Leader of the free world

President-elect Joe Biden in a portrait from 2013

Like many others around the world, I have been gripped by the US elections over recent weeks. The long, drawn-out vote count added to the drama, as it was not clear for several days who would emerge the winner. When the tally reached its critical point in Pennsylvania, and the media declared Joe Biden the winner, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of relief and celebration coming in from the news crews around the world.

As a Headteacher and a public servant, it is my duty and my role to ensure that I do not promote a particular political point of view. For this reason, this blog is not about the policies or political persuasions of the Republican or Democratic parties or their candidates. Rather, I am interested in the models of leadership that the candidates provided, and the implications for our young people.

Leading in public life

When I became Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, I had to return a signed copy of the Seven Principles of Public Life to the Department for Education. These principles, also known as the Nolan Principles, apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder in our country. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, and as such we are expected to uphold the Nolan Principles. They are:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

As a Headteacher, I try to not only uphold but also actively to model those principles in my daily work. It is also part of my responsibility to ensure that all staff who work for the Academy uphold the principles too.

The impact of Donald Trump

Donald Trump playing golf (source)

The Nolan Principles are part of UK government guidance, and they do not apply in the United States. Some might say it’s just as well. Over the past four years, the elected President of the United States has not provided a role model of leadership that I would want anyone to look up to. He has lied, misinformed, bullied and bludgeoned his way around the world stage, seemingly looking out more for his own self-interest than the interests of others. His statements and actions – or lack of them – have legitimised racism and misogyny, unravelling decades of progress towards equality in a few short years. His refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis – the single biggest issue facing our planet at the moment – has lost time that we do not have in the fight against pollution and the journey towards decarbonisation. And his preference to create his own “alternative facts,” even in the outcome of the election, has undermined our ability as a society to trust those in authority.

In Donald Trump, I do not see a selfless leader: I see self-interest. I do not see a leader who acts with integrity. His interpretation of the world around him is entirely subjective, laden with discrimination and bias and often ignoring the factual evidence. He seems to act without accountability or openness, refusing to submit himself to scrutiny. He lies. He does not exhibit any of the principles of public life in his own behaviour. In doing so, he undermines the concept of leadership and damages the idea of public service.

I was moved by political commentator Van Jones, who was brought to tears in his reflections on what Trump’s defeat meant for him as a parent and an American. “Character matters…telling the truth matters…being a good person matters.”

What about Joe Biden?

I am not naïve enough to think that Joe Biden – or any politician – is without self-interest. He has been a politician for a long time, becoming a Senator in 1973 – the year before I was born. But throughout his long political career he has always embodied the idea of public service. He talks about the idea of integrity and equality instilled in him by his grandfather:

“He wanted me to understand two big things: first, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honour. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sort of romantic notion of what politics should be- and can be. If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people’s lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game. Nearly forty years after I first got involved, I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe- as I know my grandpop did- that my chosen profession is a noble calling.”

Joe Biden, from “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”

He has also been visited by personal tragedy. In 1972, a car accident killed his wife and 13-month-old daughter. He found himself, aged 30, a single dad to his sons Hunter and Beau, both of whom were injured in the accident. Then, in 2015, Beau Biden – himself on track for a promising political career – died of brain cancer at the age of 46. In the wake of the election, commentator Piers Morgan wrote movingly about the impact of these tragedies on the now-President-elect. Piers Morgan is not somebody I am used to agreeing with, but on this occasion his reflections on the impact of grief on Joe Biden brought tears to my eyes.

In the article, Morgan recalls Joe Biden ringing him up at home to thank him for a piece he had written in tribute to Beau Biden following his funeral in 2015. Morgan recalls Joe Biden’s words:

“It’s so important to remember that however bad things may seem, a lot of people are going through a lot worse than you and the way they get through it is other people reaching out to them to give them solace, and in finding a purpose…What I learned when my wife and daughter died was that when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. My purpose then was to be there for my sons and to use my position as a Senator to do as much good as I possibly could, especially for those who need it most. I feel that so strongly again. My purpose now is to think, ‘What would my Beau want me to be doing?’

From Piers Morgan’s MailOnline column, 7th November 2020

The answer, eventually, was to run for President again. This time – after unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008, he has won. Whether he will be a good President, a successful President, remains to be seen. But, like Van Jones, I am more hopeful with Biden as President than I was with Trump: more hopeful that we will see decency, honesty, integrity, accountability and leadership in the White House.

Kamala Harris

Vice-President elect Kamala Harris (source)

My final reflection on this historic election is the success of Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is set to be inaugurated as the first female Vice-President in US History, and the first woman of colour elected to the office. Her victory speech paid tribute to her mother, and the generations of women before her who had blazed a trail for her election. And she offered a vision of hope:

Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.

Kamala Harris, from her victory speech (source)

What Harris’s speech captures is that a leader has enormous power, as a role model, to shape the future. For the past four years I have not been able to look to the United States for a model of leadership that I would want my children, or my students, to aspire towards. With the election of Biden and Harris, I am more hopeful that the principles of public life will apply, not just at Churchill, but to our political leaders as well.

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