose our leaders and what inspires us to follow them. In Georgia politics, there are few leaders more inspiring than John Lewis. Although I never had the opportunity to meet the late Congressman Lewis, I am privileged to live in the Atlanta district he represented for more than 30 years. If you drive around the city, from Bankhead to Midtown, University Center to Sweet Auburn, and practically any of the other vibrant neighborhoods here, you will see his bold, determined face on murals, read his powerful words on warehouse walls and yard signs, and feel his legacy woven into the fabric of this “city too busy to hate”.

Bloody Sunday

John Lewis is perhaps best known for his leadership of the infamous Selma to Montgomery march that took place on March 7th, 1965. Lewis, and collaborator Hosea Williams, lead nearly 600 people from Selma in a peaceful demonstration meant to draw attention to the suppression of Black voting rights in the American South. As the group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge just outside of Selma, they found a wall of Alabama State Troopers blocking their path.

The troopers ordered them to disperse and, when Lewis and the marchers refused, launched tear gas into the crowd and proceeded to beat members of the incapacitated crowd. Troopers mounted on horseback charged the demonstrators, running them down and bashing them with nightsticks. Many of the demonstrators were beaten unconscious and Lewis suffered a fractured skull from blows to his head. He bore the scars of that day, dubbed Bloody Sunday, for the rest of his life. One can be sure that, during those critical moments when towering troopers on the backs of 1,000-pound horses were charging the crowd, the other protesters looked to Lewis. As things turned dark, they saw him bravely hold the line and demonstrate the behavior he expected of others. Through it all, Lewis stuck to his belief in nonviolent resistance. He not only showed the others how to act, but through his commitment gave them the strength to do so as well in an impossibly challenging moment. Bloody Sunday received national attention and is considered to be a pivotal moment in the battle for civil rights and a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Walking the Talk

The real leadership lesson of this story, however, is not the resolve that Lewis showed during the face off with police in Selma on March 7th. It is the fact that Lewis had been acting on his principles, unequivocally, for years before that fateful day outside of Selma. Beginning in 1961, Lewis was organizing nonviolent sit ins in Nashville, and was one of the original Freedom Riders – a civil rights group that toured Southern states by bus and faced countless violent attacks over the years.

In all his efforts to win the rights denied to the Black community, Lewis never betrayed his values. In the process, built the trust and loyalty that led members of his organization to stand with him even in the face of a violent attack. Only 25 years old on Bloody Sunday, Lewis went on to become a civil rights icon and represented Georgia in Congress for nearly 40 years. He was known on Capitol Hill as the “Conscience of Congress” and continued to act on his values until his death in 2020.



Leadership Lessons

Decades of research show that leaders who ‘walk the talk’ are far more effective at building trust and inspiring teams to perform at their best. Like Lewis, the best leaders translate an organization's values into concrete and actionable behaviors through their daily work. In our current environment dominated by Slack, email, and Zoom calls, employees have fewer informal opportunities to see their leaders in action. Because of this, leaders need to go out of their way to demonstrate the behavior they seek to inspire in others. Leaders who emulate values, model action, and communicate shared vision foster loyalty and inspire teams to perform at their best.

  • Make your values known every day through your behavior. It’s likely that most or all of your team are still working remotely, which means they don’t have the opportunity to casually see you show gratitude for a co-worker or . Be intentional about modeling behavior for your team - create videos sharing the reasoning behind company decisions, make a point to call out team members on Slack for their hard work, and share your own struggles working remotely so the team knows they are not alone.

  • Double down in moments of crisis and major change. In this environment of pandemic and political uncertainty, it is more important than ever to hold fast to your values. Your people are watching you closely for clues about what to do. If Lewis had chosen to run or fight back that day in Selma, the crowd would surely have followed and Lewis would have lost the loyalty and dedication it took years build. Character is forged in crisis.

  • Hold yourself accountable, and let your team do so as well. Many of the values we hold and strive for are aspirational, which means that sometimes we may fail to meet them. Show your team that it is the striving that matters by sharing your own failures on the journey. Give them the opportunity to hold you accountable through 360 reviews and regular employee surveys.


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