Three Leadership Lessons From Charleston, South Carolina

Last week, America mourned yet another senseless tragedy—the hateful shooting and killing of nine individuals by a 21-year-old gunman at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Six women and three men died; four of them were pastors.

I have to admit, I was shocked, then I grieved, and then I became angry… much like millions of other Americans were around our nation. How could this happen again? Who was this young killer, and what could motivate him to do such a thing? Was it purely racism? Was it revenge? Was it in reaction to something that had happened to him?

photo credit: Charleston via photopin

photo credit: Charleston via CNN

I’ve already heard about the shooter’s mental health issues, and I have no doubt we will all hear more. The mental health of our teens and twenty-somethings is a deep concern to me—and I am convinced we’ll have to take more and better steps to address this problem among young adults.

But what about now? How should we respond to this calamity? I believe three answers to this question lie in how the people of Charleston have already responded to this tragedy. Below are some leadership lessons they teach us.

Build a Bridge, Not a Wall

Did you see the 15,000 people march across the major bridge in Charleston? It was called the “bridge to peace” march across the Ravenel Bridge—people of different races joining hands and singing “This Little Light of Mine” as they walked together. This was an intentional step of unity.

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

According to research done by Rebecca Biglar at the University of Texas, people tend to connect with those who are like them… even as early as pre-school. Children with blue shirts sided with other kids with blue shirts to oppose the red shirted kids in their class. Biglar’s research team concluded group bias was not a race issue—just that we naturally associate with those who look like we do. This means we must make an effort to build a “bridge” in our relationships to others who look and act different from us, instead of naturally building a “wall.”

On the Ravenel Bridge, people were high-fiving, hugging and singing as they walked up the bridge to create a unity chain. The energy only ceased during a nine-minute gap of silence for the victims. All this might have never happened had it not been for the mass murder that took place. They’ve made a beautiful thing from an awful thing.

Practice the Law of Reciprocals

You remember what a reciprocal number is, don’t you? In math class, a fraction like 3/8 has a reciprocal of 8/3. It’s upside down and opposite. This is a picture of what the people of Charleston have done in response to the murders. You might say they practiced the Law of Reciprocals by doing precisely the opposite of what this killer did. It was about responding, not reacting. Several of the families of the victims sat down with the captured felon… and uttered words of forgiveness. Looking him right in the eye, they said things like, “I am sad that I will never hold my daughter again, but I forgive you.” It was the reciprocal of what the shooter had done.

He was about violence. They were about peace and forgiveness.

His goal was to display hatred. They responded with overwhelming love.

His goal was to kill. They were about protecting life.

His goal was to divide people. They united together in their sadness.

His focus was harm. Their focus was all about healing.

His aim was evil. Ours must be good, truth and justice. Like them.

Choose to Initiate and Act… Not Imitate and React

I love the fact that the Charleston AME Church was back in worship this past Sunday, just one day after the police turned the building back over to the congregation and four days after the murders. Instead of cowering in fear or waiting until the dust had settled on this issue, they met, they sang, they affirmed their beliefs, and they laid out a plan going forward to practice their faith in that city. They were proactive, not reactive, at a time when the easiest thing to do would be to react with angry emotion rather than peaceful logic. Leaders act, rather than react. Leaders initiate more than imitate.

In light of the frustration so many felt in Ferguson, MO; in New York, NY; in Baltimore, MD; and other locations of violence—we can learn from the response of the everyday leaders in Charleston, SC. May their tribe increase.

And may it accomplish their goal.

Three Leadership Lessons From Charleston, South Carolina