Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Leave Taking

On December 23, 1783 General George Washington appeared before Congress. There were many who thought, some hopefully, that he would claim dictatorship or kingship over the nation. Instead he simply handed a letter to the president of the Congress and resigned his commission. He laid down his sword and picked up the plow.

As a result of this gracious leave taking Washington came to be known as the American Cincinnatus. This image drew on the memory (mythological?) of the great Roman general of the 5th century B.C. Pressed into service to save Rome Cincinnatus came off his farm to lead the legions to victory then quietly returned to civilian life. Washington's exit was not what was expected. It led even his former enemy King George III to remark that Washington was “the greatest character of his age.”

Jon Stewart is certainly no George Washington. But he has been an important figure in our national conversation during the 17 years of his time at The Daily Show. His work created an entire genre of satirical/serious news coverage that has multiplied into many different shows. As the court jester he could poke and prod. Asking questions and holding up the light of truth in ways that other mainstream news agencies couldn't, or wouldn't, for fear of losing their privilege.

Stewart no doubt could have stayed on for a long time and no one would question him. But last night he figuratively laid down his sword. He is taking leave of his job at The Daily Show to do other things. While he enjoyed the people and the position he recognized it was time to move on. "It is time" he said "for someone else to have this opportunity."

Interestingly the response I have seen from Facebook and Twitter to this decision has been largely one of grief and fear. "Who will take his place?" "Where will I get my 'news'?" "Without Jon Stewart how will I keep sane?" This is understandable and betrays a regular reaction of followers to a leader's decision to step away. The fear of the loss of what the follower knows. The fear if the unknown. This leads us to uphold the status quo and so often to keep the same people in place time and again.

Leaders, generals or satirists, have a right and in fact a duty to step aside. If for no other reason than for them to have their own lives. Stewart jokingly noted that this decision would enable him to have "dinner, on a school night, with his family...Who, sources tell him, are lovely people." In that way he did resonate with Washington's pledge to Martha that, for the first time in a decade, he would be home in time to "pour the Christmas cordial in her glass."

Stewart deserves our praise for deciding that after 17 years it was time to take leave. He joked that this was, by 16 years, the longest he has ever held a single job and his audience didn't deserve a "restless host." As a fellow member of Gen X (Stewart was born in 1962), I can understand that sentiment. We have been raised in a world of uncertainty and continual change. This is our reality but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. And as we look to the future it is also imperative that those who have held positions be willing to allow others to come along and have their opportunity to lead.

No one can replace Stewart. However, that is not the goal of leadership. Leadership should be about multiplication not replication. Good leaders do not create clones of themselves but encourage others to follow their lead and use their talents to take them in new directions. Good leaders give others the opportunity to step forward. This is why we have term limits on Presidents. It forces the country to look for new leadership and gives new opportunity to those who follow. Washington knew this instinctively. I hope other leaders will also begin to see this need as well.

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