Belfast Telegraph

Calling out for more civic leadership in 2015 and beyond

By Peter Osborne

We were all probably taught the same poem at school – the one where someone is confronted by two paths and choses the one less travelled by.

Leadership can be a bit like that.

Charles Kennedy, who sadly died recently at such a young age, opposed the Iraq war when he was a virtual lone voice at Parliament.

At the end of the American Civil War Lincoln confounded most of his colleagues by seeking urgency in reconciliation between the union and confederate states; and Churchill stood out against appeasement in the early 1930s when others took an easier option.

Harriet Beacher Stowe stood up against slavery in the 1800s when most people from her background kept quiet and a century later Rosa Parks refused to stand up and give her seat to a younger white man when most others accepted that as a norm; and when Martin Luther King talked of the fierce urgency of now against mainstream moderate, mainly white, opinion he struck a chord and struck a further blow for civil rights.

Of course, taking the road less travelled isn’t always the right road.  It is the exception rather than the norm, and knowing the difference is what makes leaders excel.

There is a difference between sectional and civic leadership in the Northern Ireland context, and it provides a similar but unique challenge.  As Robert Frost might have put it, when you chose one over the other often there is no going back.

Northern Ireland has witnessed some exceptional leadership in recent years and some poor leadership.  We do need to recognise and acknowledge that good leadership; shed a light on the good practice and those examples that have been set.

That is why in 2014 the Community Relations Council initiated its Civic Leadership award.  The first winners – Willie Hay MLA and Máirtin O’Muilleoir MLA – were just coming to the end of their terms as Speaker of the Assembly and Lord Mayor, and had demonstrated strong, inclusive, relationship-building leadership over a prolonged period.

Civic leaders are those that think primarily of the wider civic consequences for everyone, and the best outcomes for all regardless of the community from which people come.  Civic leaders don’t tend to do sectional.

Civic leaders will often challenge the norm and what is accepted within the side of the community from which they come; they will look for better and more imaginative solutions, while embracing difference and recognising the rights and interests of others.

There is a part of the Robert Frost poem that we tend to forget.  It follows straight after the choice he makes to take the less travelled path.  He suggests the choice has made all the difference.  Civic leaders make a difference for the common good.

The winner in 2015 is someone who has demonstrated equal courage and imagination, who challenged from within a community and is shifting a paradigm that will have benefit for all of society regardless of background.

The announcement of who that winner is will be made this morning (Wednesday 10th June).   To find out who it is tune in to your twitter account or the news.  And as we move beyond 2015 and Northern Ireland cries out for more positive, strong civic leadership during the summer and in to 2016, ask your leaders from business, political, church and community life, will they take the exceptional course when it is needed and trod the path less travelled.  Will they be civic not sectional leaders?

Peter Osborne is Chairman of the Community Relations Council

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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